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I was moved by this piece about Oberlin in The New Yorker, moved in several directions at once. In it, Nathan Heller recalls meeting with student radicals on campus to discuss activism at small liberal arts colleges. He mentions a café on campus I visited before I opted to attend a different college more than twenty years ago. In that very café, I experienced an instrument for the first time that would eventually take over a sizable chunk of my adult life: the double bass. I witnessed a duet between a bass player and a singer that struck me as one of the coolest things I’d ever seen.
The same article angered me as well. It took me back to my first experience socializing with fellow graduates of my own hippie school, Reed. What a soul-crushing experience.
I found myself in an alcove at Shutters on the Beach, surrounded by several corporate types and a number of people who’d somehow veered away from studying Kant and ethics to working for the weapons manufacturer, Raytheon.
My college career was not a multicultural experience – it was a predominantly white school in a predominantly white city. My vistas were not broadened by exposure to a small handful of students of color, but I learned what I needed to learn: the world is fucked up, the institutions that rule our lives have lost their moral compass, and oppression everywhere surrounds us. I learned that materialism is a losing strategy for happiness, and that politics is purest in the interpersonal milieu.
A few months ago, I engaged in a thrilling conversation with Brenda Shockley, the President of Community Build. We discussed our similar yet totally different experiences at small liberal arts colleges, hers a local one, Occidental. We agreed and commiserated about our shared sense that even though students walk away from such institutions equipped with the knowledge and skills necessary to shake things up, challenge the status quo, and foment meaningful social change, few of them actually do so.