Will Bunch’s book After the Ivory Tower Falls, which explores how American Colleges have inflamed economic and political differences, was released this past August. The first chapter details the author’s insights from a week of observing Kenyon and its surrounding community. Bunch describes Kenyon’s conflicting presence as a liberal college in a blue-collar town. Perhaps the people who best understand this dichotomy are the Knox County natives who attend Kenyon.
The Collegian spoke with two current students from Knox County who shared their perceptions, how they ended up studying at Kenyon and their vision for the College’s relationship with Knox County. Jordan Schisler ’25 is an environmental studies major who was born and raised in Mount Vernon. Jackson Paul Oberhauser ’24 is a studio art major who has also lived in Knox County his whole life, initially in the nearby town of Martinsburg and later in Gambier.
“I always knew what Kenyon was. But up until my sophomore year of high school, it didn’t have any meaning. In my mind, it was just like another university,” Schisler said. Despite their proximity to the campus, neither interacted with the College much or at all growing up. “It’s interesting because we did a tour of Mount Vernon Nazarene University, we never did a tour of Kenyon,” Oberhauser said. Only one distinct memory of Kenyon stuck with him: “We were driving through Kenyon and my mom goes, ‘Wow, this is such a beautiful place,’ and my dad goes, ‘Yeah, pretty liberal.’”
That comment resonated with Oberhauser because he became aware of the political and cultural differences between Knox natives and Kenyon students. He now sees the divide directly as he navigates between his hometown and campus. “I think so much of how you interact with the world, and how you dress and move and exist, is formed by your high school,” Oberhauser said. He can easily distinguish between his hometown residents and Kenyonites because of this. Schisler mentioned that she could notice the urban upbringing of many Kenyon residents. “Kenyon students are unaware of what life is like in an agricultural Midwest town,” she said. “And people from Knox County, I think, are largely unaware of what life on mostly the coasts and life in larger cities is like.”
This natural friction that exists because of our cultural differences makes some East Knox residents feel uneasy, especially in such a polarized time in our nation’s history, according to Oberhauser. “There are a lot of people in Knox County who fear that people from places like California or New York who are very liberal are going to start spilling over into their communities,” he said. “Changing what they are able to do, what they’re able to own, what they’re able to eat and drive. And that’s a genuine fear.”
Despite the different cultures that Schisler and Oberhauser were raised in, they decided to stay close to home while entering a new world and attending Kenyon. “I learned about what Kenyon was through outreach programs like hiring local high school students,” said Schisler. She worked with Joan Slonczewski, professor of biology, as a research and lab assistant in high school and got to know the natural sciences division at Kenyon through middle school field trips. She also got to know faculty and some students in the lab, and in the process, grew fond of the community.
Oberhauser’s interest first peaked when his sister enrolled in 2016. Through her, he got a peek into life on the Hill and liked what he saw. Oberhauser thinks the best way to learn about an institution is to know people who have attended. Familiarity opens people up to colleges, and he wishes he could see more interest in Kenyon back in East Knox schools, as staying within the county is important to his hometown peers. “What’s actually going to get people to go here is meeting someone in their hometown, who’s like, ‘Yeah, I went to Kenyon and now I’m a doctor or an architect and I was able to stay within Knox County.’”
Schisler and Oberhauser are aware they are jumping between the contrasting cultures of their hometown and campus, weaving between the divide Bunch chronicled during his stay here. Nevertheless, Schisler is confident that Kenyon and Knox County’s relationship can grow and thrive. “I think how we bridge the divide is these education programs, like getting out there and seeing each other,” Schisler said. “I think that when I engaged in discussion, I engaged with what Kenyon offered. That’s when I learned what Kenyon was actually all about, and my perceptions were gone.”