Class of 1969
President's Letter
Early 2019

 

 


berlin 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:

Young 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.

Right off 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).

Everyone 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.

What does 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.

Oberlin's 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.

But 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.

January 2019

 

Well, what makes you think,” asked Sancho, “this is an adventure?”

“I don't mean to say it's a complete adventure,” replied Quixote, “but rather the start of one.  This is the way adventures begin.”

 
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