Oberlin Draws Inspiration from Ancient Liberal Arts Ideals

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 When I was a member of the Alumni Leadership Council, I once described Oberlin as having a marvelous ethos. I was referring to its unique character as a liberal arts college that arises from its traditions of open inquiry, rigorous study, and inclusiveness, imbued with the influences of music and the arts. In ancient Greece, the core liberal arts were grammar, logic, and rhetoric. These endeavors still constitute much of the intellectual activity at Oberlin today. 

Of these studies, rhetoric in particular sought to understand the capacities of writers and speakers needed to inform, persuade, and motivate particular audiences in specific situations. It was viewed as complementary to grammar and logic. Aristotle called rhetoric “a combination of the science of logic and of the ethical branch of politics.” 

Aristotle also identified three types of rhetorical proofs: ethos, logos, and pathos. Ethos explored how the character of a speaker could influence an audience to consider them believable. There were three qualities that contributed to a credible ethos: perceived intelligence, virtuous character, and good will. Pathos involved the use of emotional appeals to alter the audience’s judgment through metaphor, amplification, storytelling, or presenting the topic in a way that evokes strong emotions in the audience. Logos was the use of reasoning, either inductive or deductive, to construct an argument.

The ancient concept of rhetoric can be applied to Oberlin and the skills it teaches students across all disciplines. The value of a liberal arts education, even for science and technology majors, derives from building these skills toward the goal of being more effective in persuasion. Ethos and logos are ever more important in an age overwhelmed with pathos in the form of social media, Twitter storms, and the leaders of countries appealing to the grievances of the masses. Pathos is undoubtedly an effective rhetorical approach, but we must ask whether it will suffice to move us toward finding solutions to the daunting problems we face. Ethics — ethos’ close cousin — constitute the guardrails for our individual conduct, ones that constrain us to be to earnest, forthright, courageous, and to avoid hypocrisy. They form the basis for authentic leadership.

If Oberlin itself were a voice in the world, its ethos would be extremely strong. Ethos is not manufactured instantly, but cultivated over years of consistent effort. When you consider the traditions that contribute to Oberlin’s unique character, there is much to appreciate and much to inspire in terms of the capacity for Obies to go out and change the world for good.