The Oberlin Review
<< Front page Commentary May 5, 2007

The Right, Not the Popular, Choice

Behind every decision a college makes lies the question of relative necessity. Questions arise: which areas of the institution are important enough to merit spending? On what subjects students should focus their attention? What aspects of campus are important to promote for prospective students? Two academic trends have recently caught Oberlin’s attention — a move toward a religion requirement and a boycott of the college ranking system — and as an institution we must ask ourselves whether or not to jump on the bandwagon. 

Within Harvard University’s ivy-strewn walls, administrators decided that religion played enough of a part in understanding modern life to merit curricular support. Accordingly, the class of 2011 will have to fulfill a “Reason and Faith” requirement before graduation. This radical decision sent ripples across the country, and analysts suspect that many colleges will follow Harvard’s lead. Perhaps whispers of making religion requisite are flitting around Oberlin.

The arguments for such a requirement dip into the realms of cultural diversity, comparative literature and conflict-resolution. With many of the current wars in the world fueled in part by differences in faith, our generation would benefit from a nuanced understanding of the holy doctrines that drive such strifes. Furthermore, as any English major will remind you, Biblical references and allusions pop up in multitudes of works, and analytical work would suffer without the ability to cite literary nods to the Old and New Testaments.

At Oberlin, while students must take courses across the natural sciences, social sciences and humanities to gain exposure to different ideas, they generally have academic freedom to tailor their own educational experiences. To require that students take a course in a specific department goes against the College’s commitment to allowing students to choose their own academic paths. Oberlin should not simply follow a trend that trickles down from the Ivy League; rather, it should consider each issue with the mind  frame, “What is best for Oberlin?” Because Oberlin traditionally trusts its students to design a rigorous course load, and because Obies have a history of challenging themselves and earning this trust, Harvard’s new policy is not right for Oberlin.

As Oberlin reevaluates its academic programs, it must also choose a stance on the issue of college rankings. The US News and World Report’s annual college ranking has become an important purveyer of information for prospective students and their parents. However, the accuracy, objectivity and relative usefulness of this ranking have warranted a great deal of criticism. Recently, many institutions have followed Reed College’s lead in boycotting the process. Oberlin may also be considering joining these schools by refusing to participate in the rankings.

Oberlin might have good reason not to participate in these rankings. The US News report does not, for example, factor in unique campus features such as the Allen Memorial Art Museum or Environmental Studies center. Instead, the Oberlin’s ranking  relies on the endowment size and admissions selectivity rate.

Oberlin ranks as one of the top 25 liberal arts colleges, a fact that could potentially aid the school in attracting a better candidate pool. However, Oberlin must consider if the misrepresentative ranking system conflict with its values.

In addressing these issues, Oberlin should not look to other colleges’ decisions or become an eager follower of a popular trend. It should instead consider what choices will best serve current and future students.


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