Class of 1969
President's Letter
2016-17

 

 


My Fellow Sixty-Niners:

Why is Oberlin called Oberlin?  Where does the name come from?  And what does it have to do with us — now or then?

Almost two 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.
Jean 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 after him.

They chose 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.

Oberlin's Memoirs 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:

I am 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.

There's 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:

I 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.

It's rare 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.

How 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.


 
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