Lectureship Series Well-Meaning Yet Fundamentally Divisive

The Editorial Board

The always-divisive Ronald Reagan Political Lectureship Series began anew on Thursday, kicking off its 2012–2013 calendar with a talk by political commentator Bill Whittle advertised as “What We Believe: Why the Right is Right” — although Whittle was quick to de-emphasize the second part of that title in favor of the first. He told us he didn’t expect to convince us (“us,” apparently, meaning the all-consuming liberal monolith otherwise known as the Oberlin student body); as long as we realized that conservatives were not “motivated by meanness, anger, or a desire to see people get hurt,” that was enough for him.

But as Whittle’s talk went on it zigzagged between conciliatory and defensive in a frustrating way. He stressed common goals, but all too often the “liberals” he was distinguishing from were merely straw men, propped up into holding the photographic negative of the conservative position. If you say something like “Conservatives believe that wealth can be created,” or “I’ve never heard a conservative not get a little teary about [the immigrant legacy of America]” you’re implying that liberals do not believe in the marketplace and that liberals never cry for their immigrant grandparents. Whittle seemed to submit to the division of the crowd, asking everyone who owned a firearm to raise their hands, then everyone who voted Republican to raise their hands, then nodding knowingly as the same hands went up.

The lecture series, according to Oberlin Trustee Steven Shapiro, OC ’83, is intended to “compensate in a small way for Oberlin’s overwhelmingly liberal intellectual bias,” as he wrote in a letter to the Review last week. And surely bringing a wide variety of opinions to campus is a laudable goal. But the series has often had the opposite effect, further dividing the campus and community with events that are more spectacle than substantive debate.

This trend shouldn’t be laid at the feet of Shapiro or the OCRL, both of whom appear to be legitimately committed to bringing smart conservative thinkers to campus to encourage meaningful discourse. It’s simply a product of the political demographics of Oberlin. Any republican or libertarian here is bound to feel cornered, constantly fighting an uphill battle for intellectual survival. There was not a moment during Whittle’s talk where anyone could forget the divide between speaker and audience. The defensive strategy of hewing tightly to the GOP boilerplate seems to be preferred to offering more nuanced theories. The speakers are more concerned with staking and defending their claims as conservatives than actually engaging in discussion. The Q&A format devolves into a platform for attack rather than probing or exploration. Lectures have become Oberlin’s occasional installment of Fox News, and it isn’t helping anything.

None of this is to say that Obies don’t bear some of the blame. This is a conversation we have all too often, but it will bear repeating until something changes. For as much as we champion intellectual flexibility, many of us don’t come to Oberlin prepared to grow in any significant way — college simply represents a shift from one liberal incubator to another, staunchly opposed to even entertaining the possibility of changing our minds. It’s one thing for a campus to be ideologically homogeneous, it’s another for it to be close-minded in its homogeneity.

The Lectureship Series has become a sort of infinite feedback loop, feeding on itself and showing no signs of slowing down. Perhaps the answer lies in a change to a more intimate, forum-like environment conducive to actual dialogue, though many individual speakers will only agree to the current lecture structure. Whatever the solution may be, the Series hasn’t been able to serve its purpose, pushing both campus and community farther apart rather than starting a productive conversation.