On Retaining Our Value and Our Values

This is in response to Steven Shapiro's letter regarding Oberlin's "staggering drop" in college rankings. Although his concerns are valid, he misses an important distinction by confusing the value of a degree with the value of an education. He argues basically that "they'll let anybody in," as he cites average SAT scores of accepted applicants as evidence that Oberlin is losing its edge. He asks what the plans are to "restore and protect the value of an Oberlin degree."

This line of reasoning does not acknowledge the possible intangible benefits of an Oberlin education, as measured by the kind of graduates Oberlin produces. The letter implies that the "value" of a degree in this case is measured solely by rankings in national magazines, which suggests to me that "value" here is a solely economic measure, such as average salary.

I'm not saying Oberlin should not be selective, nor should we ignore the drop in ranking. But let's not be too narrow in defining and measuring what "value" truly means.

It wasn't until I was many years out of school that I truly appreciated what benefits I derived from my experiences at Oberlin. Those benefits are difficult to quantify on a US News and World Report scale, and include things like self-reliance, the value of creating and defining community, and the ability to critically evaluate cultural and academic content as a participant rather than a passive recipient.

Can we maintain both our value and our values?

Somerville, Massachusetts

US News Rankings Revisited

I had hoped that Oberlin graduates and staff members would be perceptive enough to dismiss as irrelevant media rankings of educational institutions. However, judging by Steven Shapiro's letter and Ross Peacock's reply (OAM Winter 1998), my optimism was ill-founded. To assume that colleges with widely diverse goals, programs and constituencies can be meaningfully ranked on a single scale flies in the face of common sense, not to mention sound research methodology. It should be obvious that Oberlin, Berea, Wheaton, Wilberforce, Goddard, Sarah Lawrence, and Antioch have very different educational purposes and processes; it is not possible to assign a single ranking to each of them. The US News ranking procedure can produce very misleading results, and perpetuates that dangerous notion that there is a single "best" kind of college which all others should strive to emulate. There are no outcome measures in the magazine's formula--only input data, such as SAT scores, percentage of applicants accepted, their class rankings, and indicators of institutional wealth. There is no clue to the impact of the college on its students or why it has the effect it does. There is no information about how well the institution is succeeding in helping students to learn which is, after all, what education is all about. One cannot assume that because a school gets a high ranking on a magazine list it is a good place for everyone. The key question is what kind of students are well served by which institutions. US News throws no light on that fundamental point. Even if Steven Shapiro accepts that US News is saying something significant about colleges,
I don't see why he is alarmed. The "staggering drop in reputation" ranks Oberlin twenty-fourth among all liberal arts colleges. Among the many hundreds of American colleges, Oberlin is still placed with the tiny
percentage of schools considered "elite." Movement of a few places among that group is not noteworthy. I hope Oberlin College will not spend one nanosecond worrying about whether Davidson, Vassar, and Grinnell--all fine schools--outrank Oberlin by a few places on a poorly-conceived magazine scale. The focus of the college community must be to make sure there is a clear and accepted mission statement that emphasizes the college's uniqueness, that there are well designed strategies for moving toward that vision, and that effective actions are being taken to implement the strategy. I urge Oberlin to refuse to participate in the US News charade and to lead a movement for other institutions to do likewise. Killing that project would be a significant contribution to higher education in America.

Yellow Springs, Ohio

Some Like It--

I just got my Fall OAM on December 30th. Other than the cover date, this was the best alumni magazine I've seen in years. It was professionally put together, the writing was good and the content was excellent. I was thrilled to see an insert on science at Oberlin, often not mentioned enough, and enjoyed the articles on Peters. You even reviewed a technical (scientific) book. Great job! Whatever you're doing, do it some more!

Wilton, Connecticut

That was a gem of a cover-photo description of Peters Hall (Table of Contents, Fall '97 OAM). Would that all of us who stepped its stone or squeaked its floors could emulate its "stalwart, majestic" permanence. My parents, there in the teens (Classes of '13 and '14), had told me about this landmark, and I studied there, too. How gratifying it is to know that successive generations will enjoy it also. The magazine looks great; keep up the fine work. I salute your progress.

Westlake, Ohio

--And Some Do Not!

