An Oberlin Education Creates Lifelong Learners

A recent survey of alumni attempted to gauge consensus around what might be referred to as shared values — attributes we are known for that make us proud. There was one option that I was not surprised to see. I can’t recall the precise wording, but it was something to the effect of being learners for life. It dovetails with the idea of Obies having uncommon intellectual curiosity, though it also embodies an element of durability over time. Reflecting on the value of an Oberlin education, I can say that Oberlin fosters a penchant for learning in every aspect of one’s life for decades after graduation.

Almost a decade ago, I accompanied my son, who ended up attending Oberlin, on visits to the various schools from which he had received offers. All were liberal arts schools. At one school with a profile very similar to Oberlin’s, the president offered a persuasive pitch on the value of a liberal arts education. She emphasized the value of an education that pays dividends in multiple ways over a lifetime, in contrast to the typical large university with its pre-professional leanings. Given our ages and lack of lived experience outside our careers, I wondered how true that really was.

I am now more confident in its truth as I have transitioned into retirement. Like many Obies, I devoted a great amount of energy and passion to my career, and I’m not reluctant to say I am proud of my professional accomplishments. Nevertheless, the question became: What new activities would occupy my time? Would they simply be ways to happily pass the time, or would they command my devotion as my career before them had?  

As a result of several influences, Oberlin developed in me an abiding interest in jazz music. Now I am taking up the saxophone and drums while delving into the history of jazz and other forms of contemporary music. While jazz has always been a strong interest of mine, family and career obligations took precedence. Now I have the luxury of time and energy. I love that my autodidact proclivities, so much encouraged by my Oberlin experience, match perfectly with my newfound focus.

I recently met Harold Jones, the longtime drummer for the incomparable jazz singer Tony Bennett. Harold graciously shared some stories about his time with Tony. Tony’s story has been prominently in the news lately as a result of his successful musical collaborations with Lady Gaga. In one of his many interviews, Tony vowed he would never retire from performing because he was continually being rewarded with improvements in his artistry. In others, he emphasized the importance of always striving for quality and intelligence and how blessed he was to remain active and dedicated to his craft well into his 90s. Tony is also an artist who paints and draws on a daily basis.  

Tony’s words have inspired me to begin new endeavors and continue ones developed through my work because of the promise of authentic gratification. I am beginning to fully appreciate the benefits of an education for every aspect of a person. It leads to a life of meaning and a life lived well. I’ve discovered too that your confidence grows exponentially when you become accomplished at something you really enjoy doing. Learning becomes easier when you see it producing results that allow you to excel at things you love. I trace all this back to the interests, values, and skills that took shape in those fabulous, formative years at Oberlin. I donate to Oberlin every year; I should probably give more.