Balk: Northwestern’s search for who we are


Tim Balk, Opinion Editor

It seems like Simon & Garfunkel’s “America” is having a moment.

Presidential candidate Bernie Sanders used the quasi-protest classic from 1968 in the 60-second commercial he released last week for the upcoming Iowa caucus.

And over the summer, The New Yorker published a wonderful satirical analysis of the song’s lyrics as Donald Trump would read them, written by John Kenney.

I looked at the scenery for maybe ten seconds. What kind of loser looks at scenery? I have no time to look at scenery. I own the scenery, O.K.?” Kenney wrote in Trump speak. It was awesome.

When Art Garfunkel was asked on CNN whether the song’s message was concordant with Sanders’ campaign platform, Garfunkel responded “I don’t know if there’s a specific thing, except we’ve come to look for the country and we don’t really know who we are … how do we fuse and become a United States of America?”

That is perhaps in part the role of political elections: to make some sort of statement on what America represents at a given moment. But America is much more than any politician or election cycle or political party.

America is the triumph of liberty and the latent legacy of discrimination and slavery. It’s a “Greyhound in Pittsburgh” and a basketball court in Saginaw, Michigan. It’s Donald Trump, and it’s Bernie Sanders. Even if their supporters might seemingly live on different planets, they are nonetheless all part of the American constellation.

America runs 2,680 miles horizontally and 1,582 vertically, and encompasses endless ideals, millions of people and a wide range of geographies and biographies.

Northwestern is not located in the northwestern sector of the country, but it is, culturally, on the nation’s edge. Younger, more liberal and better educated than the rest of the country, its student body occupies its own niche within the broader American tapestry.

But it should be noted that the same principles that apply to America apply to our school.

NU is not a monolith, and its student culture can’t be singularly pigeonholed. What NU is, however, is an Under Armour-attired athlete, a beer-guzzling frat boy and a thoughtful SESP radical.

NU is North Campus and South Campus. It’s off-campus too, and all those dingy apartments on and around Ridge. It’s a Big Ten school and a journalism school. At times it is a progressive faux utopia, and at others a forbiddingly unsympathetic neoliberal environment.

Like America, NU is imperfect.

It’s the sunny days of Fall Quarter and, well, it’s also the stone-sky days of Winter Quarter.

It took me some time as a freshman to accept that. For all the glitzy tours, inspiring info sessions and snazzy packets handed out by the admissions department, NU is hardly paradisiacal. It has crummy dorms, boring professors and a nasty addiction to construction.

More than that, it has a student body that is diverse and dynamic, but also not unified in its personality. As a result of this, NU can feel, at times, strikingly disjointed. The North-South campus and on-off campus divides do not stem merely from the imaginations of NU students.

No matter, I’ve come to look for NU and found it, and I think that NU’s cultural multiplicity should be embraced, not bemoaned.

NU is great because it is not just one dorm, one student or one class. It is the shared experience of thousands of students.

As for the search for America? Well, Donald Trump’s America is in fact an unmistakable piece of the nation. But America is more than that. I think in 2016 we’ll find that America is, at long last, a woman in the White House, not a billionaire cartoon goon.

Tim Balk is a Medill sophomore. He can be contacted at[email protected]. If you would like to respond publicly to this column, send a Letter to the Editor to [email protected]The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of all staff members of The Daily Northwestern.