Over the 26+ years I've been receiving the Oberlin Alumni Magazine, it has gone through an interesting series of transitions. I guess it should be referred to as "evolution" and accepted as such. For the most part, the magazine is quite good in its present state, with a variety of articles of historical and/or social relevance. The editorial contributions, combined with the overall layout and design are probably as good now as they've ever been. For all of these, you are to be applauded. However... (you were waiting for that part, eh?...) I can't overlook a disturbing trend that seems all-pervasive in periodicals printed in recent years. As an editor/publisher myself, I tend to see a lot of aspects of the printed word that most readers probably overlook, or fail to even notice. When such glaring errors as the following show up in the Oberlin Alumni Magazine, I believe it appropriate for an alum who notices, and cares, to point them out to you: In the Fall OAM photo caption, page 32, you wrote: "collect specimen's for Benzing's botany class"; and "enthralled by the botanists' birthday party reminiscences." Surely the editors of OAM, young and not so young, are aware of when and where to use the apostrophe, no? I know it is currently popular to stick an apostrophe in any plural word, but at Oberlin?
One would hope Obies know better. Best wishes for '98!

Earlysville, Virginia

The editors are properly chastened. We do, actually, know the correct uses of the apostrophe, but our proofreading skills could use some mending. Thanks for your sharp eye.

My continuing contact with Oberlin is primarily through the OAM and newspaper short statistics,hh which have both upset me for a couple of years Why was it necessary to write "Thirty Minutes to Play..."? (And didn't Thiel win a subsequent basketball game?) The OAM has been featuring activities of the libertarian (homosexual) contingent including the cross-dressing by Nancy Dye for one of their celebrations. This emphasis has only succeeded in emasculating the Oberlin student body, contributing to the forty-game losing streak. Homosexuality is a dead-end detour on the highway of life, the logical conclusion of which is the death of humanity! Or did my Oberlin education fail me? My contribution at this time is directed to the organization that recognizes (I hope) the differences between male and female, and celebrates accordingly. Nor will I stretch it to the new JFO category!

Annapolis, Maryland

I read with disinterest your story about the ending of the football team's losing streak. I mean, what is it about my alma mater? Did I hear someone say, "It's not whether you win or lose, it's how you play the game? I have a home in the Berkshires and follow the exploits of Williams College, a school the equal of Oberlin. They manage to combine academic distinction with a winning athletic tradition. Is the difference just money? Let me try in my own, small, obnoxious way to get the football rolling. My 50th anniversary year is 2003. If we have a winning football season anytime between now and then, I pledge a donation of $100,000 to Oberlin. Otherwise, don't call me, I'll call Williams.

New York, New York

More on the Enola
Gay Debate

During the debate over the Smithsonian's Enola Gay exhibit, a number of political scientists and diplomatic historians familiar with the decision to drop the atomic bomb on Hiroshima, myself included, wrote to Dr. Martin Harwit ("The Dream Job that Became a Nightmare," Fall '97 OAM). We pointed out to him that critics of the exhibit were using misleading and ahistorical arguments based on their own militaristic and chauvinistic ideology and that the Smithsonian's decision on whether to go forward with the exhibit should be based on a scholarly consensus, not political pressure. Furthermore, we warned him that to capitulate to these right-wing extremists by altering or canceling the exhibit would have a chilling affect on scholars and curators across the country and establish a dangerous precedent. Not only was the scholarly consensus in support of the exhibit overruled and the exhibition canceled, but all we got in response was a form letter from the museum thanking us for our comments. It seemed that Dr. Harwit by that point was forced to dialogue with right-wing politicians rather than with his fellow scholars. The reality is that neither the atrocities of the Japanese empire not the atomic bombing of Hiroshima could possibly justify each other. Indeed, in Japan, the most outspoken advocates for nuclear disarmament tend to be the most outspoken critics of Japanese war crimes. It is also true that both presidents Truman and Eisenhower later questioned the morality and military necessity of the bombing. Ironically, there was far more public debate over the decision to use atomic weapons against Japan during the late 1940s and 1950s -- usually thought of as a time where such critical discourse was limited -- than there is today. But what does the Smithsonian care about the facts when it finds it more important to leave state ideology unchallenged?

San Francisco, California

Peters Hall Story Stirs Memories

In your article about Peters, which brought backs so many memories, you had a picture of some "Chinese" writing on the observatory. Whoever did it gets A for bravery but F for Chinese. The first word was written correctly but the other two were only deciphered because the article said what they were supposed to be. I was born in China and lived there 'til I was 15, and I can say that the second and third characters are not what the writer thought he was writing. In fact, they do not resemble any Chinese characters. Maybe the writer should take the course over again.

Kennet Square, Pennsylvania

In reading John Shaw's account of the Peters Hall water fountain in your Fall '97 issue, I realized he was referring to the fountain given as a gift by the class of 1901, not 1903. My father, Edwin W. Brouse, later a trustee of Oberlin, was a member of this class, and during my years at Oberlin I was very aware of the plaque which read "Gift of the Class
of 1901."

