My Fellow Sixty-Niners:
Oberlin called Oberlin? Where does the name come from?
And what does it have to do with us now or then?
centuries ago, a couple of guys by the name of John Shipherd and
Philo Stewart set up a utopian community in the Ohio valley of
moral death called the Oberlin Colony. Around that time,
a little book appeared entitled the Memoirs of John Frederic
Oberlin, Pastor of Waldbach, in the Ban de la Roche. Ban de
la Roche is a small mountainous area in the Alsace region between
France and Germany.
Frederic Oberlin (1740-1826), better known as Fritz, was a pastor,
social reformer and educator, a man of the people dedicated to the
material and spiritual improvement of his poor parishioners. No
one ever heard of him here. But when John and Phil stumbled
upon his Memoirs, they decided to model their own experiment
Oberlin's name because of his inspiring achievements and good works
in helping others. That's what our college was about from the
beginning. This dedication to social reform still permeates the
place to this day. But that's not the only thing Fritz was
about. There's something in his inner being, his spirit, that
strikes a chord as well. He's not only a role model for Oberlin
in a social, political, and educational sense, but his character
captures the essence of what an Obie is, or ought to be, beneath the surface.
contain a brief yet revealing autobiographical portrait that rivals
Montaigne, the paragon of personal reflection, in its sincerity,
modesty and self-awareness. Although Fritz never set foot in
the valley of moral death or knew anything of OC's
existence, in a sense he was the first real Obie. He calls
himself a strange compound of contradictory qualities and
concludes I do not exactly know what to think of
myself. Every virtue is qualified by some confessed shortcoming:
intelligent, and yet possessed of very limited powers; prudent and
politic, but also very apt to blunder. I am firm, yet of a
yielding disposition. I am not only daring, but even
courageous; while at the same time I am often in secret very
cowardly. I am very upright and sincere, yet also very
complacent, and in a degree therefore insincere. I am noble,
generous, ready to render service, and yet again flighty and
indifferent. He who treats me generously soon gains an
ascendency over me; but opposition creates in me an astonishing
degree of firmness. I have a lively imagination, but no memory,
properly speaking. I used to speak Latin fluently, and even
elegantly, but now I cannot utter three or four words together.
I make selections from books, but a few years after, the books from
which I made extracts appear wholly new to me.
nothing remotely this reflective in the polemics of Shipherd,
Stewart, Mahan or Fairchild certainly not Finney, Oberlin's
noblest protagonist all of whom actually stamped their
identity on this place. Perhaps they were just too busy
promoting and preaching to gaze inward like Oberlin himself.
Here's more of the charmingly insightful way he describes himself:
habitually work my way through my studies till I obtain clear ideas,
but if I wish to penetrate deeper, everything vanishes before
me. I am so extremely sensitive, tender and compassionate that
I can find neither words nor expressions corresponding to my
feelings, so they almost overpower me. I am always busy and
industrious, but also fond of ease and indolence. I have a
peculiar esteem for the female sex. I am a very great admirer
of painting, music, and poetry, and yet I have no skill in any of
them. From my childhood I have felt a longing and
preponderating desire for a higher state of existence. I feel
no obstinacy or disinclination to yield to strong internal
conviction, but on the other hand, a fervent heartfelt joy in
yielding to both great and small, high and low, and thence a
willingness to listen and, if possible, be convinced. I am
humorous, and a little witty or satirical, but without malice.
to find anyone reflecting upon themselves in such an intimate and
candid way. Yet this process of self-scrutiny is precisely what
I remember doing at Oberlin. There was a significant amount of
down time, time to ourselves, time alone, that in retrospect seemed
as important as the activities we engaged in. We lay on our
beds, or under some Tappan tree, wondering who we were and who we
weren't, what we believed in and what we didn't, feeling one thing
and then the opposite, unsure of things, above all ourselves.
We tried to figure ourselves out, just like Fritz, and if we're half
as honest, with the same perplexing results. Self-examination
was as much a part of Oberlin as anything else.
refreshing to find a kindred spirit in the namesake of our college,
not only for his achievements, but for his introspection as
well. It's heartening to know our school is named after someone
so efficacious, yet so reflective. It's this constant dialogue
back and forth between action and contemplation, service and self,
hand and heart, that's unusual, perhaps unique, about our alma mater
and those of us it nurtured. Fritz wasn't famous for that, and
his name wasn't chosen because of it. It's not why Oberlin is
called Oberlin but maybe it should be.