Why Far Away is Close to Home

Oakland, California is 8 time zones or 5,000 miles from Scotland and, as it seldom registers on our screens unless the Raiders make it to the Superbowl, is seen to have little relevance. Oakland does not have the profile of San Francisco across the Bay, a ‘city’ of some 300,000, it is actually an integral part of the SF Bay conurbation, which has a population larger than all of Scotland. So why is this week’s shooting of seven at Oikos University any more relevant in America’s 5th most dangerous city (110 murders in 2011)? It is also a dizzy mix of black, Chinese, Chicano, Nicaraguan, Korean and Vietnamese, as well as the (marginal) white majority.

While details are still being uncovered, the New York Times reported that L.Goh, a 43-year-old Korean former student lined up a class of which he had been a member months before and started shooting, causing five deaths and wounding five more, two of whom have since died in hospital. He gave himself up in a nearby Safeway. This kind of thing is becoming less rare, especially in the US, and still strikes most Scots as incomprehensible. Perhaps we should pay more attention as it does have relevance.

Looking at the context, there are many parameters that are unfamiliar to Scots. Oakland, though the size of Aberdeen, boasts 13 institutions calling themselves ‘universities’. Some—University of California and California State University we would recognise as such. Others—like Laney of Merritt Colleges—are ‘junior’ colleges, where students can do the first two years of undergraduate work cheaply, then transfer into a ‘full’ university like UC or CSU.

But in a large grey area are a number of private universities recognised by the US Dept of Education as able to confer degrees in certain subjects. As with all other third-level educational institutes in the US, these are fee-paying and profit-oriented. The top-notch universities like Ivy League, Purdue and Stanford are richly endowed, have a formidable academic reputation and cherry-pick the best students to sustain that reputation. The less well known like Oikos cannot and live far more hand-to-mouth, competing with a half-dozen similar ‘universities’ just within Oakland itself. For cost reasons, it is located in an industrial area across the Nimitz Feeway (Interstate 880) from the Oakland Coliseum (where the Raiders play) in a standard industrial building. Forget tree-shaded lawns around dreaming spires; there is no campus recognisable as such—this is business.

And, while it may not charge the $20,000+ that Stanford would across the Bay, you ‘must’ carry at least 12 units per Semester (cost = $4,400 per year), plus:

  • Application Fee: $300.00 (Non-refundable)
  • Admission Fee: $100.00 (Non-refundable)
  • Registration fee: $100.00 / Semester
  • Student Fee: $100.00 / Semester
  • Graduation: $600.00

—which adds up to a hefty $5,200 minimum each year, plus all books, materials, equipment and living expenses, plus $600 at the end if you want a nice certificate to say what you did. And, because the US constitution bans religion from state education, these private universities are also the refuge for those who see religion as part of any proper education. Oikos is one such. In its Vision Statement, Youngkyo Choi, Chairman, Board of Directors declares:

“The vision of Oikos University is to educate emerging Christian leaders to transform and bless the world at every level – from the church and local community levels to the realm of world entire.”

There is no concrete evidence connecting this with Sun Yung Moon‘s Unification Church that became notorious in the seventies for brainwashing disciples. But Koreans do seem partial to a particularly muscular version of Christianity and Oikos offers a BA in Biblical Studies, as well as Nursing, Music and Asian Medicine ‘Schools’. Curiously enough, while the fees and course outlines are available on their website, the faculty members are not. Degrees from any school requires a minimum of 15 (out of 120) units must be ‘Bible and Theology requirements‘.

Whatever did motivate a student to attempt a massacre on his former classmates may eventually become clearer but any vision of an immature student in an Oxford-like environment should be suppressed and replaced by something as close to an industrial apprenticeship suffering severe financial (if not religious and psychological pressures) in a factory environment with the express and single-minded goal of attaining a certificate that will enable higher earnings. The idea of a broad education and convivial collegiate socialising that is the norm in Scottish universities is entirely alien in this case.

The lessons for us? Reasonable though the demands are from business to receive graduates who are literate, numerate and able to contribute from the off, we are in danger of sliding towards the Oikos ‘factory’ model if that is taken too far. In addition, the idea that religion has a role to play in education clearly had relevance in the Middle Ages when virtually every seat of learning had religious overtones. But, in the 21st century, such segregation—especially in the crime-rich pressure-cooker of a multi-ethnic, multi-faith community like Oakland— appears to have explosive overtones, especially when combined with such a soulless ‘factory’ approach to education.

We compromise the broad, secular, other-worldly nature of our universities at our peril.

Googlemaps Satellite View of Oikos (A) with SF Bay on left & Oakland Coliseum at Top

About davidsberry

Local councillor, tour guide and database designer. Keen on wildlife, history, boats and music. Stood for the Scottish Parliament 2011; lost by 151 votes.
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