Oberlin Blogs

Hitting the Nail on the Head

January 16, 2011

Prof. Steve Volk

Long a fan of "The Daily Show," fully accustomed to receiving my news late at night, four days a week, and deep fried in irony, I had been tuning in with anticipation to see how Stewart would handle the Arizona rampage. Humor, after all, doesn't mix well with gunfire. I wasn't disappointed as his first show after the shootings featured a fully improvised and very serious reflection on the events of the previous Saturday. In the days after, he regained his normal comedic balance. By Thursday (Jan. 13), he noted that, five days after the shootings, commentators across the spectrum were roundly praising President Obama's speech in Tucson delivered the night before. The President, Stewart observed, was America's mourner-in-chief and inspirer-in-chief. Pundits from across the political spectrum, he asserted, could agree on the power of Obama's words...for at least 2-3 minutes. Then he rolled his trademark commentarista mashup, with each talking head singing Obama's praises until it was cut short by the discordant clip from Fox News' Michelle Malkin which insinuated, "But you have to question the timing of his speech." At that point, Stewart cut in: "No, you don't; you don't [pause for emphasis] have to question the timing. You're not a primitive nematode... You [Malkin] have a choice. You went to Oberlin." Boom!

I always enjoy hearing Oberlin mentioned in the news, even the fake news, but I was particularly pleased with this Daily Show moment. There, in eight words, Stewart summed up what we, as teachers, hope to accomplish: You went to Oberlin; you can think your way through complicated (or, for that matter, not so complicated) issues, and, because of that, you have choices. You don't have to accept as gospel truth what the pundits say without inviting your brain to the table; you don't have to automatically end up where your persuasions would normally carry you; you don't have to follow whatever crowd you run with. You have a choice in this matter because you have been a part of an educational process that has given you the wherewithal to think things through. Maybe we should reflect on those who have not been so fortunate - or those, like Malkin, who seemingly reject an education designed to highlight context and ambiguity and rather assert that there is only one right answer for every question posed...and they know that answer. But for now I'm more interested in design concepts. How do we make Stewart's takedown our new motto: You Have a Choice. You Went to Oberlin.

Responses to this Entry

I love The Daily Show! I was extremely impressed with his monologue on Monday. I think Stewart has a fairly unique role in our society and he fills it perfectly. What he said needed to be said--and, while he added that it probably "helped me more than it helped you," I would question that. I think there's a lot to be said for hearing someone say what you're thinking, hearing someone not only upset but also frustrated. The mainstream news channels tend to go from "this is a terrible tragedy" to "it would be wrong to discuss political implications" to discussing political implications very quickly indeed, and Stewart's got a platform to call them on it.

Design ideas for "Oberlin: You Have a Choice" flyers: ExCo course lists, major lists, pictures of E-system bathroom signs, albino squirrels, co-ops.

Posted by: Tess on January 16, 2011 5:21 PM

Shucks, I didn't go to Oberlin, and I flatter myself that I can "think through complicated issues" too. In fact, I know many people who were unable, for various reasons, to attend any college at all, and are capable of exercising the greatest subtleties of thought, reasoning, and judgment.

Perhaps people "have a choice in this matter" not only in cases where they "have been a part of an educational process that has given [them] the wherewithal to think things through," but because of their humility and willingness to grow and change.

"Maybe we should reflect on those who have not been so fortunate" to understand that formal education has severe limitations. It may, for example, lead to a certain smugness and sense of superiority.

All this aside, I think Jon Stewart is brilliant.

He attended William and Mary.

Posted by: Anonymous on January 16, 2011 10:21 PM

Anonymous, I'm not sure that's what Prof. Volk meant, and I'm almost positive that he didn't mean to say people who did not go to Oberlin are incapable of thinking through complicated issues.

As an Oberlin alum myself, though, I do know that the college and all the fantastic professors there do an amazing job teaching and reenforcing the kind of critical thinking skills that Prof. Volk is espousing here. (And I agree that it is terribly disheartening to see an alumna like Michelle Malkin apparently deserting those lessons in favor of sensational and inaccurate talking points.)

Plus I think we can all agree that "You have a choice. You went to Oberlin" is a much better motto than "Fearless"

Posted by: Ellen on January 16, 2011 10:59 PM

I would be pleased to see a "You have a choice. You went to Oberlin." shirt for new graduates. I know I would be first in line for one.

Posted by: Ma'ayan on January 18, 2011 11:20 AM

As a parent who has one kid attending William & Mary and another attending Oberlin, I have noticed again and again how each school encourages and challenges their students to think deeply, look for innovative connections, and strive to create new perspectives in both their education and real-world situations.

Although the political profiles of the two colleges are quite different, I am so thrilled that both my kids are benefiting from an environment that perceives critical thinking as the norm. Jon Stewart demonstrated this by his astute comment.

Posted by: Proud Parent on January 18, 2011 12:05 PM

William and Mary is a great school, and as far as I know, not unlike Oberlin. (Small, liberal arts, just happens to be a public school and a somewhat different political climate.)

The point isn't that everyone who didn't go to Oberlin can't think through complicated issues, it's that if you *did* go to Oberlin you have no excuse for not doing so.

Well said, Professor Volk. I agree with Ma'ayan, I'd be in line for one of those shirts.

Posted by: Hillary on January 20, 2011 4:40 PM

Thanks, Ellen, Proud Parent and Hillary - you got my meaning exactly; no smugness intended.

Posted by: Steve on January 20, 2011 5:05 PM

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