A Transformative Education
Critics of liberal arts education often complain it doesn’t do enough to prepare students for a specific career or job. I couldn’t disagree more. One of things I took away from hearing the inspiring talks over the past week by distinguished Oberlin graduates Johnnetta Cole ’57 and Jim Margolis ’78 was that an Oberlin liberal arts education prepares a young person to succeed in wide variety of endeavors, and, more importantly, in life.
My belief in the transformative power of an Oberlin education was further reinforced by the hauntingly beautiful, thought-provoking performance of cellist Steven Isserlis ’80 and pianist Jeremy Denk ’90 on February 5 in Finney Chapel. Both are brilliant, multitalented individuals—great artists, profound and innovative thinkers, compelling writers, and engaged citizens of the world.
Their program of chamber works from La Belle Époque was inspired in large measure by Marcel Proust’s magnum opus Remembrance of Things Past, and its theme of involuntary, imperfect memory. The evening was astonishing and it showcased how Oberlin’s unique blend of intellectual, artistic, and musical fervor fosters the highest levels of creativity and performance in our students and graduates.
Johnnetta Cole also exemplifies Oberlin’s values. Director of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African Art, she returned to campus to help us celebrate African American History Month. She and Professor Kwame Anthony Appiah, the brilliant author, thinker and professor of philosophy at Princeton University, discussed identities and art in the semester’s first Convocation.
After Oberlin, Dr. Cole earned a PhD in anthropology at Northwestern and went on to a remarkable career in higher education and the arts, excelling as a teacher, a scholar, an author, an administrator, a college president, and a public intellectual. She is internationally known for her writings and speeches on issues pertaining to justice, diversity, the health and safety of women and children, and underserved populations around the world.
Her scholarship, leadership, and community service have earned her numerous awards and honorary degrees. The latest came just days ago, when Dr. Cole received the International Civil Rights Center and Museum’s highest honor, the Alston-Jones International Civil and Human Rights Award.
During her visit to campus, Dr. Cole was asked what informed her ability to perform as director of the National Museum of African Art in an interview by the Oberlin Review’s Elizabeth Kuhr. Her answer: “I really think that it is not an exaggeration to say that I got prepared to do most of the things I’ve done professionally at Oberlin. And the reason is I got a quality liberal arts education.”
Shortly after getting his Oberlin degree in communications and government in 1978, Jim Margolis—who is now president of GMMB, one of Washington’s leading communications and political strategy consultancies—found work in Washington, D.C. as an intern in the office of Howard Wolpe, a Democrat, who represented the Third Congressional District in southwestern Michigan from 1978 to 1992.
From that humble beginning, Mr. Margolis built an amazing career in American politics. He currently represents more Democratic Senators than any other consultant in the nation, including Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV). He served as a senior advisor to Barack Obama in his 2008 and 2012 campaigns for the White House, and led advertising efforts for Mr. Obama as part of the core strategic team.
Like Dr. Cole, Jim Margolis is a staunch supporter of Oberlin College and our students. I very much appreciate his support for our Cole Scholars program. It is part of the Oberlin Initiative in Electoral Politics, a nonpartisan program funded by Oberlin College alumni Richard and Dorothy Cole to encourage Oberlin graduates to run for and serve in public office.
Obviously, Mr. Margolis, Dr. Cole, Mr. Denk and Mr. Isserlis have had exceptional, multifaceted careers. But so do many of our graduates. Oberlin teaches students to be innovative, interdisciplinary thinkers, engaged citizens, and agents of positive social change. We teach students to value facts and evidence, to think critically, and to see the world from multiple viewpoints. Those attributes do not prepare you for just one job. They prepare you for any job and for a variety of careers. And they prepare you for a richer, more meaningful life.
One final, less happy note. I know that there are a lot of conversations occurring these days on campus relating to inclusion and to recent incidents of hate speech and intolerance. I am disgusted by these incidents, and we are continuing to investigate them.
Some of these conversations are public events organized by the college’s faculty and staff. Others are taking place in our wider community. I want to remind everyone that having difficult conversations about race and inclusion is not just part of Oberlin’s history, but part of our contemporary life. We work to learn from our differences, and to communicate with each other in a civil fashion. These conversations are not easy. But they are important if we are to grow as individuals and as a society. So please participate in them with open minds and open hearts.