Dr. Caldwell Esselstyn ’52, who was honored with the 2013 Heritage Award, spoke to students and faculty at School Meeting on October 2. The Heritage Award is presented annually to a Deerfield alumnus or alumna whose professional and personal achievements represent a special contribution to the betterment of society. The award honors someone who exemplifies Deerfield’s motto “Be Worthy of Your Heritage.”
Dr. Esselstyn has devoted his life to the promotion of health and service. He served as vice-president of his class at Deerfield, then rowed sixth seat at Yale, after which he won a Gold Medal in the 1956 Olympic Games in Australia. He was an army surgeon in Vietnam, where he was awarded the Bronze Star in 1968. He has been associated with the Cleveland Clinic since 1968 and now directs the cardiovascular prevention and reversal program at the Cleveland Clinic Wellness Institute.
During School Meeting, Dr. Esselstyn spoke about his research on the reversal of heart disease by maintaining a plant-based diet. He asserted that cardiovascular disease is a “food-borne illness,” one that can be halted by dramatic nutritional change. His bestselling book Prevent and Reverse Heart Disease (2007), based on his groundbreaking research, was hailed as one of the most important projects in health research in the past century. Although his controversial research has garnered both support and opposition, Dr. Esselstyn continues to promote a plant-based diet.
“He was a nice example of how you can pursue something you are passionate about despite what everyone else thinks, and you can make a successful career and life’s work out of it,” science teacher Dr. Ivory Hills said.
English teacher Joel Thomas-Adams, supported Dr. Esselstyn’s research, saying that in addition to the moral reasons for adopting a plant-based diet, it leads to improved health, greater fitness and fewer typical diseases that end lives in industrialized societies.
Other members of Deerfield had a different reaction.
“It made me think about the amount of oils I eat, but it’s not a perfect world,” Victoria Wetherby ’14 said. She commented on how she has watched family members who have struggled with heart disease and tried to find a balance. She said, “[A plant-based diet] doesn’t work for them.”
Sami Habel ’16 also commented, “It’s about balancing your diet. Yes, in an ideal world a plant-based diet would be better, but that isn’t a realistic goal for most people.”
This year, due to more interest in a plant-based diet, Deerfield has begun to follow Walter Willet’s “Healthy Eating Plate” program from Harvard’s School of Public Health and has increased the availability and variety of healthful items.
“The dining hall offers a variety of plant-based as well meat/poultry/ fish choices on a daily basis,” Michael McCarthy, Director of Food Services, said. “As we move forward with a greater national focus on nutrition and the long-term impact it has on health and well-being, the Deerfield Dining Hall will continue to evaluate its offerings and strive to be a leader in this arena.”
Mr. Thomas-Adams linked the Dining Hall’s efforts to a national change in eating habits. “Deerfield has recognized the science behind the shift to plant-based diets and chosen to honor the work of Dr. Esselstyn accordingly,” he said. “In a culture where even most otherwise-well-informed people continue to believe in dangerous food… it’s quite gratifying to see the facts beginning to prevail. Under Mr. McCarthy’s direction, the dining hall has become increasingly accommodating to vegans and vegetarians while linking the greater diversity of offerings to sustainability and health.”
Jackson commented, “In the Deerfield rulebook the following is written: ‘At Deerfield we value honesty above all.’ If Deerfield truly values honesty, why don’t we consider honesty outside of a disciplinary case?” Jackson raises the issue that by not adding any incentive the school is essentially condoning dishonesty and fostering a culture of lying.
Jackson continued, “Since the DC committee doesn’t consider honesty outside of a DC hearing, students believe that it is all right to lie and deceive prior to the hearing, because their punishment would be the same either way. There is something blatantly wrong with this policy. There should be some sort of incentive for kids to be honest and come forward.”
Jackson and Merison imply that honesty should be more fully promoted throughout school life, particularly before DC hearings. They also raise the concerns that students’ intentions may be susceptible to change. Jackson explained, “Deerfield students range from 14 to 19 years old. Most of us are still adolescents. Our decision-making skills are skills aren’t fully developed. With an incentive, the school can help students make the right decision and be honest.”
English teacher Michael Schloat feels that honesty should be expected without any need for stimulus. Mr. Schloat said, “Honesty in all matters should be a foundational expectation of all members of the Deerfield community, not an option someone may choose to help mitigate his or her punishment.”
Mr. Schloat expanded on his opinion by saying, “Consider this analogy: we don’t hand out ‘Citizenship Points’ to students who come to class on time or adhere to the dress code. Rather, we assign ‘Accountability Points’ to those who fail to meet this expectation. The reward for those who meet expectations is a sense of mutual respect and shared ownership of the common enterprise of our academic pursuits together.”
Tyler O’Neill ’14, a senior on the Disciplinary Committee, agreed with Jackson and Merison but also maintained the concern that honesty not be incentivized, but rather be an expectation. O’Neill stated, “I believe that a student’s honesty, leading up to the hearing, should be portrayed in the punishment. At the same time, the motive of coming forward should not be to receive a lesser punishment, but because it is morally right. I would like to see variability in the punishments of DCs with a lesser punishment given to students who come forward and are honest from the beginning.”