Oberlin College is only the most recent institution with a deep commitment to what it calls diversity and social justice to be hit with accusations that that it is deeply unjust and racist. In light of Oberlin’s pride in student activism, it is hard to know whether the faculty and administration were troubled or pleased when students in its Black Student Union insisted that “Oberlin functions on the premises of imperialism, white supremacy, capitalism, ableism, and a cissexist heteropatriarchy.”
Thus far, response has been tepid. The college is “eighteen months into a strategic planning process.” Inclusion and diversity will be a primary focus of the new plan,” but the plan won’t be ready until March. At least the administration’s statement indicates, albeit implicitly, that the college will not — for the time being — be cowed by the tone of the demands, which, according to the demanders themselves: “are not polite requests but concrete and unmalleable demands. Failure to meet them will result in a full and forceful response from the community you fail to support.” Yet it is unfortunate that the administration can do no more than refer to a bloodless “process.” Oberlin’s response has been fairly typical. Some presidents negotiate and then sign a list of demands; others capitulate in part; few offer more than a line or two in favor of having a rational discussion.
The Oberlin group has insisted that the time for such discussion has passed. Because “direct and immediate action” is the only acceptable response to its demands, students “will not be attending any more forums, speak outs, teach ins, convocations, working groups, committees, etc. in lieu of our liberation.”
There is little, either in the students’ insistence that their demands are “unmalleable” or in the administration’s bureaucratic appeal to process, that reminds one of the ostensible purpose of places like Oberlin, namely teaching. Not surprisingly, the “teach-in” on racial issues that preceded the issuing of demands also didn’t include any teaching. The tone of that meeting was struck by the professor who told the students that only their activism kept her engaged, that it was the job of black scholars to arm them with the knowledge to protest, whether along the lines of the Montgomery bus boycott, or the Haitian revolution.
You can’t fight something with nothing, and what’s lacking not only at Oberlin but nearly across the board is a full-throated defense of liberal education. At least one goal of such an education was enunciated centuries ago by John Locke, in Some Thoughts Concerning Education, namely the cultivation of “right reasoning [in order] to have right notions and a right judgment of things, to distinguish between truth and falsehood, right and wrong, and to act accordingly.” While institutions, including Oberlin, say they are devoted to “critical thinking,” they are rarely prepared to draw Locke’s conclusion that, in light of what’s at stake for us in having a right judgment of things, it is disgraceful to refuse to listen to reason. There “cannot be anything so disingenuous, so misbecoming a gentleman or anyone who pretends to be a rational creature, as not to yield to plain reason and the conviction of clear arguments.”
The term “gentleman” may be outmoded, but the human type Locke has mind, the one able to, as another of Locke’s educational writings has it, “contest the empire of habit and look into his own principles,” is a worthy object of liberal education, one often lost in the eagerness of our colleges and universities to declare their commitments to diversity, social justice, global citizenship, and civic engagement. My wish for higher education in the New Year, as we return to campus, is to see even a few presidents, deans, and faculty members stand behind the missions of their colleges and universities. I would like to hear them talk less about the extent to which and the procedure by which student demands will be met, and more about what distinguishes an intellectual community from a collection of factions struggling for power. It may be difficult to engage groups that have announced from the beginning that there is nothing, apart from what they already know, to learn and discuss. But while we do not owe student activists our solidarity we do less than our duty if we simply mock them or view them as our enemies. I doubt they are as intractable as they profess themselves to be.