Monday, October 6, 2008

We Were Never Nightmare Hooligans, But Seekers of the Blond Nose for Truth

Ben Jones asked the trustees of Oberlin to write about their fearlessness for the launch of the new site. I hesitatingly agreed but have regretted it ever since. My main problem with this task is that, as fearless Obies go, I am certainly not one of them. I have not overcome some insurmountable barrier, defied a social institution or stood up for a cause that no one else has dared to stand up for. I can tell you about the fearless people with whom I surrounded myself while at Oberlin, like Nivan, who boldly bounds boulders and now teaches 2nd grade in North Carolina, or Krista, who is serving as a Peace Corps volunteer in Togo, or David, who moved to a small city without a single friend around, 3000 miles away from his family, to commit himself to his passion for photography. There are many of that fearless breed of Obies running around the world, fearlessly and passionately pursuing noble causes and/or their ultimate truths. Then there are the rest of us. Like this other breed of Obies, for whom "fearless" has caused a personal self-doubt and overwhelming apprehension, the debut of this aggressive neon branding deeming Oberlin as a training ground for fearless leaders has left me asking a question I never imagined I'd ask: do I deserve to be an Obie?

As psychologically disturbing as this question might be (now that it's after-the-fact, and I've been granted a diploma and even a spot on the board of trustees), I'm going to write about it anyway, for two reasons: 1) because I am not afraid to (fearless?) and 2) because, like every other Obie, I believe I have something meaningful to say. In this case, my meaningful contribution will be to let you know that you do not need to ask yourself this question because Ben Jones, in requesting that I do this exercise, has convinced me that all Obies have a fearlessness within them, no matter how latent this trait may seem when our peers and classmates, youthful and bold, are speeding swiftly ahead of us to change the world before we even get there. Here goes.

On a recent visit to Oberlin (the same visit on which Ben Jones inflicted this time-consuming thought process on me), I climbed the stairs to the 3rd floor of Rice and saw familiar faces nose-deep in Kierkegaard. To no surprise of mine, David Kamitsuka, a professor of religion, sat in brow-furrowed conversation with three students who were impressively awake and engaged for the Saturday morning hour. This is not a sight seen often at my current academic institution. It is this very moment of engagement that defines Oberlin and, by power of association, makes all those involved fearless whether they know it or not.

Education is the most powerful mechanism of our society, and as Obies we have made a commitment to educating ourselves. This is the most fearless act that we have engaged in collectively. By joining a small academic community, each of us as individuals has affirmed that there is knowledge out there to be gained and we do not yet possess it. Each of us has committed to taking whatever risks are necessary to gain even just a piece of this knowledge. We will sacrifice time and money, the proximity of family and friends, the comforting reality of ignorance as bliss, and we will put our worldview (literally, the way we know and organize the world; this is no small concept) on the line and open our minds wide open. This all for the sake of learning, an eight-letter word that encompasses that unencompassable, insurmountable task of knowledge acquisition.

Then, after saying "yes" to this petrifying sacrifice of all things we think we know for certain, we enter a constant flurry of discourse that is uncontainable. It finds us in our dorm rooms, in the hallways of King or the Science Center, even in the cities we inhabit after we leave Oberlin--it asks us questions, finds a way to make itself applicable to our daily actions, and hardly ever leaves us alone.

Every Oberlin student knows that head-in-hands moment, when you cannot hide from that sinking, awful, anxious feeling of reaching and reaching and reaching for the answer that you painfully know might not even be there. Every alum, whether or not they can tie it to a particular paper or course or year in school, remembers the gut-wrenching, exhilarating (in retrospect) sensation of not quite getting the point. This is something each of us willingly subjects ourselves to. Reflecting on it now, can you believe it?

If allowing oneself to get to this point of utter submission to the universe of knowledge isn't fearless, then I don't know what is. Every individual who has made that affirmation, who has said "yes" to questioning what we know and seeking to know more, is deserving of every positive trait associated with being an Obie. No matter where you are now or where you end up, your Oberlin experience is a part of you wholly and deeply. Obies don't just change the world--they constantly grasp for the absolute ends of it, bravely, entrepreneurially, infinitely, and fearlessly.

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Careful, This is About Vouchers

I attended a private Episcopal school where the student body was about 65% Jewish. What were they all doing there? Were there no decent Jewish schools around? Was this school better than the secular schools in the area? Is it possible that some parents figured that some value-based or faith-based education was better for their children than whatever the state or some other private entity deemed most critical for an "educated citizenry"?

Surprisingly, these are the kinds of questions people ask when they talk about voucher programs. The legal precedent allowing states to establish or ban voucher programs stems from average citizens filing suit against the administrators of voucher programs and other incentive programs with the argument that these programs unconstitutionally provide extensive and exclusive benefits to religious schools (see Lemon v. Kurtzman, Agostini v. Felton, Mueller v. Allen, Zelman v. Simmons Harris). As a result, the difference between having a problem with government endorsement or facilitation of religious schooling and having a problem with the government enabling a pervasive opt-out of public schooling is frequently blurred. Which is the issue that the American populace really cares about? As a nation, which are we more afraid of: the domination of religious education or the continued decay of public education?

I think the most alarming issue here is that no one's vocalizing the distinction between these two concerns. Secondly, even when we do parse out the issues, we're focusing on the wrong one. The fact is, if a religious school is the best school around, many parents will opt for it regardless of religious affiliation. The religious school isn't forcing these children into religious education; the parents are weighing their options and deciding what they think is "best" for their children. If these parents have a problem with the religious component of the school, they'll teach their children something different at home; the overall gain of the education the children will receive is greater than the losses associated with this particular curricular or social component. On the other hand, if a religious school is the "best" school in an area and enough parents think that religious education is not the way to go, then why isn't there increased demand in these areas for "separate but equal" educational accommodations in the secular sphere? Why are the cases and battles about benefits to religious schools when they should really be about turning those funds into creating a competitive public schooling system that rivals the private school product?