A lecture at Scripps by actor and author Ben Stein Feb. 9 ended in a heated interaction about public education between Stein and a student.
Stein, who played the boring history teacher in the movie Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, spoke as part of Scripps’s sixth annual Elizabeth Hubert Mallott Public Affairs Program. Stein’s talk, entitled “Dark Days in America—How to Get to Daybreak,” covered problems facing the United States today, including the recession, problems with public education and the importance of a spiritual focus for a centered and productive life.
During the question-and-answer portion of the event, Olivia Buntaine SC ’14 questioned Stein about his stance on education. Stein responded by identifying students’ lack of motivation as the number one problem in an American classroom.
Buntaine asked if Stein had visited a classroom at a low-achieving school, and Stein responded by saying he was not interested in getting into that “crap.”
He apologized for his reaction later in the question-and-answer period, but defended his position on education and said that whether or not he had visited a classroom should not affect the value of his opinion.
Buntaine was disappointed by his talk and disconcerted by Stein’s response.
“His speech started as just unchecked privilege, but when it turned into what felt like more pointed generalizations and racism, what was at first funny started to make me pretty angry,” she said. “I thought his response to my question was incredibly inappropriate, and his later apology prompted me to leave the auditorium. I felt like he shut me down with a weird power play in front of a bunch of people when I wasn’t asking an inherently offensive or threatening question.”
Nikki Broderick SC ‘14 attended a private dinner hosted with Stein as well as his lecture.
“I’m all for challenging speaker’s opinions with a respectful tone, but I’m not sure how easy it is to persuade someone like Ben Stein who’s so firmly rooted in his beliefs [to change his mind],” she said.
Willa Oddleifson SC ‘13 said that Stein should have admitted that he was not qualified to speak to education reform rather than try to address Buntaine’s question.
“Mr. Stein seemed very intelligent and thoughtful on economic matters,” she said. “But when it came to his discussions of education reform he was not as comfortable and yet still strongly voiced his opinion with no room for debate.”
The community response to Stein’s talk was mixed. Some expressed frustration over his conservative viewpoints and others wished that he had spent more time addressing the political world today.
“Ben Stein’s talk had no substance,” Maddy Ruvolo SC ’14 said. “He made economist jokes for 15 minutes, name-dropped like crazy and then refused to engage with students who found the idea that the education crisis in this country has everything to do with a lack of motivation and not poverty problematic.”
Broderick was unsatisfied by his analysis of current affairs.
“I was a little bit disappointed that he didn’t focus more on the current political and economic climate and instead told personal anecdotes,” she said. “His stories were funny but since he has worked for the White House and has extensive economic experience it would have been more interesting to hear his perspective on current unemployment or even some of the 2012 Republican candidates.”
The Public Affairs Program in honor of Elizabeth Hubert Mallott brings conservative figures to campus annually, providing the college community with perspectives rarely heard on campus. It is meant to stimulate debate and discussion among students, especially because the Claremont Colleges are known for their mostly liberal campuses.
Previous speakers include David Brooks and Newt Gingrich. Stein was a particularly notable speaker because he was the first student-elected lecturer in the program’s six-year history.