L E T T E R S  T O  T H E  E D I T O R :

Diversity must be considered in context of history and society
Academics aren't all Oberlin is about
Housing an example of inequality

Diversity must be considered in context of history and society

(This is an open letter to Professor Cruz)
Your letter to the Review asks large questions, questions whose answers, wherever they lie, reach directly to the heart of the purpose of higher education itself. I am troubled in writing this reply in that I agree with you far more than I think I should: your argument leads me to places I do not want to go. I do not mean to imply anything underhanded on the part of your reasoning; to the contrary, its soundness is precisely what makes it so appealing. However, I am forced to part ways with you.

In attacking the idea of diversity as prerequisite for success rather than as indicative of it, you seem to be trying to paint its proponents into two different corners: you first argue against diversity as a political distinction; you then debate the validity of diversity qua diversity. While these schools of thought deserve independent theoretical consideration, a fair examination of their proponents will likely yield one group, not two: I think that if you were to push proponents of diversity you would find as their goal a diverse representation with regard to specifically those categories which you group under the label of "politically salient."

Regarding the notion political salience, it is imperative that we first distinguish between and also relate the notions of political correctness - a contemporary problem - and political relevance - a result of history. Here I wish to borrow an analogy from evolutionary biology: that of runaway selection. Politically salient markers have been used as tools of power, the ultimate political power being the ability to take life. As such, they have been recognized as fundamentally important and treated with utmost caution. Reactions to their inherent emotional charge have been taken to the extreme, the result of which is debilitating, both academically and otherwise. My point is this: although certain characters are politically and emotionally incendiary, it is their history which makes them relevant to discussions of access to higher education.

As far as entrance criteria, why can't we be unflinchingly clear when it comes to an academic institution? Criteria for academic admissions do not exist independently (objectively) in the way that athletic excellence does; they depend on human evaluators, all the way from ETS (makers of the SAT) down to the office of admissions. The criteria are clear in the case of your litmus tests; not so in the case of academic preparedness. This is the result of a fundamental difference between professional athletes and incoming students: preparedness versus excellence, the latter being a result of the former. In other words, the only objective test of preparedness is the attainment of excellence. Such a test is administerable only after the fact. It appears that you realize this difficulty as you quickly follow your first question with a second:

Why can't we at least be accountably consistent? As you point out, we must be careful what we ask for, let alone what we demand. Diversity is desirable only within certain bounds: as your list attests to, you do not need to be convinced that diversity is not always a "desirable and commendable goal" (convicted felons, avowed communists, etc.). Grouping communists with felons is a joke to members of a liberal academic community, but it walks a thin line, one which divides Oberlin from a substantial portion of our society. We must be mindful as well as logical, lest we let logical extension lead us down a path of foolish consistency.

Yes, Oberlin is an academic institution, but it is also a social one. In fact, it is an institution whose primary goal, as far as has been my experience, is to convince its members of the fundamental connection between each of these elements: denying one leaves the other incomplete.

-Michael Dwyer OC '97

Academics aren't all Oberlin is about

To the Editor:
This is a response to the letter written by Yolanda Cruz regarding diversity, as well as just some ideas that her letter brought up in my head. If I've misinterpreted some of the points in the letter, I apologize to Professor Cruz, and hope she will correct me.

I disagree with the idea of "academic preparedness" being the decisive factor in admittance to Oberlin College, because I believe that Oberlin's sole purpose is not to be an "academic institution". It should be more than that, if we still feel any bond with Oberlin's "progressive" history. Oberlin College should be a place where one can grow intellectually, socially, and spiritually; where one can start down the path to true wisdom. This cannot be obtained if we see "academic preparedness" as a prospective student's only important characteristic. The people on this campus bring together diverse abilities, backgrounds, and personalities, and if we ignore that, there are important things that everyone will miss. How do we even decide if a person is "academically prepared" to attend Oberlin? Grades? SATs? That seems a bit limited, because I know I don't define my abilities by my grades (and neither should you).

Back to diversity. Why can't we, Oberlin College, known for our "Liberalism," try to right some of the wrongs in society, or at least in our education system. Professor Cruz seemed to be suggesting that Affirmative Action is a bad thing. I totally disagree. Through racism and the unequal distribution of wealth in our society, many students of color, and many poor students, are denied the chance to fulfill their potential, because of poorly funded public schools. Why can't we try to change that? We can't ignore political issues because we are "academics" (a term I will never use to refer to myself). Are we saying that, because after 18 years of life we have been deemed "smarter" than others, we can ignore those who haven't been given a chance. I remember something I heard about Northwestern (a well known haven for academics) in a college brochure. During the days when their football program was bad, whenever they were losing a game, the crowd would chant, "It's all right, it's OK, you'll be working for us someday" toward the opponent. Is that what we want to become? I hope not, because it's arrogant and disgusting.

If we decide to only look at "academic preparedness" at Oberlin, we also perpetuate another inequality in America's education system, stratification along "intelligence lines". From our earliest days of school, we are given test after test to see how "smart" we are, and to decide what "track" we should be in (at least that's how it worked in my public school system). We are told from the beginning who is "smart", and who isn't. And those who do poorly in school are constantly told they've failed (isn't that what an F stands for?). Those who are labeled "smart" are instantly transported to a world of good teachers and mind expanding activity. Those who aren't get the shaft. At the college level, those students who are deemed "academically prepared" get to go to wonderful places like Oberlin, where they can immerse themselves in fascinating classes with great professors and pursue their interests to fulfillment. Those who aren't get to commute to a school with shitty professors, where there is very little of interest to do, which compounds the problems these students already have. This is wrong.

I can't really sum up my point. Ask me about it if you're confused. Love one another.

-Robby Armaline College sophomore

Housing an example of inequality

To the Editor:
As this campus community discusses issues of equality and diversity, I'm surprised to see that the issue of equality in student housing has not yet come up, particularly the manner in which students are assigned to dorms.

I am a first-year living in lily-white Fairchild. I was an early decision student, and was somewhat pleased to discover shortly after my admission to Oberlin that early decision students got first choice in housing. But I didn't think it was a big deal.

Upon arriving here, I discovered that Fairchild is about one-third first-years; most, if not all, are early decision students. It seems to be common knowledge that only early decision students get into Fairchild or Talcott; these dorms are nice ones, and they fill up fast with those who get first choice.

The problem is that early decision students are generally much better off financially than regular decision students. If comparing financial aid offers is an important part of choosing a college for you, you're not going to apply under a program that makes you commit to a school before knowing how much aid you'll get. So those students getting first choice in housing, and getting placed in the nicest dorms on campus, are also some of the wealthiest students; dorms like Barrows are left to fill up later with non-early decision students.

Why is this system of preferential housing in place? It doesn't seem to be a big draw for admissions. It doesn't exactly promote diversity on campus. It's an unfair system. Why not just take all the housing applications at once, and give students housing assignments completely unaffected by how much money they have?

-Heather Reichgott College first-year


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Copyright © 1997, The Oberlin Review.
Volume 126, Number 11, December 5, 1997

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