The Oberlin Review

Students Reject Dissenting Opinions

Melissa Harris, Production Editor

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Obies and their family members congregated in the Carnegie Building’s Root Room to hear NPR Radiolab host Robert Krulwich, OC ’69, give a talk titled “Oberlin Itches, So I Scratch: A Private 50 Year Fight With My College” at The Friends of the Library’s annual dinner Saturday night. While Krulwich may have graduated nearly 50 years ago, his speech made me recognize a timeless quality about Oberlin: the love-hate relationship that so many Obies foster with this college.

I’ve experienced wave after wave of immense admiration and disdain for this institution, and Krulwich’s speech finally articulated those feelings for me. He stressed how, when he was at Oberlin, he was conflicted because his views — namely regarding commitment to the draft of the Vietnam War — were not perfectly in line with those of most students on campus. He felt that Oberlin was unkind to perspectives outside of the Oberlin status quo. Although he agreed that Oberlin is a brilliant place for its progressivism, its rigidity and quickness to reject opinions that do not conform to those progressive ideals creates a paradox.

This moment brought out all of that unconscious inner conflict I’ve been experiencing throughout my time at this college. Oberlin, while progressive, only allows for the progressive. But does that really make it progressive, then? I may agree with most of Oberlin’s leftist views, but there have been plenty of times when I have felt overwhelmed, even suffocated, by the unmoving perspectives and uncompromisingly firm ideologies.

In April 2015, for instance, Oberlin College Republicans and Libertarians hosted a lecture by Christina Hoff Sommers, an author and former Philosophy professor who came to persuade students that feminism has become too radicalized. Before she even arrived at Dye Lecture Hall to give her speech, protesters with tape covering their mouths blocked the entrance to the hall. While I did not agree with Sommers’ ideas and her position as a rape apologist, I am critical of Obies like those protestors who rejected more conservative views without listening to Sommers first. We preach our progressivism and open-mindedness, but how open is Oberlin in actuality when it refuses to engage with all views?

Krulwich’s reflected on a modern theology class he took while he was a student here. He remembered his professor lecturing about the dangers of being too certain about your views and how “when we are most unsure is when we are doubly sure.” This idea is one that Oberlin can benefit from. So many students on campus feel so sure of their ideologies and political and cultural views that I am terrified of voicing anything that might be out of line. I am terrified of the rejection, of being shut down because so many people here refuse to engage with beliefs that are not in line with their own. This may not apply to all Obies, but the fact that students — both of Krulwich’s generation and our own — are still like this is a problem.

President Barack Obama spoke in a town hall in Iowa in September 2015 where he criticized liberal arts colleges. “Sometimes there are folks on college campuses who are liberal and maybe even agree with me on a bunch of issues who sometimes aren’t listening to the other side . … I’ve heard of some college campuses where they don’t want to have a guest speaker who is too conservative. Or they don’t want to read a book if it has language that is offensive to African Americans or somehow sends a demeaning signal towards women,” he said.

Obama’s words critique ideologically rigid institutions like Oberlin. If we refuse to reach across and engage with people with differing ideas, we only hurt ourselves. We become quick to judge and generalize outsiders. We start to see the world in those bipartisan terms of “Trump supporters” and “Hillary supporters” that have kindled so much hatred and created a massive gap between the parties. In rejecting the other side without open discussion, that partisanship will continue to grow and more narrow-mindedness will arise. We criticize our government for not getting anything done because they relentlessly reject the other side’s viewpoints, but if you take that to the local, communal level, the same thing can happen. The world is not made of only Oberlin students. There are people out there with other ideas — certainly ones that are not as liberal or leftist as ours.

With Trump claiming the presidency Wednesday morning, it is imperative to keep this in mind moving forward. If we want to make the change and progress we all strive for, we need to learn to engage with ideas beyond our own, to foster a dialogue and learn to understand and move forward with all perspectives in mind. You may disagree with Trump’s policies and the bigotry he has kindled, but in order to push for social justice and positive change you cannot reject the reality of who is in power — not only in the Oval Office, but in the Senate and House as well, now that they’ve both gone Republican. Working across the political gap between left and right can be difficult, but we can only be progressive if we stand together and engage with all ideologies and thoughts on the table.

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4 Responses to “Students Reject Dissenting Opinions”

  1. Robert Slugg '79 on November 11th, 2016 6:44 PM

    Much like small children learning that Santa Claus doesn’t exist, many Oberlin students may soon learn that there are opinions out there which differ than their own, and that the flag of tolerance which they proudly wave at every opportunity actually does require them to respect the existence of those opinions. But so far, both in Oberlin and in Portland, OR, where I currently live, that tolerance seems to be a thin veil with not much meat (tofu?) behind it.

    I do see progress as the rules for comments does not yet exclude “comments which differ from the prevailing views of the Oberlin community.” But the day is young. And I was careful not to use a word homonymous with “know” since it could be construed as both violent language and a trigger.

  2. John Henretta '68 on November 13th, 2016 7:35 PM

    This description of Oberlin certainly fits my experience. But over the 48 years since I graduated, I have come to value that aspect of Oberlin. Intellectual growth requires that our views and assumptions be challenged. The Oberlin consensus was to the left of me, and that challenged me to define and clarify my beliefs. I changed some of them, but not all. If you already fit the Oberlin political consensus when you first arrive on campus, where is the potential gain?

  3. Michael H Lubas '69 on November 15th, 2016 11:28 PM

    Oberlin’s humble motto of Learning and Labor has progressively morphed into demand and privilege. It’s a systemic dis-ease rooted in an unfortunate arrogance rather than a vigorous openness. Perhaps unintentionally yet nevertheless consistently, this arrogance weighs heavily though not exclusively as a goal in recruiting students, faculty and administration. The resulting culture dresses in robes of academia while underneath is the armor of enforcement and punishment for anything or anyone daring an opposite or even tentative view. Disciplined learning requires hard work by all.. Volatile demanding requires hard obedience. What has been sown at Oberlin in this regard, welcomes a grim reaper.
    Mike Lubas ’69

  4. Bill Hilton '65 on November 19th, 2016 3:16 PM

    Having preceded Robert at Oberlin by 4 years, having come to Oberlin with quite conservative values and opinions, I recall feelings of being “out of it”. However, I also recall that Oberlin as an institution held some very conservative values in “my day”. For example, we males were required to wear coat and tie to dinner every evening, except Saturday. We were instructed to sit at round table, alternating with women students who had to wear skirts to dinner. I recall marching on the President’s house to demand an end to “in loco parentis”. I remember lots of bull sessions about religion, politics, sports, international affairs, etc. Yes, Oberlin was more politically left than I had know while growing up in a small mill town in western PA. Yet, I do not recall students, faculty, or the campus in general being in any sense a monolith of liberalism. It challenged me, and with some emotional struggles that continue into my 73 year, I learned and grew and benefited from the challenges.

Established 1874.