Oberlin, etc.

I’m listening to this episode of the Honestly podcast, on a dispute between Oberlin College and a local bakery: https://www.honestlypod.com/podcast/episode/e765b3b3/oberlin-accused-the-gibsons-of-racism-now-it-owes-them-dollar36-million

It’s a maddening conflict, reminiscent of a similar incident from last year at Smith College in which administrators railroaded a janitor, a campus security officer, and a lupus-afflicted cafeteria worker after a student accused them of racism. But they are both instructive episodes, inasmuch as they allow a glimpse into a few of the central purposes of progressive liberal arts colleges (PLACs) in the current age:

  1. To train an increasingly diverse collection of upwardly-mobile, bourgeois private school graduates to be semi-educated activists, while
  2. relying upon the cheap labor of townies of average talent who could never be admitted according to the schools’ increasingly onerous admissions policies, and
  3. hoarding enormous endowments and building real estate empires in the towns where they’re located, establishing an increasingly tyrannical “gown over town” relationship.

In this respect, PLACs like Oberlin and Smith are just another kind of anarchotyrannical power broker—like big business, organized crime, etc.—seeking to establish the conditions of their own flourishing and win riches for themselves to the detriment of the social fabric around them. Townies be damned: the wheel of progress turns only through the effort of enlightened institutions, so the students are right to terrorize them for being regressive, ignorant schmucks. Better to run them out of town, or at least make them live permanently in fear of speaking their minds.

I spent a few days at Oberlin College in 2009, after being bailed out of Richland County Jail in Mansfield where I’d been held a weekend for “trespassing on railroad property” (pulled off a freight train). A friend had a friend there; I slept under a staircase for three days and made cheesecake from a recipe given to me by a fellow inmate. Up to that point I’d had extremely limited experience with “small liberal arts colleges”: the only one I’d ever stepped foot on before was Shepherd University in West Virginia, where I’d found a brief love interest and was subjected to a few soon-to-be-vogue “privilege walks” at a number of “anti-oppression workshops.” My very limited experience of higher education (that summer prowling around Shepherd, a brief stint at Marshall University in Huntington, the occasional trip to WVU with an ex-girlfriend, and some friends who attended West Virginia State in the town of Institute) suggested that most people who attended colleges and universities came from the surrounding areas. At Oberlin, though, I was surprised to find that students came from everywhere, nobody seemed to be studying anything, and everyone wanted to be an artist, an activist, or (in most cases) both. Mostly, though, they wanted to do drugs and sleep with each other. All things considered, this wasn’t much different from the Richland County Jail.

Liberal arts colleges need to be told that they cannot be tyrants—that they need to be friendly contributors to the life of their host cities, rather than seeking to establish themselves as robber barons in a factory town. Part of how this gets done is, as the Gibsons’ lawyer puts it beautifully in the podcast, is to remind administrators—forcefully, if necessary—that “what they are running is not a nursery school, it’s a college. And in that regard it’s their responsibility not to merely appease students—and when students rush to judgment or rush off in one direction, their responsibility isn’t just to support them and applaud their efforts…[but] to be the adult in the room.” The last few decades have shown us just how compatible student activism is with the neoliberalization of higher education: make students into footsoldiers of special esoteric ideologies and they’ll happily test out “changing the world” on random people and institutions that inconvenience them, opening up real estate investment opportunities and demanding the creation of endless new academic initiatives and committees along the way. There’s far less power and money to be won by helping them become responsible moral and political agents.

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