Oberlin Agonistes

To the Editor:
Abraham Socher’s article about Oberlin College brings to mind a question: Does a liberal education teach that violence is permissible and that minority status enables one never to be wrong (“O Oberlin, My Oberlin,” September)?

Socher’s article deals with an incident that does not fit the liberal narrative, so the angry students, professors, and administrators who are involved resort to name-calling in lieu of presenting or listening to facts. This is a common practice on today’s left. The activists at Oberlin are fully aware that their “facts” have been proven 100 percent incorrect and their “victim” has pled guilty. But what else should one expect from an institution that makes a political issue out of Asian cuisines in the student cafeteria?
Ted Harrison
New Hope, Pennsylvania

To the Editor:
A large question seems to be hovering over the terrible tale that Abraham Socher recounts: How can a self-consciously “good” college so summarily dismiss student shoplifting? As shoplifting certainly can’t be categorized as a “survival crime,” it seems that excusing it is part of the left’s frontal assault on highly successful broken-windows policing.

Some major cities have decriminalized shoplifting and other so-called petty offenses. Such offenses, of course, are hardly petty to struggling shopkeepers, nor are they likely to be seen as such generally after the inevitable negative consequences of decriminalization.
Richard D. Wilkins
Syracuse, New York

To the Editor:
Thank you so much for publishing Abraham Socher’s insightful essay. It was one of the very best and most exhaustive pieces that I have read on the subject. 
As someone who grew up in Oberlin, I am profoundly grateful for the many opportunities the college provided me. 
I can also say, however, that the college has often acted like a bully and operated with an eye toward grabbing up as much of the town’s real estate as it could. What is most troubling for those of us who have followed this train wreck from afar is the utter contempt that the former president, current president, and 
Dean Raimondo have shown not only the Gibson family but the town of Oberlin as a whole .
James Henderson
Oberlin, Ohio

To the Editor:
All ten pages of “O Oberlin, My Oberlin,” by Abraham Socher were marked by genius, So much so, that I’ve read it twice. I’ve been following the story of Gibson’s Bakery v. Oberlin from its inception. Socher’s analysis left me breathless. I wish that I’d had a professor of such integrity when I was in college.
Lela R. Henkin
West Bloomfield, Missouri

Abraham Socher writes:
I thank the letter writers, especially James Henderson who, having lived and studied at Oberlin, knows whereof he speaks, and Lela R. Henkin, whose praise left me breathless. I am largely in agreement with Ted Harrison, though I would describe the attitude that drove Dean Raimondo, student protesters, and (some) members of the faculty and administration as precisely illiberal.

To briefly recap and update, this illiberalism resulted in an initial judgement against Oberlin College of some $44 million for its attempts to damage the business and reputation of Gibson’s Bakery. After I wrote “O Oberlin, My Oberlin,” that judgment was reduced to $25 million, plus attorneys’ costs (over $6.5 million), in accordance with Ohio caps on torts. The college’s appeal has not begun well (its request for a retrial was recently rejected). Nonetheless, as of this writing, the Gibson family has received only moral satisfaction. In fact, Oberlin’s president, Carmen Ambar, has spoken of the verdict as “just one step along the way of what may turn out to be a lengthy and complex legal process.” No doubt, Allyn W. Gibson, who is 90, and his son David, who has pancreatic cancer, would like to see their family finally compensated and vindicated as soon as possible. One would like to think that Oberlin’s stance is not dictated by a settlement strategy.

Richard D. Wilkins’ suggestion about shoplifting and enforcing social norms is interesting, but I’m not sure I agree that it’s fundamental to understanding this case. Immature students have been shoplifting, drinking, and brawling for as long as there have been universities—and universities have been protecting and excusing them for just as long. Indeed, the legal force of the medieval town–gown distinction was that students came under ecclesiastical authority—their gowns meant that local police were supposed to back off, which is more or less what Oberlin College demanded. What was new in the Gibson’s case was the misbegotten idea that, to quote Ted Harrison’s letter, “minority status enables one never to be wrong.” Did the fixer-Deans of medieval Oxford or the 20th-Century Ivy Leagues ever think their straying wards were infallible? Well, perhaps if the offending students were especially monied or high-born, but probably not even then—and, of course, that historical analogy gives the whole game away. During the two days of picketing, one of the protesting students’ favorite signs read “It Goes Deeper.” Well, yes and—emphatically—no.

I have also received dozens of letters from fellow professors around the country about comparable cases and campus attitudes. This was heartening. Then again, the fact that they were not for publication and generally from senior faculty members rather than the next generation was less so. I also heard privately from several current and former members of the Oberlin faculty, who wrote in agreement, or even amplification, of my assessment of the college’s conduct.

One distinguished Oberlin College professor who did respond publicly is Steven Volk, an old friend and distinguished historian, who apparently continues to believe that the jury’s verdict was mistaken. His blog post—pointedly titled “Oberlin, Whose Oberlin?”—said some reasonable things and then undermined most of them by defending Oberlin President Carmen Ambar’s statement to the Wall Street Journal editorial board that “you can have two different lived experiences, and both those things can be true.” Volk quotes me as writing that “one is tempted to say that the facile relativism of this—there is a Gibson truth and an Aladin truth; a townie truth and a college truth—reveals the sophistry behind Oberlin’s self-destructive approach…” His choice to elide the rest of my sentence is revealing. My sentence continued: “…but actually it’s worse than that, if not philosophically at least morally. Nothing in the actions of Oberlin College or those of its dean and vice president suggests an understanding or empathy with the Gibson family’s experience.” Perhaps it is hard to admit that an unquestionable campus piety resulted in callous cruelty.

It may seem gratuitous to call out selective quotation on an obscure blog, but the idea of ineffable, hence unquestionable, “lived experience,” is a central piety of the new illiberalism. Ironically, the phrase (a translation from the German Erlebnis) was coined to mean just the opposite: I can understand your lived experience because I know my own; to see the I, Wilhelm Dilthey said, within the Thou. In what should be another irony, but isn’t, the jurors of Lorain County, Ohio, did a better job of this than Oberlin College.

Excluded from the Times

To the Editor:
Matthew Continetti’s article is a reminder that one should occasionally read the the New York Times just to see whether one might be missing anything (“The Freakout Over the New York Times,” September). In reading each issue, it never takes long to confirm my assessment of the paper’s strength and weakness. Its preaching to the choir may solidify and reinforce the views of the liberal base. However, that the Times considers anyone west of the Hudson as living in the provinces is readily apparent. It is not advertised, nor is it readily acknowledged, but there are many conservative Democrats who do not appreciate that sentiment.
Rich Hacker
Mukwonago, Wisconsin

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