Turnover Muddles Collective Memory

The Editorial Board

Prospective students have descended upon campus in the past few weeks to determine if Oberlin is the school at which they can imagine spending four formative years. The perception these impressionable high schoolers will walk away from their visit to Oberlin with will be informed not only by tours and overnights, but also by the College’s promotional admissions material.

In addition to a curiously heavy reliance on imagery of albino squirrels and womb chairs, the College frequently plugs Oberlin’s historical claim to fame as one of the first institutions of higher learning to award bachelor degrees to both women and students of color. But beyond these widely publicized stats — as admirable and tout-worthy as they may be — what sort of deeper institutional memory about Oberlin does the student body possess?

As we prepare to launch a new website, the Review has endeavored to chart through its archives to gain a better understanding of the long life of this publication. This process has given us the chance to reflect on the importance of institutional memory at a place like Oberlin that possesses such a complex and multifarious history.

The obvious difficulty inherent in fomenting a collective campus memory is the regular turnover of the student body. Since most students are part of the Oberlin community for just four short years, how might we as students take advantage of the lessons learned by those who came before us? And what role does the Review play in aiding that mission, as the paper of record for both the College and town for the past 139 years?

As Oberlin graduates we will benefit from the College’s reputation as the progressive standard in American higher education, and should therefore understand the history that we claim. While skimming through this publication’s archives, we stumbled upon what initially seemed to be an Onion-style satire on College-Conservatory relations. But upon further inspection, the mock tone that problematically adopts the rhetoric of the civil rights movement should be interpretted within its 1964 context. This suggests Oberlin’s reputation as a beacon of liberal politics was tarnished long before the barage of national media attention received last semester.

It is incumbent upon us to comprehend this legacy in its entirety — not only the tidbits the Admissions Office propagandizes in high schools across the country, but also the instances in which our community fell short of its reputation. A well documented example of this is the namesake of the Edmonia Lewis Center for Women and Transgender People. Edmonia Lewis, who later became a world-renowned sculptor, was accused of poisoning two of her white female classmates in her brief tenure here and was subsequently severely beaten by vigilantes for her alleged crime. Although the College acknowledges this history in naming this critical campus hub after Lewis, it fails to tell some of the uglier aspects of the story.

Lewis never graduated from Oberlin, and although the College’s official webpage on the Center chalks this up to the harassment she received, the complete answer shifts some blame back to the institution. Lewis was not permitted by the College to register for courses the next year despite her acquittal of the charges in trial. Additionally, the College skirts the issue of the violence inflicted upon Lewis, billing her brutal beating as “harassment” and failing to even mention that Lewis’s attackers were never identified or brought to justice.

But critical cues from our institution’s legacy need not come from the archives. One of the most productive responses to the bigoted incidents last semester was the creation of student working groups that raised important questions about internal documentation and the importance of clarity in these records.

Members of the Africana community constructed a timeline outlining the progression of events on March 4 and the weeks leading up to it, which was published in the Review and widely circulated by national publications.

As reform is implemented in response to these vociferous calls for action, there will come a day when the events on March 4 and those leading up to it will be obscured from student recollection. Even three years from now, progress on efforts to reimplement a need-blind admissions policy or create new tenure positions will have their genesis in the student movements of today and should therefore understand the history that begot them.

The progress already made by these working groups can and should serve as a blueprint for future student action that hinges on these key issues at the intersection of class, race, accessibility and diversity.