Road Trip: Oberlin College

Putting the "art" in liberal arts.

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This article was originally publish in the America's Best Colleges 2008 edition.

Perhaps no other school exemplifies the liberal arts like Oberlin College. It's a bastion of liberal thought, of course, and home to one of the country's best music conservatories. But there's actual art on campus, too, from the colorful chairs in the library to the original Picassos or Jackson Pollocks that the art museum lends to students to hang in their dorm rooms.

The campus is shaped by the school's progressive ethos. The new environmental sciences building, for example, creates more energy than it uses, relying heavily on an array of solar panels. It also has a human waste-to-energy system, the mechanics of which mean that the school sometimes pays students to keep things running ("Seriously—they pay 25 cents per ... er ... deposit," senior Jay Henderson tells visiting students and parents). Several of the dorms have themes: one for transgender students, another for environmentalists, and language houses where students speak only in a foreign language.

Food options are another barometer of the campus culture. The dining halls serve free-range eggs and hormone-free beef. On occasion, local Amish farmers walk through the dorms selling fresh pies. In campus cooperatives, students cook their own food for dozens of their classmates, while nutritionists counsel students about better eating.

The music conservatory dominates the school. While walking around the suburban campus, 40 minutes from downtown Cleveland, it's not unusual to hear snippets of Brahms or see students lugging around a cello case. Its reputation as one of the best undergraduate music schools in the country benefits even nonmusical students: The campus hosts some 300 concerts each year, including numerous student recitals. The local student rock bands attract classical virtuosos, and the school is on the circuit for bands touring college campuses.

Once upon a time, it was more common for colleges to lend pieces of art to students. Not only does the custom survive at Oberlin; it has become a campus tradition. "Like Duke is for basketball, Oberlin is to art," says Matthew Kaplan, a senior who played on the basketball team. Students, and not just art majors, camp outside the art museum, sometimes for days, to be first in line for the art rental program. The pieces are secured inside Plexiglas to shield them from the wear and tear of dorm living, and students pay $5 per semester to take part. Even so, it's remarkable that the program has never had a work of art lost or damaged, says Stephanie Wiles, the museum's director.

Student activism nationwide might pale in comparison with past generations, but Oberlin students still stage demonstrations, staff national grass-roots political campaigns, and study abroad in distant, underserved countries. "The land might be flat here, but there's a lot going on academically and intellectually," says Al Matlin, who has taught chemistry for more than 20 years.