Peoria, Arizona

The Fall '97 issue, which reached me three days before the end of the year, brought back fond memories of Peters Hall. Here's my favorite: In my freshman year, 1964-1965, I was one of only six or so students in a Latin literature class taught by the late Charles T. Murphy. (It was only much later that I learned that the "T" stood for Theophilus.) The class met upstairs in Peters early in the morning in a wonderfully atmospheric room that had a very high ceiling, casts of classical sculptures around the walls, and a most fortunately located window in the back. I always sat as far from the professor's desk as seemed decent. One of the other students habitually sat farther forward. She had long blond hair, and when the weather was good, a sunbeam would shine through that rear window directly onto it. The sight was glorious. It would set me up for the day. At that time I was too shy to even speak to a woman as beautiful as my classmate was, so I never told her how much I enjoyed the accidental play of gold upon gold. My aesthetic pleasure was always interrupted. Professor Murphy wouldenter the room, walk to the front, and squint -- for the same sunbeam would be shining directly into his eyes. He'd then walk to the back and pull down the shade. My thoughts would come down to earth, and we'd begin our work. I eventually got back at Murphy, after a fashion. When he directed us to choose one of Horace's odes and translate it into English poetry, I picked "Diffugere nives." We'd already read an English version of that one written by A.E. Housman, of whom I hadn't heard before, which was full of "meads," "shaws" and other apparently common nouns I'd also never encountered until then. My own translation was straightforward blank verse, with no attempt at anything cute -- until the last line, which I rendered as "And even Theseus can't break the bonds that hold his pal Pirithous in Hell." I was well aware that the literal translation had to be "his dear Pirithous." I deliberately chose "pal" for three reasons. First, it was arguably more intimate, and those two men were really close. Second, I really like alliteration. Third, I was pretty sure it would rile professor Murphy a little. It did. But the professor didn't hold it against me, or at least not for long. When I'd applied to Oberlin I'd indicated that I might choose Classics (or Government or History) as my major. Presumably because Classics was less popularthan the other two, the freshman adviser assigned to me was professor Schlesinger, Murphy's senior departmental colleague. When I eventually informed Schlesinger that I'd decided not to major in Classics, he told me, with a smile, that Murphy had instructed him in that case to pull out my fingernails. If nothing else, this may remind fellow Oberlinians that even in the Sixties not all of our young energies were devoted to sex, drugs, and rock and roll, or even to "meaningful relationships" and political activism.

Maynard, Massachusetts

As Professor Greenberg said of Oberlin College in the 1960s, there were indeed "giants in those days." (Professor Geoffrey Blodgett, "The Meaning Of Peters Hall," Fall 1997 OAM). I trust there still are. We surely all have our own list: Biongiorno, Tufts, Greenberg, Steiner. Schoonmaker, Ikeda, Lanyi, Lewis, Long, Colish. Foster, McWilliams, Dannenberg, Fountain -- these are the names of just a few of the shoulders this pygmy stood on (or wished to) -- teachers, all. It's a delight to know that Professor Greenberg is still standing; I've thought of him fondly and often. In his speech, Professor Blodgett made no mention of that part of Peters Hall which gave me the most pleasure: the central brass banister which I delighted to slide the length of sidesaddle (no hands). Was that preserved?

Bristol, Vermont

Editor's Note: Wish we had a photo of that. Yes, the banister is still right where you remember it.

Why This Alum Is Grateful to Oberlin

As one of Professor Blodgett's former students who has shared his interest in Oberlin history, I enjoyed his essay in the Winter 1998 OAM, as I have enjoyed his previous work. Professor Blodgett taught me, and many others I know, that history is not limited to great leaders and movements of national or world significance. It is, in fact, all around us, wherever we happen to be. We have only to open our eyes to discover and appreciate what has gone before and brought us to where we are now. History is in the details. I can't claim that this insight from Professor Blodgett has led to remarkable professional or financial success for me. But it has contributed to a larger appreciation of the complexity and texture of human life. And it's one reason why I remain grateful to Oberlin.

Talleyville, Delaware

Letters to the editor are welcome. They should be on subjects of interest to readers of this magazine, with emphasis on exchange of views and discussion of ideas. Please limit length, where possible, to 250 words. Letters may be edited for clarity or con-densed. Include a daytime telephone number and mail to "Letters to the Editor" at the addresses listed in the masthead on the preceding page.