This essay is part of a RealClearPolicy series centered on the American Project, an initiative of the Pepperdine School of Public Policy. The project looks to the country’s founding principles to respond to our current cultural and political upheaval.
Odi et amo, Oberlin.
This famous line — “I hate and I love” — was penned by the Roman poet Catullus in a poem to his lover, Lesbia, and I first read it as an undergraduate at Oberlin College in the early 1990s. I’ve thought of it many times in light of the recent events at Oberlin because it describes my feelings about a school that was life changing in both good and bad ways. Oberlin showed me how beautiful and worthwhile the scholarly life can be; and it simultaneously put the ugliness and extremism of radical political activism on dramatic display.
In 2016, after an African-American student from Oberlin was arrested for shoplifting at a local, family-owned bakery, protests broke out, with students accusing the store of racial discrimination. Gibson’s bakery filed a lawsuit against the college for its participation in the protests and ensuing boycott, alleging defamation. In June 2019, an Ohio jury found in favor of the bakery owners, awarding them millions of dollars in damages.
Many right-leaning commentators exulted at the outcome, seeing it as punishment for “wokeness” run amok. Others have been more inclined to see the college and its students as the victims. But there is a larger lesson to be learned from the Oberlin story, about the dangers that political activism on campus can pose to the enterprise of liberal learning.
Of course, political activism is widely admired in our present cultural moment, especially by the young. The word itself — “activism”— implies a particular set of active virtues. Among these are passionate feeling, a heightened sense of justice, critical thinking, willingness to question the status quo, and the desire to engage in public “changemaking,” to use a popular modern term. To be labeled an activist is to wear a badge of honor.
The problem is that activism requires a constriction of view, the categorization of people into friends and enemies, simplification of complex issues, and, ultimately, the cultivation of a warlike spirit. In activism there are winners and losers, and everyone must be a warrior. This is true on the Left and the Right alike. Young progressive and conservative activists are mirror images of one another, desperately searching for meaningful identities by taking strong positions that they often do not fully understand. Many are deaf to alternative views, and can see nothing in graduated terms.
This mentality stands in stark contrast to the kind of disinterested inquiry characteristic of liberal learning, which requires a suppleness of mind and a willingness to imagine other points of view. The tragedy is that this summer’s story has taken hold of the public consciousness, and Oberlin now stands as the emblem of campus activism, rather than the tradition of liberal education on which it and similar colleges were founded. Of course, Oberlin’s reputation for campus activism is not wholly inaccurate, yet the college’s actual practice and history paint a more complicated picture.
Public stories like the Gibson’s bakery incident focus on a relatively small group of student-activists who represent views that are not as widely held as those activists might wish. Besides Oberlin the left-wing campus, there is Oberlin the liberal arts college, which attracts serious classical musicians, budding art historians, and those passionately interested in, say, East Asian Studies or mathematics or philosophy. Oberlin has long boasted a reputation as being among the very top PhD-producing schools in the country. Serious intellectual inquiry still takes place there.
My own experience at Oberlin illustrates these two aspects of the school. As a student, I was given an intensive introduction to both political activism and the idea of intellectual inquiry as an end in itself.
Though the favored causes in the early 1990s were different from today’s, campus activists were just as confident they were in the vanguard of progress, particularly sexual progress. Many dorm rooms had “Domestic Partnership” stickers on their windows, and gay rights was promoted avidly. The only single-sex dorm (Oberlin had adopted coed dorms in 1970) was well known on campus for welcoming lesbian and bisexual women.
One night every year at the student union was designated “Sex Night.” People were encouraged to attend in various states of partial (and sometimes complete) undress, and condoms and sex toys were handed out as favors. While such events may be commonplace at elite schools today, they were shocking to me at the time (though I didn’t let on). During those years, a prominent professor was driven out of Oberlin for signing a public statement that declared sex ought to take place only in heterosexual marriage.
But it wasn’t all about sex. I’ll never forget the gorgeous spring day in 1992 when classes were cancelled so that the entire college could march in protest against the treatment of Rodney King. In general, Oberlin’s campus culture was one of righteous anger and radical politics. Republicans were anathema; women were equal to or superior to men in all ways; language needed reform (“freshperson” and “differently-abled”); traditional morality was oppressive; marriage outmoded.
