I read with interest Nicholas Kristof’s “The Dangers of Echo Chambers on Campus.” I actually spoke with his research assistant last week to substantiate some of the details of the protest at Gibson’s Bakery he references. It was no surprise, then, to see Oberlin students once again used as a simple case study pointing towards what is wrong with American higher education.
Time and time again, the students of Oberlin College are misrepresented in mainstream media as a monolithic body conforming to illiberal values and practices. People wonder how students could have the time to protest cafeteria food or how students could be so bold as to write ‘demands’ for their administration. Shouldn’t we just be in the classroom?
My first class at Oberlin was American History to 1877; I distinctly remember one particular discussion period. The topic that day was the legacy of Andrew Jackson. As can be expected from a notoriously liberal student body, many students pointed towards the disturbing treatment of Native Americans under his leadership, along with several other issues that continue to mark his legacy. However, what took place on that day was a robust discussion between students with opposing viewpoints. Several students pointed towards his reduction of the national debt; others defended his character. We entered the classroom with certain perceptions and had those perceptions challenged by each other.
This sort of interaction here is common. It’s easy for someone looking in from the outside to classify us as “coddled college cry babies” and quickly cast us aside as another case of “liberal PC college students gone wrong.” It’s easy for someone to think of us as spoiled students who are afraid of being exposed to dissenting (read: conservative) opinion. What’s harder, though, is to see past the inflammatory headlines and to understand a unique (and rather unrepresentative of the national collegiate climate) student body with the capacity to self-evaluate and self-criticize.
The truth is Oberlin isn’t perfect. I don’t think we’ve ever attempted to be. Can we be reactionary at times? Yes. We would be rather static if we sat unbothered in moments of perceived (even at the cost of appearing righteously indignant) injustice. Do we mess up at times? Of course. Sometimes we get it wrong. However, unlike past generations of students, it seems as though we are under the microscope of national media, which actually inhibits our process of thinking, doing, learning, and trying again.
Opinions such as Kristof’s assume the same sort of homogenization that they intend to criticize by means of characterization. In my experience, Oberlin students are incredibly thoughtful. We’re critical thinkers with a profound reach for idealism and a genuine desire for justice in a world desperately in need of it. We’re constantly challenging ourselves against each other and against views that may be in contention with our own.
So, no. Oberlin isn’t an echo chamber. We’re a laboratory of activism, intellectual inquiry, and progressive thought. Sometimes our experiments fail, sometimes they “blow up” reaching national attention, but sometimes they succeed and result in a small step towards a better world.