Outward-Facing Philosophy Deeply Rooted in Oberlin’s History

 Editor’s note: This column is part of a series that will focus on Oberlin’s history as a town and an institution. The series will be published regularly throughout the fall semester.

When then-First Lady Michelle Obama spoke at Oberlin’s commencement ceremonies in 2015, she had the institution’s social justice reputation in mind.

“If you truly wish to carry on the Oberlin legacy of service and social justice, then you need to run to, and not away from, the noise,” Obama said. “Today, I want to urge you to actively seek out the most contentious, polarized, gridlocked places you can find. Because so often, throughout our history, those have been the places where progress really happens — the places where minds are changed, lives transformed, where our great American story unfolds.”

Obama’s invocation of Oberlin’s long-standing practice of running towards the noise spoke to many elements of this community’s historical legacy — some proud, some more troubling, and all traceable back to its founding as a radical, early-19th century experiment.

When John Jay Shipherd and Philo P. Stewart founded Oberlin, they intended for their new settlement to have a purpose and mission outside of Northeast Ohio. Their primary work of religious conversation, led by the famous minister Charles Grandison Finney, inspired their belief that the world needs Obies — a belief that this institution remains convinced of today.

President Carmen Twillie Ambar began to employ this rhetoric almost as soon as she stepped foot on campus in 2017, urging the Oberlin community to be outward-facing as we get down in the trenches with communities in Lorain County and beyond.

For better or for worse, this outward-facing philosophy is baked into Oberlin’s DNA. In his autobiography, John Mercer Langston — the man for whom Langston Hall is named — wrote about working as a schoolteacher during his time off from school. When Langston was a student in the late 1840s and early 1850s, Oberlin’s long break was in the winter, instead of the summer — an unusual schedule especially in the 19th century, when many took the lengthy summer break to help out on their families’ farms.

In Langston’s own words, the uniqueness of Oberlin’s calendar was intended, “so that any students desiring to engage in teaching for such term, either public or private schools, could do so … to make the most of themselves as scholars and useful members of society.” During that break, Oberlin students and faculty would fan out across the country. Some, like Langston, found opportunities to teach, while others traveled to preach the abolitionist cause to often-hostile congregations across the South.

A similar sense of collective, outward-facing agency grew in Oberlin, as it did on campuses across the country, just over a century later during the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s. While students initially felt distant from a movement perceived to largely be taking place far away, over time they embraced their potential to make substantive change — in nearby Cleveland, across Ohio, and beyond. Several students took semesters off and spent them in the South, reporting remotely for the Review from the frontlines, bringing news back to an eager and anxious campus.

In many ways, those students were — whether consciously or not — invoking the legacy of Langston and others. They recognized that the skills and knowledge gained at Oberlin could be used to advance causes across the country.

All this is not to say that the way Oberlin has spread its values to other communities throughout history has been uniformly positive, or even anything close to it. Undergirding much of Oberlin’s outward-facing social activism — particularly earlier in its history — has been an air of arrogance and moral superiority.

As I’ve written previously, early Oberlin’s abolitionist values were not rooted in a sense of social justice or drive for racial equity — rather, Oberlin leaders like Finney and Shipherd opposed slavery and supported racial integration from a religious perspective, rather than a moral one, and believed it was their calling to spread their religious convictions to the less enlightened.

Oberlin’s air of superiority continued into the 20th century, perhaps most notably symbolized by the construction of the Memorial Arch on Tappan Square. The arch was designed to memorialize the missionaries — most of whom were either Oberlin students or related to an Oberlin student — who were killed during the Boxer Rebellion while on a mission to China in 1900.

For years, the arch has been a point of contention on campus as many students — particularly those of Asian descent — feel that the arch stands as a reminder of the imperialism that grew out of Oberlin’s extreme religious convictions. During almost a decade of protest, the path of the commencement procession forced students to choose to either pass under the arch or walk around it.

As we consider how Oberlin can continue to strive to make a real difference outside of the confines of campus, our arrogant history is as important as our more noble moments. It’s true that Oberlin has a lot to offer the world, but we can’t assume the world wants everything we want to give. Issues that feel pressing in the classroom can have less urgency in spaces where people are struggling to meet their tangible needs — a reality we’ve occasionally overlooked as an institution, and one that I don’t see us fully understanding today.

It’s exciting to have a leader in President Ambar who invokes Oberlin’s history of outward-facing engagement in much the same way that Michelle Obama did more than four years ago. Despite the mistakes Obies have made and will continue to make, President Ambar’s rhetoric reveals her empowering faith in us as agents of change. However, that faith, which many share, should also push us to examine a question not frequently asked on this campus — whether Oberlin is actually good at sending people out into the world.

For many of us, at first pass, the answer might be an obvious yes. But looking at our history reveals that this gut reaction can, and should, be tempered. We should certainly be proud of the moments when Obies affected positive change in the world, and learn from the moments when our often well-intentioned approach didn’t quite land. Only then, in the words of Obama, can the greatest version of our collective Oberlin story unfold.