All of this marked the beginning of my own political education. Though I never took a single politics class at Oberlin, I collected all the most radical posters I came across on campus and put them in a folder, which I still have in my attic. Even then, I sensed that the activist culture offered only a partial view of the world and that politics couldn’t be as dichotomous as it seemed to be in the eyes of my activist friends. But I didn’t know what the alternatives were.
Meanwhile, in the music conservatory and in Mudd Library and in many classrooms, the non-activists were busy doing what they had come to college to do. Most musicians put their heads down and ignored it all, as they had to prepare for weekly lessons by practicing six to eight hours every day. Students of Greek and Latin were busy learning the grammar of ancient languages and translating Lucretius and Homer rather than shouting on the quad or making posters. And many others were taking classes on Victorian literature and the American novel and Italian Renaissance art that had little, if any, explicit political content.
In short, college life was going on as it had for hundreds of years. Serious people asked and answered serious questions, learned the languages of literature and philosophy and mathematics, and did not see every inquiry as overtly or covertly political or socially “relevant.” This kind of learning offered freedom: the freedom to inquire and to seek, to connect with others in the pursuit of shared loves, and to form friendships where political ideology was, frankly, not relevant at all. Back in that golden age before social media, we often didn’t even know our friends’ political leanings.
Oberlin’s tradition of political progressivism on campus has always coexisted with a serious intellectual and musical culture. Any student attending Oberlin knew (or should have known) that he or she would be not only challenged academically but also immersed in a particular political environment. And that environment has always produced some number of radical political organizers, people at the forefront of the environmental, LGBT, or racial justice movements. This tradition goes back to the 19th century, when Oberlin played a prominent role in the Underground Railroad. But over the past few decades, politics seems to have become the primary public focus at Oberlin (and many other schools like it) — and increasingly to the exclusion of liberal learning.
Why is it such a problem for a college to champion political activism in this way? After all, “the personal is the political.” Doesn’t everything, looked at from a certain perspective, impinge on politics? My critics will say that we cannot get away from the political conditions of our associations that determine what choices we are allowed to make. Race, gender, and sexuality are all political — even the family is political — not to mention explicitly political things such as voting and representation. The attempt to carve out some mode of life that escapes politics is not only undesirable but also impossible.
Others might accuse me of simply not liking the particular activist causes that Oberlin espouses nowadays. It’s true that I don’t support most of them. But I’m no less critical of the activism promoted by the right-leaning groups that now organize on college campuses. They often use the same playbooks as the radical Left. Students involved in these groups tend to be just as dogmatic as the young social-justice warriors. Both aim not to understand but to provoke.
Does this make me “against” politics? Do I think I’m above it all, or that academics should never dirty their hands in such things? On the contrary, I do think that there are times when scholars, including conservative scholars such as myself, must get involved in politics. Even writing of an essay like this one is a political act of a certain kind. And there may be times when outright activism is called for (civil rights activism being the obvious example). But I believe that the need for activism on campus today is not nearly as great as many people think.
Too often, activism distracts from the central activities of college life — studying, mentoring, practicing, writing, talking, and teaching. The problem is that activism implicitly prioritizes one mode of experience — the political — over others that are essential to liberal learning. Activism offers a powerful sense of solidarity with our like-minded comrades, but it also sharply divides us from those who do not share our views. It is a hindrance to friendship. By focusing on politics as a series of battles, activism makes our conversation eristic: We “debate” rather than converse. In all these ways activist politics tends to eclipse friendship and conversation.
In short, political activism stands in tension with the traditional idea of liberal learning as a process in which students are not merely affirmed in their views but called upon to question them and to wrestle with and understand opposing views. Whereas liberal arts students are (or should be) engaged in a common pursuit of knowledge, activists think they already know what justice requires.
Yet, I imagine that there are still many students at Oberlin who do wish for just this kind of liberal education and pursue it as best they can. Perhaps, they are uncomfortable with the political dogmatism on campus, as I was many years ago. Maybe some are even cultivating the “passive” virtues that seem so undervalued in our current moment: empathy, reserve, equanimity, suspension of judgment, patience, and charity. These students offer a welcome antidote to the increasingly toxic culture of campus activism.
The lesson that we should take from Oberlin is not just that wokeness can yield gigantic punitive judgments. It is rather that colleges everywhere should never abandon their primary calling, which is to shape students into educated people, with a variety of loves, who may, indeed, prove to be forces for good in a disordered culture.
Dr. Elizabeth Corey is Associate Professor of Political Science at Baylor University and Director of the Baylor Honors Program.