Class of 1969
President's Letter
2015-16

 

 


Dear Fellow Sixty-Niners,

We all 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?

Maybe one 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.

From the 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.”

Oberlin 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.

Oberlin 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?

This is 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.”

Throughout 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.

Oberlinism 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.

Oberlin 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?

 
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