Just a few days ago, The Daily Show with Jon Stewart aired its last episode after 16 years and 2,623 shows. As a result, I haven’t stopped thinking about the show and the man fronting it, and particularly why I and so many others admire him so much that all we could do was weep and mourn and bow and preach in unison, hoping that collective praise would render him and his creation immortal. The reasons are various, but I concluded that The Daily Show and Jon Stewart, like other media voices in my life, essentially served as a high school english class for my adult life. Let me explain:
After having graduated this past spring, I’ve been reflecting on the lasting effects of all those years of education. Between all the obvious major moments and special random moments, the most frequent education-related memory that I think about is my time in high school english classes. High school english is where we Millennial children learned how to analyze media as a whole, albeit primarily through classic novels. At the time, analyzing novels and writing long-form essays seemed outdated and almost unnecessary, but the lessons proved to be relevant. We were forced to investigate, dissect, communicate, discuss, and persuade in the name of poetry and literature. While I attended a privileged high school with generally great teachers in every subject, English was the one class where we were constantly forced to challenge the teacher against his or her own words. Likewise, many would agree that Jon Stewart constantly challenged his audiences to prove him wrong; but like a teacher, he earned the podium by taking ownership of the rhetoric and outsmarting the others. Those moments were either epiphanies or obligated noise to his listeners, depending on what type of students they were.
At a gut level, english class complimented daily life like applied therapy. The themes discussed in class almost always related to my own painful and confused teenage life. This idea is what makes Dead Poets Society an impactful film, along with Robin Williams as John Keating, the english professor who imparts life advice and profound change on his students through poetry. I always thought english teachers were geniuses for so easily relating to their students - but then again it also felt like they knew more about us than we wanted them to. My AP British Literature teacher introduced many of us to NPR’s This American Life, which I will forever appreciate. One of my best friends will start teaching high school english soon, so I tried to convince her to one day integrate Daily Show clips into argumentation lessons. My most memorable english and writing classes were upheld by great english teachers, who accordingly seem to be celebrated most often in comparison to teachers of other subjects. Consider Mr. Mooney, an english teacher who integrated Kendrick Lamar songs into his lessons and ultimately inspired the musician to spend a day with the school.
The fact is that I was never a great English student. I rarely participated in discussion, was scatterbrained when it came to effective argumentation, and wrote average AP essays (though I passed the exam). Truthfully, not much has changed. I only learned how to analyze media effectively when I became seriously interested in filmmaking and film theory. The closest I ever took to a college english class was Introduction to Playwriting, which allowed me to echo familiar sentiments of comfort and escape in the middle of a tedious school day. But the movies I prefer are the ones with one-of-a-kind scripts; the music I love the most is the kind with complex strings of words; and the lyricists I idolize are former students of literature. The best friends that I have are the ones who can converse intellectually for hours and whose lives are greatly defined by words or arguments or storytelling. Even as an accounting student in undergraduate, I gravitated towards word-heavy subdisciplines because I knew words were the endpoint. The business school implemented memo writing standards, much to the chagrin of fellow students. Proponents of the humanities knew that their disciplines especially used high school english as a foundation for analysis and dissertation. The fact is that high school english laid the groundwork for both a life of media consumption and a life of meaning.
A film professor once mentioned that she believed schools should be required to teach empathy. I agree. I think that employing characters, stories, and related media in the classroom can contribute positively to that learned empathy. Jon Stewart was praised for his character, for his sharpness as much as his empathy. He and The Daily Show entertained millions of people on a soapbox. Stewart grew to become an unexpected voice of comfort and the gateway informer for a growing generation of blurry-eyed media consumers. People viewed him as either a moral icon or a radical propagandist, but the agreement between those two labels was that he and his team understood people, media, and the relationship between the two.
For those reasons, Mr. Stewart was my favorite English teacher; or really, just one of my heroes.