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Liberal Arts, released in 2012, is an unassuming film tribute from actor Josh Radnor to his alma mater, Kenyon College. In the film, Radnor’s character is experiencing an early midlife crisis when he receives an invitation to the retirement party of his favorite professor. Returning to campus, he sees from the perspective of a worldly-wise Gen Xer rather than a wide-eyed freshman. The professors are cynical, the students are scary, and the attachment he forms with a quirky freshman girl doesn’t go where they expect—and yet. The adventurous mind he first acquired at college reawakens, impervious to human imperfection. It follows him back to his uninspiring job in New York (an academic job, ironically) and refreshes his soul.
Idealistic as it seems, that’s what a liberal-arts education is supposed to do. Traditionally, anyway. Now it’s hard to say exactly what it’s supposed to do, especially since Kenyon’s neighboring Ohio institution, Oberlin College, blundered into a legal hot mess.
No school has a better claim than Oberlin to the “Liberal Arts” label. Founded in 1833 by a pair of Presbyterian ministers who described the institution as “peculiar in what is good,” Oberlin was the first coed college in the United States and the first to admit students of all races. While evangelist Charles Finney served as president, Oberlin became a touchstone of the abolitionist movement. But the school’s idealism made a hard left turn in the late 20th century, leading to a rude awakening in the 21st.
During the fall semester of 2016, three African American freshmen tried to purchase liquor at Gibson’s Bakery, a family-owned business serving Oberlin students and staff since 1905. When the shop owner’s son refused their fake ID, one of the students walked out with a bottle of wine. The owner’s son pursued, the shoplifters fled, punches were allegedly thrown, and all three students were arrested.
Oberlin eventually let propositions crush people. The college stood for the oppressed by oppressing its next-door neighbors.
Given their race, this looked like a clear case of bigotry to students and administration. The ensuing weeks of protests, chants, and boycotts caused significant loss for the bakery, especially after the administration canceled long-standing catering contracts. The dean of students, communications officer, and presidential assistant were all personally involved in the uproar. Finally, wounded by damage to their reputation no less than their revenue, the Gibsons sued.
In June, a jury of “townies” decided in the Gibsons’ favor and awarded a total of $44 million in damages, punitive and compensatory. Careless college activism had—finally—gone too far.
Reading deeper into the case, Gibson’s Bakery comes off as firm but reasonable and Oberlin as arrogant and condescending—even proposing, in early talks, that the bakery allow their students one incident of shoplifting before pressing charges. Would any business agree to let customers with a student ID rob them “just once”? Such details likely prompted the exorbitant award (which has been reduced to a mere $25 million). But maybe other administrators in other colleges will think twice before letting wild accusations get wilder.
Or maybe not. Gibson’s Bakery v. Oberlin College is a glaring example of what happens when ideals become ideology. Born in evangelical fervor and dedicated to the proposition that all men (and women) are created equal, Oberlin eventually let propositions crush people. The college stood for the oppressed by oppressing its next-door neighbors.
The same spirit is at work in Seattle and other West Coast cities, where ideology about homelessness runs roughshod over citizens wanting clean sidewalks. In California, ideology about zoning and the environment jacks housing costs out of reach for middle-class Joes. Ideology about women’s “reproductive rights” silences post-abortive women who are riddled with guilt—not to mention silencing generations of future women. And ideology about wealth redistribution, now playing on presidential debate stages, has led to the murder of literal millions who had no wealth or vote.
While standing for godly principles, Christians mustn’t forget that Christ offers not ideology but Himself. Rather than standing for the oppressed, He meets them one by one. Instead of broad-stroking endless guilt, He identifies sin with surgical precision and freely forgives. Can we do any less?