Division Between Oberlin, Real World Exaggerated

Jake Nash, College senior

Dear first-years,

Throughout my time here at Oberlin, I have grappled with the question of whether what I am doing here really matters. I have spent weeks writing essays that only two pairs of eyes will ever see. I’ve had drunk conversations that neither of us remembered the next morning. My concern is that Oberlin is an environment where ideas are exchanged but seldom applied outside of college life. Discussions with friends have confirmed that I am not the only one who has lingering suspicions that a liberal arts education at a well-funded college campus that is seemingly walled-off from the surrounding corn fields is not a productive or valid way to learn about the real world.

I am sure that during your time here at Oberlin, you will hear people refer to this school as a bubble — as a brief departure from the real world that we take in order to prepare ourselves for the injustice and oppression that will confront us outside of the walls of this institution. When I have returned home at the end of every semester and had to explain what I’ve been doing for the past few months to people from my hometown, they roll their eyes at my explanations of trigger warnings and pronouns. They ask me, “Why do you go through the trouble of coddling people when they will soon have to fend for themselves in the real world?”

It is common to conceptualize Oberlin as “apart from the real world.” Accordingly, all Oberlin graduates go through a ceremony titled Commencement, meant to signal the beginning of our lives and our entrance into the real world. This conceptualization of college as purely preparatory prevents us from viewing Oberlin as a real place with real problems; it prevents us from addressing the social and political atmosphere of this campus in favor of thinking about how we will change the world. It’s even in the motto: “Think one person can change the world? So do we. Oberlin.”

However, this is not just a place to think. I do guarantee that you will think a lot during your time here. You should. This is no revelation. However, throughout this period of intense thought, your place in the real world is never compromised. You will see institutionalized power structures acted out between individuals and groups on this campus. You will have the chance to participate in international academic discussions by publishing papers and presenting at conferences. The trigger warnings and safe spaces that we use are not meant to provide marginalized groups with a brief escape before their descent into the oppression of the broader country. No, these ideas are meant to transform society, and that transformation begins here on this campus. So, regardless of your opinions about the value of the subject matter you will learn, just know: This is as real as it gets.

–Jake Nash

College senior