We graduated from Oberlin College in 1958, so this was our 46th reunion. It was the first time we have attended a school reunion; we had thought to wait for our 50th, but we were in the right place to sample the Alumni Experience. Following our usual habits, we participated in the daytime activities, leaving the evening meals and social events for others. So our report focuses on what we observed of the College, as opposed to what we observed of our classmates.
Oberlin College is still much the way we remember it -- a small coeducational undergraduate college in a small town, where most of the houses date from around 1900 and the town center is Tappan Square, a large tree-shaded park which ties the town to the College. More students have cars now, but walking or riding a bike is still the preferred way of getting around. The library is open and busy from early morning till late evening. The students are thoughtful, argumentative, charming, and unfashionably dressed. Since 1865, one of Oberlin's strongest elements has been the Conservatory of Music; it is Science Center now the largest undergraduate music school in the country, according to College President Nancy Dye.
Of course there are major changes from 46 years ago. The science curriculum now includes a department of neuroscience. The new science building, expanded from the original buildings, includes classrooms and labs rich in technical equipment, from wireless hot spots to microscopes capable of projecting images of tissue slides. The chemistry lab has rows of individual work stations under hoods and there's a research greenhouse on the roof. The library facilities are dazzling, in stark contrast to the musty and cramped stacks we loved.
We toured the Science Center and the Mudd Library, walked through old Peters Hall, dropped in on Open Houses in Mathematics and French, lunched in the cafeteria one day and attended the Alumni Champagne Luncheon the next. We listened to remarks by author Nat Brandt who has written about Abolitionist activities as well as the story of how John Heisman began his career at Oberlin, which he turned into an intercollegiate football power a century ago.
The major architectural feature of Tappan Square is the Memorial Arch, erected about a hundred years ago in memory of Oberlin graduates who went as Christian missionaries to China and were killed in the Boxer Rebellion. Since the mid-1970s, this arch has become symbolic, to some students, of American imperialist adventurism. This year the rain forced Commencement indoors, so graduating seniors lost the opportunity to demonstrate their politics (or indifference thereto) by choosing to walk through or around the arch.
We gained the impression that Oberlin College had been in some decline in the 1980s, but seems to be recovering, becoming somewhat larger, somewhat Memorial Arch more selective, somewhat more diverse. The $7.5M collected during the Alumni campaign impressed us, but we don't know how it compares to other years or other colleges. Oberlin graduates, many of whom choose professional or civil service careers, don't get as rich as, say, Ivy League graduates.
We picked up a copy of the Commencement Issue of The Oberlin Review (the student newspaper). This 44-page edition included some of the most important stories during the year. It also demonstrated that President Dye's report was slanted towards telling the alumni the good news, primarily. The paper revealed a strong political bias to the left, which we confirmed by other observations. We regret that the College administration and faculty, who take pride in the diversity of the student body, do not discern the need for political diversity as well. And we regret that Oberlin has joined Brown, Haverford and Swarthmore in offering "gender-neutral" housing -- that is to say, coed dorm rooms. We think it will lead to more problems than it will solve, given the naturally strong sex drives of young people.
In many respects the Oberlin College of 2004 is remarkably similar to the Oberlin College we knew in 1954-1958, and, if we understand the history correctly, to the Oberlin College founded in 1833. It's a place where students and faculty gather together to study and do good. From the beginning, it would appear, there has always been a tension at Oberlin between seeking the truth and seeking the morally right course; this tension is growing as an increasingly diverse community reflects correspondingly divergent moral values. But of course in that sense Oberlin is a microcosm of American society as well.