has always struggled between order and freedom. Every
institution establishes a code of conduct, and then copes with
personal choice. In music, the harmonic framework
simultaneously constrains yet fosters melodic creativity. The
same goes for Oberlin: without authority, it collapses; without
autonomy, it ossifies. We sail between the Scylla of structure
and the Charybdis of chaos. There's a charming Oberlin tale
illustrating this polarity, not just for history's sake but ours
approaching our Golden Jubilee. From the start till our time
(in part), men were prohibited from visiting women in their
rooms. This was Oberlin's most sacred rule; the experiment of
coeducation hinged upon its strict enforcement. The first
catalogue in 1835 spelled it out clearly:
ladies of good minds, unblemished morals, and respectable attainments
are placed under the superintendence of a judicious lady, whose duty
it is to correct their habits and mold the female character.
Their rooms are entirely separate from those of the other sex, and no
calls or visits in their respective apartments are at all permitted.
the bat, Ebenezer Cotton, up to no good, broke the fundamental
norm that no male shall enter the chamber of a young lady on any
occasion. Henceforth, any infraction would be punished by
expulsion, no ifs, ands, or buts. In 1843, two sophomores, Walt
Smith and Big John Ingersoll, became
protagonists in the most notorious test of Oberlin's gender rule,
demonstrating this perennial struggle between order and freedom.
Prudence Porter, a young lady of unblemished morals,
fell ill and was confined to her bed. Her family sent a trunk
of medical and other supplies. Prudence's roommates couldn't
lift it upstairs to her room on a higher floor, so they asked these
two fellows to lend a hand. Instead of acquiescing in the rule,
the path of least resistance, they carried the trunk upstairs and put
it in her room. The girl was grateful (history is mute on
whether she recovered).
knew the rule, but they also knew what was right. Oberlin
didn't. After no less than seven hearings (!), Walt and Big
John were tossed out of school to preserve social order. The
students were outraged (both genders), and petitioned the College to
suspend its draconian sentence. They acknowledged that improper
intimacies were prohibited, but claimed an exception on the basis of
propriety and pragmatism. The letter of the law was broken, but
not its spirit. We recognize the rule was violated,
they pleaded, but these students had no immoral
motive. The furor caused the College to capitulate:
the gentlemen were readmitted.
this tell us? That Obies seek to synthesize order and freedom,
balancing authority with autonomy. We cherish our liberty within
the social compact, neither without nor enslaved to it, like free
flowing melodies within a harmonic framework. We straddle, with
a struggle. So what does this have to do with our Reunion?
Well, if you're still a-straddlin n a-strugglin
about coming, ask yourself whether you're simply sitting by the
sideline, disengaged or disillusioned, nodding to a norm, acquiesing
in avoidance, and conceding to complacency. Attending this
Quiquagenary for sure requires overcoming inertia, age, and the path
of least resistance. It's not easy to get up and greet folks
you haven't seen for half a century: you've changed, we've
changed, and so has Oberlin. It's like hauling a trunk of old
memories up the stairs, good and bad.
changes aren't reasons to stay home, but to come and discuss.
For instance, the College is now surprisingly 73% white-American,
with only 9% foreign-born, 8% Hispanic-American, 6% African-American,
and 4% Asian-American. Salaries have been frozen. There
are allegations of anti-Semitism. We're involved in protracted
litigation against Gibson's donut shop, set for trial during our
Reunion, that the Board of Trustees refuses to discuss. Others
have other campus concerns: food for thought.
consider Walt and Big John, two Obies who stepped up, cast aside
their hesitation, shouldered their trunk, climbed the stairs, and
entered the room. It's our turn now to step up, cast out our
doubts, scale the stairs, open our trunks, and come into the
room. We're waiting for you, like Prudence upstairs. Make
an exception, don't be one. Forget all your ifs, ands, or
buts. It's your one and only chance to relive, recreate, and
rejuvenate, not for the sake of our school, or the sake of our
classmates, but for the sake of yourself.
what makes you think, asked Sancho, this is an adventure?
don't mean to say it's a complete adventure, replied Quixote,
but rather the start of one. This is the way adventures begin.