Oberlin Students Must Re-Envision College Slogan

To the Editors:

Oberlin students are familiar with the poster featuring the slogan: “Think One Person Can Change the World? So do we.” Changing the world is on the minds of the current generation of students. A recent Pacific Standard survey found that two-thirds of college students intend to change the world, and more than one-third think they will have an impact within five years. The slogan speaks to the idealism and energy that incoming students now bring to Oberlin. The survey researchers also note that liberal arts colleges produce a disproportionate number of leaders because they produce inquiring, less self-certain, and more concerned citizens.

Admittedly, one person changing the world seems presumptuous. A video asked a freshman class the more realistic question of what they would do in their first year to change the world. This resulted in responses such as: “I will learn multiple languages so I can bridge cultures,” or “I will make music to stir the souls of others,” or “I will be kind to others.”

For me, these responses prompted a different interpretation of the question. It can embrace both macro changes and micro changes. Consider: “Think one person must change the world?”

This framing speaks to the oneness and unity of all creation. It is a theme prevalent in almost all religions — or ancient wisdom traditions, as Deepak Chopra refers to them. It is the concept of interconnectedness, cause and effect, reap and sow, kindness begets kindness, communion and community. One of its expressions, karma, is described in the Hindu and Buddhist traditions: the actions of the beings of the universe create not only individual experiences of pleasure and pain but also the domains in which those beings dwell, and the physical universe is the product of the individual and collective actions of all the inhabitants of the universe.

If every individual were accountable for their spirit, many of the world’s problems would diminish. It took me a long time to learn that being selfish and self-centered was giving into the lazy default. Being grateful for my existence and free will required dedication to being consistently positive, not comparing myself to others, and not judging others negatively.

Obie blogger El Wilson, who was skeptical of the slogan’s hyperbole, ended their post musing that they were likely to land where they could focus on making the community around them a better place, by being “kinder than necessary.” They seemed to take issue with the expectation of the outsized leadership foisted on Obies. We should applaud their sentiment, as it expresses a desire for a slower tempo enabling one to experience a better quality of life.

When we think of the slogan’s grander aspiration, we should focus not on leadership based on authority over others, but rather on creativity that inspires the action of others. Obies are known for creativity and intellectual curiosity.

Today’s world does present challenges to innovation. As progress marches along, creativity seems more and more challenging. For example, in the sciences, many significant discoveries have already been made. But whatever the field — science, economics, education, law, the arts — new advances require focusing on the interstices, the small gaps between discoveries already made.

When creativity comes to fruition, it is like a pebble dropped on the surface of a pristine lake. A ripple circle begins to move outward and multiplies into the surrounding expanse.

Creativity is associated with people who value individuality. Cultivating individuality leads to endeavors that value autonomy and self-improvement. Autonomy is the antidote to the alienation that arises from being a small player in a big system. Creativity, too, can make life more interesting, enjoyable, and gratifying.