know Oberlin but what is Oberlinism? Is there
such a thing? Is there a philosophy of the place, an
ism as it were? If so, what might it be? You
may have studied history, sociology, or music at Oberlin. Maybe
you played soccer or violin. But did we also learn a way of
life, not just of thinking, but of being something that might
be considered Oberlinism?
thing I can do as Class President is help us become more aware of
what our shared experience long ago meant in a larger sense, and how
it may have shaped us in ways we might not know or have
expected. Oberlin has always had a distinct approach to living,
an ideology of its own called Oberlin Perfectionism.
It's had other names too, like Perfection of the Whole Being, the
Doctrine of Sanctification, even the Oberlin Heresy. You've
probably never heard of it (I hadn't), but it could be the most
important thing we learned there. We were indoctrinated at an
early stage of our development with Oberlin Perfectionism. Each
of us I suspect carries traces of it deep inside ourselves almost
unconsciously, even today.
beginning, Oberlin was about more than the mere transmission of
knowledge. It began as a utopian community, an ethical
experiment. Learning fused with labor and theory was put into
practice. Oberlin's agenda is about character building, what
folks like John Frederic Oberlin called Bildung, molding not
just the mind, but the whole person. According to its founder
John Shipherd in 1833, The system of education in this
Institute will provide for the body and heart as well as the
intellect, for it aims at the best education of the whole being.
Perfectionism, the doctrine of Oberlinism, was formulated
by Charles Finney, the most influential person in the history of the
college. He was a dominant figure in the nineteenth-century
revivalist movement known as the Second Great Awakening. In
many ways, this always was and will always be Finney's
College. He is the spiritual patriarch of Oberlin and the
prophet of Oberlinism. Finney's ideas permeate the place to
this very day, flowing deep in its veins. They infiltrated our
whole being, body, heart and mind, during the formative
years we were there. We weren't just taught at Oberlin, we were shaped.
Perfectionism, Finney's credo, is the belief, radical at the time,
that we must actively strive for perfection in our lives and the
world around us. It's Oberlin's challenge, a moral imperative,
to better ourselves, better others, and better society as a
whole. Oberlinism is a principle of will and imagination,
creativity and activism, a relentless striving toward self and social
improvement through courage, optimism, and effort. It's the
conviction that each of us specifically us Obies rather
than any extraneous forces beyond our control, holds the power to
perfect. We can redeem the world through our own actions,
transforming the ordinary into the extraordinary, sanctifying the
profane. Only then can we redeem ourselves, fulfill our
destiny, and become who we truly are. Ring any bells?
Finney's clarion call to all Oberlin acolytes students,
faculty, administrators, and alumni alike now, then, and
forever. Oberlinism is the engine that drives our social
conscience, our ethical impulse, our intellectual curiosity, our
artistic creativity, and our pursuit of individual excellence.
It's also what accounts for Oberlin's dialectical synthesis of
interior and exterior, of internal self-reflection and subjective
critique combined with external dynamism and social commitment.
It's the boldly earnest and idealistic conviction that we, the world,
and Oberlin itself are all potentially perfectible, always capable of
betterment, and it's our personal and collective mission, like
Tennyson's Ulysses, to strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.
the nineteenth century, Oberlin Perfectionism was considered a
heresy. Traditional religion preached our imperfection, not our
perfection. It taught our inherently flawed nature, and the
predestination of human and worldly affairs. Our fate and the
fate of the world were in divine hands, not human ones. Faith
required submission to providential will, not an assertion of our
own. Oberlin's message of responsibility for one's own
cultivation and the curing of social ills was humanistic hubris, a
blasphemous presumption of our own supremacy. Oberlinism was
Finney's satanic cult of the divine within, laying the seed of the
modern secular heresy that we are each captains of our own ship and
the destiny of the world.
has always been anchored by a counterbalance, a ballast of moderation
tempering extremism in the pursuit of perfection. Just as the
fervor of sanctification was spearheaded by the firebrand Finney, the
more cautious Asa Mahan was its greatest advocate of moderation.
At each turn, with each challenge, he counseled restraint against
the Ultras who pursued the righteousness of moral
perfection and social justice with extreme measures and excessive
zealotry. Oberlin fought hard against slavery, but repudiated
the violent abolitionism of William Garrison and John Brown. It
pioneered female education, yet shied away from what it considered
the ultraism of feminine empowerment. It rescued a fugitive
slave from federal marshals and bounty hunters in a Wellington hotel,
and then submitted to imprisonment. It boycotted a misguided
modern war, but allowed on-campus recruitment. These are the
twin pillars of Oberlinism, Finneyian idealism and Mahanian realism,
a symbiotic counterpoint between self and community, balancing one's
own convictions with fairness to all.
instilled in each of us a pervasive belief about character and
conduct, authenticity and meaning, that took root during our
collegial incubation. It left an indelible imprint, a genetic
encoding, that helped shape who we've become, what we've done, and
how we did it. It levied a common charge to perfect ourselves
through an incorrigible determination to perfect the world. In
the process, Oberlinism transformed us, whether we know it or
not. Perfectionism is its lasting legacy, the lifeblood pulsing
through its veins. It's what we'll conjure and celebrate come
full circle at our Fiftieth Reunion in 2019. Can't you remember
the spirit of Oberlinism in that sanguine springtime of '69, the
crucible of our youth, resonating in its flow? Looking back yet
forward too, Janus-faced, approaching that golden summit ahead, can't
you feel its pulse still quiver ever so slightly through your own?