For many of us, it's one of those truisms that we can get tired of hearing - that a liberal arts college education broadens our experiences and makes us better people and better citizens. That meeting new people, being exposed to new and different cultures, and being shaken out of our complacency makes us better human beings. I'm convinced my experience at Gettysburg made it true, for me.
After my first year (a typical one, passed in an all-male dorm), I managed to get myself invited to join a kooky experiment called "Carlisle House" - made up largely of people who didn't fit in well elsewhere, and yet wanted to live close to campus. I had not joined a fraternity, and I didn't feel like another year in a dorm.
Carlisle House was a sort of "common interest" house (today called "theme houses"), though none of us could articulate exactly what the common interest was. And so, for the first time in my typical, white, suburban, middle-class life, I came bump up against diversity. It was shocking, it was loud, it was mindbendingly odd. But I wound up learning things that I had not really grasped before like what apartheid meant for an African American man who lived with us, and told us stories. Like how the emphasis on spending for defense dwarfed all social program spending (and largely still does), and whether other choices made more sense. Like how to listen, really listen, to people you don't agree with.
And how sharing a bathroom with someone who is black doesn't have any bad effects. I still don't like group showers, but one fellow Carlisle House student showed me that a black person was just a person. He also showed me the truth that, as the character Sergeant Kilrain in the movie Gettysburg says, judging a person solely by the group makes you "a pea-wit." Because this person was respectful toward a totally freaked-out white kid, I gradually got to become friends with him.
Through him I also got to learn - secondhand, but up close - about racism. At that time there were, by my memory, fewer than two dozen African American students in the entire Gettysburg student body. Through them I learned more about the real costs of tension between people of color and whites. During that year the one African American in our house dropped out. Not because of academics. I believe he was a math major and third or fourth in his class by grade point. Not because of health. He was a track runner, and also had played football. But because of clear, unabashed racism. He was constantly harassed on campus by other classmates, who really had a problem with him dating a white student. And because the administration did not take the situation seriously.
When the situation grew worse, our classmate in Carlisle House took a morning off from classes. He went to the second floor of Penn Hall, and sat in the middle of the rotunda. He started sitting about 8:30 in the morning. As he sat, busy administrators and clerical people passed, and all pretended not to see him. It took until almost eleven o'clock before somebody stopped to talk with him. He never got a commitment from anyone there to help. Feeling too isolated from the College, he withdrew.
Gettysburg College lost out by losing the perspective he brought - that of a black resident of New York City with a Caribbean background. But I gained by listening to his struggles, and others did, too. Eventually, there was a minority recruitment task force, and the minority students formed a group that spoke out about the overt, and the hidden, racism in and around the College.
And now Gettysburg seems to "get it." The last time I visited the campus when it was in session, almost a year ago, I was amazed at how different things felt. Some things looked much the same, but the students seemed to come from a far wider variety of backgrounds than in my student years. And campus events were just as varied as the students. That's not to say that all the work is done, but things now look brighter for the chance that students at Gettysburg College will fulfill the promise of a liberal arts education.
David Yoder '84 is married to Mary Graybill, a Dickinson grad. He lives and practices law in Carlisle, Pa., and is a co-author of the Pennsylvania Legal Ethics Handbook. He can be reached at email@example.com.