Unity, Cooperation, Community this Voting Season

A week ago we celebrated the inauguration of Oberlin College’s 15th president, Carmen Twillie Ambar, the first Black and second female president. She wasted little time in her acceptance speech to remind us that over 180 years ago when it was legal to own slaves, Oberlin College’s founding fathers voted to be the first college to admit both women and Blacks. While today we might think that the vote was an easy unanimous one just for men to do the right thing, President Ambar underscored the fact that the Board of Trustees was actually split, requiring the chairman — Finney at the time — to break the tie. Nevertheless, Oberlin College did do what history commanded, and we can boast of our College’s long and distinguished history and commitment to a more just world.

The question facing us now is what we must do so that those associated with Oberlin College, especially students, can assemble to celebrate 180 years from today. At first blush, we start with assets hardly imaginable 180 years ago — the abolition of slavery, women’s suffrage, advances in medicine, space travel, the internet, etc. It may seem that we have found a panacea for a perfect life, the attainment of which would justify any celebration. But no matter what we have, tragedy can strike in a second for multiple reasons, either because of all the nuclear weapons nations possess or because we are about as split as a nation today as we were during President Lincoln’s era. Sadly, there is no panacea, but if there were, we do not seem unified enough to discuss what it is for each of us.

Panacea or not, we know that doing our best to be physically and emotionally healthy, to be caring, supportive, and respectful, and to be well-rounded educationally and artistically; these are the right steps to increase our chances of having a very good life. In its broadest sense, education was the ever-present illumination of humankind from our earliest moments on this planet. The founding of colleges like Harvard, Yale, Princeton, etc. showed just how imbued the men of that era were with the absolute necessity of education to advance their causes of religion, much as the founders of Oberlin College were. Their best efforts were made to educate their children and to have colleges ready to further that education.

Oberlin College today is faced with a financial challenge like no other in the past 50 years. Our local schools too have their challenges. Both seem headed by a leadership team of experts, professors, and others gifted with the boldness, confidence, and ingenuity to maintain and surpass all past achievements. The strengths today are exactly those of all past generations — that our children be in schools and colleges. Never has our nation nor our world faced challenges anything like those we face today. While religion was the primary reason so many of this country’s leaders in the 17th century and beyond stressed the importance of education, we must make it our highest priority for the sheer survival and prosperity of all humankind, whether or not we are moved principally by religion.

Oberlin College stands virtually alone as an institution seeking to advance the cause of social justice. For the past 50 years, programs offered by the College have been unsurpassed by their focus on supporting education, community involvement of College students, etc. Arguably, Oberlin College is one of the top schools among the more than 3,500 in America. In such a hotly politicized climate, where about half the nation is branded by President Trump, Senate leader Mitch McConnell, House of Representatives leader Paul Ryan, and many others as “an angry mob,” we must remind ourselves and our students to fight to make America and the world greater than ever by championing the mantra of “let us agree to disagree” in manners and ways that unite and inspire us, and that we welcome to our campus those whose views we may reject.

We must be very wary of those advocating behaviors and strategies that undermine our focus on all the issues strongly supported whether we are conservatives, liberals, or independents. In the long run, nobody gains by divisiveness, offensiveness, and alienation. Intemperate language of the “mob” is dangerous, shameful, and evokes the haunting memories of what President Lincoln faced in the 19th century. Meanness must be rejected by our getting excited to vote next month, replacing it with compromise, cooperation, and calm continuity achieved by many small acts of togetherness.

Booker C. Peek
Emeritus Associate Professor of Africana Studies