Oberlin College's activist community is ready to call it quits. Progressive students are dropping out of college, citing academic and emotional difficulties stemming from their mental health problems and overall disgust with the toxic culture on campus.
That's according to a fascinating piece for The New Yorker by Nathan Heller, who interviewed a number of exhausted activists at Oberlin. They perceive that other students, faculty members, and the administration are completely against them, and have made it impossible for them to live on campus. Some are dropping out.
Of course, some of these students probably feel unsupported because their impractical demands were not realized. Two examples: activist students not only wanted to abolish all grades below a 'C,' they also thought faculty members should proactively offer them alternatives to taking a written, in-class midterm exam. Here is the testimony of Megan Bautista, who identifies as an Afro-Latinx student:
Protest surged again in the fall of 2014, after the killing of Tamir Rice. "A lot of us worked alongside community members in Cleveland who were protesting. But we needed to organize on campus as well—it wasn't sustainable to keep driving forty minutes away. A lot of us started suffering academically." In 1970, Oberlin had modified its grading standards to accommodate activism around the Vietnam War and the Kent State shootings, and Bautista had hoped for something similar. More than thirteen hundred students signed a petition calling for the college to eliminate any grade lower than a C for the semester, but to no avail. "Students felt really unsupported in their endeavors to engage with the world outside Oberlin," she told me.
If students take their activism more seriously than their classes, that's their choice. And certainly much good can come from an organized, aware, activist community on a college campus. But in some sense, doesn't school have to be about, well, learning? And measuring whether students are in fact learning?
And then there's this, from student Zakiya Acey:
"Because I'm dealing with having been arrested on campus, or having to deal with the things that my family are going through because of larger systems—having to deal with all of that, I can't produce the work that they want me to do. But I understand the material, and I can give it to you in different ways. There's professors who have openly been, like, 'Yeah, instead of, you know, writing out this midterm, come in to my office hours, and you can just speak it,' right? But that's not institutionalized. I have to find that professor."
Again, it's great that some professors are willing to make that accommodation, but should it be an institutionalized policy? Should we handicap professors' abilities to grade their students because some of those students think organizing and protesting is more important than class?
The students Heller interviewed seem to think they're not at college to be educated: they are at college to educate everyone else. As Jasmine Adams, a member of the black student union, put it:
"We're asking to be reflected in our education," Adams cuts in. "I literally am so tired of learning about Marx, when he did not include race in his discussion of the market!" She shrugs incredulously. "As a person who plans on returning to my community, I don't want to assimilate into middle-class values. I'm going home, back to the 'hood of Chicago, to be exactly who I was before I came to Oberlin."
While I share Adam's view that Marx is over-taught in college, I question her desire to leave college as a completely unchanged human being. You should change who you are, and what you think, in college. It's a transformative experience. That's the entire point. It's what you're paying for.