Oberlin’s Comeuppance

As I write these words, a jury in Ohio is about to decide whether an $11 million verdict against Oberlin College, for libel and tortious practices against a local family-run bakery, should be tripled for punitive damages. If it could be tripled and tripled again, it would still be only just.

Many readers will have heard the details of the events, which in quick summary are these: On the day after the election in 2016, an Oberlin College student tried to abscond from Gibson’s Bakery with two bottles of wine. One of the workers at the bakery confronted him, and a scuffle ensued both inside and outside the store, with the worker as the victim on the ground, pummeled by the perpetrator and a male friend of his, and kicked by two women, as some members of the fair sex are wont to do when their persons are not at risk.

Oberlin College then moved into action to squash the business like a bug. The dean of students passed around a flyer charging Gibson’s with a long history of “racial profiling.” She led a massive protest against the bakery, a protest that was cast entirely in the light of the recent election. The school ordered its food supplier to cancel all contracts with them. Gibson’s, which has been a fixture in town for more than 130 years, lost business which they never recovered. Finally, the owners decided to sue the college, when Oberlin refused to retract the charge of racism, and when the school demanded as a kind of blackmail that Gibson’s report all shoplifters first to the school and not to the police. The school would then give the perpetrator a warning, but no suspension. Naughty, naughty!

Have I mentioned that African-Americans who live in town, including one long-time employee, have treated as absurd and offensive any charge of racism against the Gibson family or the business? Should I have had to mention it?

Normal people, hearing that a kid tried to steal wine from a local store, want to punish the thief. Normal people, hearing that another business owner in town loses about $10,000 a year to theft, much of it by spoiled college students, say, “That is dreadful. We must do something about it.” Normal people, learning that a couple of young ladies went about kicking somebody who was lying flat on the ground, would want to see them suspended from school at the very least.

A normal person, employed as dean of students, hearing about the incident, would go down to the bakery to speak to the people involved, to offer an apology, to pay for damages, and to promise to remit the medical bills. A normal person does not believe that anyone has permission to steal on the day after an election doesn’t go in their favor. A normal person would not move the immense institutional might of an American college against the shop around the corner, for an “offense” that he or she could not be bothered to specify, when the real and obvious offense, perpetrated by a student, lay in plain and shameful sight.

I suppose that in their private lives, even deans of students, indifferently virtuous as in the main they may be, mostly refrain from kicking people lying on the ground, or from stealing from anybody other than from governments local, state, and national. I suppose they would object to having their father, grandfather, and great-grandfather accused of heresy and being made, on threat of death, to perform an auto-da-fé. They may not be well-read, intelligent, or brave, but they would at least be normal. We must ask then what is so toxic about education, “higher” and otherwise, that makes so many once unexceptional people into monsters. For the Oberlin incident is notable only because the Gibson family had the means and the will to fight back.

People will suppose that administrators at such schools merely spoil the students, capitulating to the demands of the loudest among them. They accuse them of cowardice. Far be it from me to attribute courage to college administrators or to professors, but the diagnosis is nevertheless mistaken.

Picture the ineducable young person, face contorted with righteous indignation, raising her (it is often her) or his skinny little skill-less wrist against “the patriarchy” or “white privilege” or whatever is the devil of the day. That young person finds Charles Dickens rather slow going to read, because the language is tough, and likely has not even heard of John Milton or William Blake—well, many a college professor has not heard of Blake. That young person’s knowledge of history could be scrawled in crayon on a sheet of paper and would be mostly wrong at that.

But he (or she) is a true believer, and every appeal to evidence, reason, and common decency strike like raindrops against a massive block of stone. It is the object of our schools to produce people exactly like that. It is what the administrators themselves are, with many dollars. It is what most of the professors are, with not so many dollars. It is what many of the adjunct faculty are, with French fries or onion rings.

I am a Christian, a Roman Catholic. Every evening when I say the prayers for compline, I am of force reminded of my sins: quia peccavi nimis cogitatione, verbo, et opere, mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa. (I have sinned greatly in thought, word, act, and omission, through my fault, through my fault, through my most grievous fault.) How convenient must it be to replace a real faith, which compels you to consider how far you fall short of the glory of God, with its political impostor! All you need are the correct opinions, and an eagerness to thrust them upon your fellow men, and you are absolved of all responsibility to behave with ordinary decency.

You do not examine your conscience; a political mob has no conscience to examine, anyway. You enjoy, with all the delight of weaklings gathering in a herd, the discomfiture of others stronger or wiser than you are, or simply different from you. You distort their thoughts, which you cannot know, so you project upon them what are really your own thoughts, in black. You distort their words, upon which you place the worst conceivable construction, even at violence to their plain meaning. And finally you distort their actions, which you magnify and smear by associating them, adventitiously, with evil things that other people have done.

What have I just described, if not exactly what young people are taught to do already to Shakespeare in their English classes, to Washington in their history classes, to Beethoven in their music classes, and to every man in their women’s studies classes? Such is education now—the peddling of the politically cracked, at tremendous expense.

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About Anthony Esolen

Anthony Esolen is a Distinguished Fellow of the Center for American Greatness, a senior editor for Touchstone Magazine, and a contributing editor for Chronicles. He is the author of well over 1,000 articles and of 28 books, including The Politically Incorrect Guide to Western Civilization (Regnery Press, 2008); Ten Ways to Destroy the Imagination of Your Child (ISI Books, 2010) ; Life under Compulsion (ISI 2015). His verse translation of The Divine Comedy (Random House) is considered the standard edition of Dante. Professor Esolen's most recent books are Defending Manhood: Why Civilization Depends on the Strength of Men (Regnery, 2022); In the Beginning Was the Word (Ignatius, 2021); Sex and the Unreal City (Ignatius, 2020); Nostalgia: Going Home in a Homeless World (Regnery, 2018); and his beautiful book-length sacred poem, The Hundredfold (Ignatius, 2018). He is a Distinguished Professor at Thales College. Click here to subscribe to his substack Word and Song.