Lack of Hands-On Experience Stifles Activism

CJ Blair, Contributing Writer

When I landed a job catching butterflies with the Forest Service, I didn’t expect to fall in love with toads. Yet as I worked all summer to restore a butterfly habitat in Michigan, I found myself looking for them under every rock and at the bases of trees during long days in the field. While this summer deepened my fascination with butterflies, the challenge of learning when and where to find toads was so engrossing that I couldn’t stop. I realized that catching toads forced me to reconcile my preconceived ideas with what I learned through practice, and that this type of thinking could be valuable to Oberlin students whose activism and ideals can stray out of touch with reality.

When I started my internship, I had little knowledge about frogs and toads. The limited Wi-Fi kept me from looking things up online, so most of what I learned about their habitat and behavior came from my own observations. When I did use the internet, I found that the information I got from the research was far less helpful than what I learned on my own.

Learning to catch toads was humbling because I knew so little when I started, but this also allowed me to better absorb the things I learned through practice. As much as colleges like Oberlin claim to promote critical thinking, students can be oddly opposed to this type of hands-on learning, as they enter thinking that they’re already knowledgeable about a variety of topics. While in many cases the students are well informed,

I’ve encountered a number of them who presume to fully understand the nuance in the issues they care about, which shuts them off to any chance for further discovery.

Oberlin students are cognizant of many social and environmental issues, but after two years here, I’ve started to realize that some of us have little beyond book smarts to substantiate our arguments. As a biologist, I see this as comparable to asking Quora where to find toads and expecting to be successful. While it’s possible that what you find will contain some truth, there’s little chance that you will fully understand an issue — or have luck catching toads — if your knowledge of the topic doesn’t include hands-on experience.

This lack of knowledge leads to many students who only perform

lip service to their causes and dismiss the fallacies in their arguments. Take, for example, the Bernie Sanders campaign. Oberlin students — myself included — were incredibly eager to throw support behind Sanders in the primary, but when he failed to clutch the nomination, claims of rigged voting systems and malicious party agendas flooded the Democratic Party. While there’s likely some truth to these claims, Sanders supporters completely ignored the weaknesses of Sanders’ campaign. Many Sanders supporters were willing to side with him ideologically, but ultimately very few were willing to do the gritty work of running an efficient campaign like the one that got President Obama elected in 2008.

Preparation plays an important role in advocating for justice, but it’s possible that we can’t prepare for

some of the most valuable learning. Just as I could never find a toad without looking for one, it’s hard to fight for a cause without understanding the difficulty of putting ideas into practice. This isn’t to say student activists should withdraw from their campaigns, but we could greatly benefit from considering the logistical roadblocks that can prevent us from implementing plans.

Seeing is not believing, but having the willingness to adapt your opinions when faced with reality will unveil what you’ve overlooked. In an unconventional way, catching toads showed me the importance of aligning my knowledge with hands-on experience to help me reach a goal. If other Oberlin students and I took this to heart, perhaps campus activism would be just as vibrant but maybe a little better informed.