News and Media
Embracing Change, Then and Now
Sep. 23, 2009
I was delighted last week to meet two very special guests, Didier and Anne Roser Perru, who traveled from their home in Paris, France, to visit our College and town, which were named in honor of Mrs. Perru’s ancestor, John Frederick Oberlin.
Their visit was the first by a descendant of the Alsatian pastor whose pioneering educational, economic, and social reforms lifted one of France’s poorest, least educated regions out of poverty and ignorance. While John Frederick Oberlin died at age 86 in 1826, without ever setting foot in America, his actions, writings, and progressive ideas inspired our founders, John Shipherd and Philo P. Stewart.
Anne Perru is directly descended from Henriette-Charité Graf née Oberlin, one of Oberlin’s seven children who lived to adulthood. Two others died in infancy. During their brief stay, the Perrus visited our archives, toured the campus, and had lunch with small group of faculty and staff members.
It was fascinating to hear Mrs. Perru describe how Oberlin’s progressive, humanist views and faith have lived on in his descendants—four of whom became pastors—and how she sees Oberlin’s beliefs at work on our campus. “One senses the depth of this magnificent place,” she said. The Perrus were also much impressed by the intelligence, erudition, and social engagement of the students and faculty they met.
The life and work of John Frederick Oberlin, who is also known as Jean-Frédéric or Johann Friedrich, depending upon one’s native tongue, are not widely known in our Oberlin. But as the late John Kurtz, who was a professor of German here for four decades until his retirement in 1973, describes in his fine biography of Oberlin, the pastor’s achievements transformed life in the valley of Ban de la Roche in the Vosges Mountains of northeast France. He created the world’s first pre-schools, was the first educator to train and employ women as teachers, virtually eliminated illiteracy, dramatically reduced the incidence of disease, and revitalized the region’s agriculture.
Many of his ideas have contemporary relevance, as in these cue words and phrases from one of John Frederick Oberlin’s pulpit notes for a sermon. “Ah friend, what is our life if it is to be used only for our pleasure and prestige! ... I do not wish to live one moment more than I can be useful. … So long as I can learn … capture, devise, apprehend, copy or acquire from others, anything by which the needs, the sorrows, and the miseries of so many oppressed people can be alleviated, I will let no ingratitude, no opposition … no expense … restrain me. …Thus my life in spite of countless adversities … is a constant joy, and my death will be but a transition to continuing happy activity in the after-life.”
I believe Oberlin’s progressive ethos continues to flourish here in northeast Ohio. As evidence, allow me to cite senior class president Shana Osho’s remarks to new students at the first convocation of this semester: “you’ll find that this community pushes you to embrace and lead global change.”
Speaking of change that Oberlin can embrace, legislation is currently being considered in the U.S. House of Representatives that would proposes increasing and ensuring continued funding for federal Pell Grants. These grants are already an important factor helping students from some of our country’s most disadvantaged families to pay for their college education. If enacted, the house bill would provide the College with more Pell funding to help students have access to Oberlin’s excellence. Access is one of Oberlin’s core values, and I urge everyone to write their representative urging them to support this legislation.
Oberlin College is also working to provide access to the women and men who have served in our nation’s armed forces. The College has signed up with the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs Yellow Ribbon GI Education Enhancement Program, which provides funding that covers a significant portion of the tuition expenses for former servicemen and women. We already have one first-year student, Joseph Cook, a former United States Marine, who is part of this program, and we hope to have more. So if you have friends, relatives or acquaintances who you think would be a good fit for Oberlin, please encourage them to apply.
Last but not least, I want to remind everyone to share the copies of the New York Times that we provide for our students free of charge. This program has been a great success. I know the papers are picked up quickly. After consulting with the Student Senate this past spring, the decision was made not to increase the number of copies because we do not want to bring more paper onto campus. So when you are done reading the paper, please pass it on to a roommate, a friend, or a fellow student. And please recycle the papers when you are finished with them.
President Krislov and emeritus art professor Paul Arnold presented Anne and Didier Perru (left) with a woodblock print, made by Paul, of John Frederick Oberlin's silhouette. Photo by Aries Indenbaum ’09.