Freedom of speech at Deerfield has been a controversial topic since I arrived here in 2012. Stories of teachers and students criticizing my peers for speaking their minds have become commonplace. However, I didn’t realize the extent to which some members of the Deerfield community restrict speech until this fall.
In the previous issue of The Scroll, I shared some of my observations on the negative effects of the Freshmen Village with Ballard Brown, so that he could include them in his “anti-village” article. Considering that the paper also published a “pro-village” article, I thought it was important to point out that, while The Village has been successful in many ways, there are aspects of it that can be improved.
After the article was published, all hell broke loose. Faculty members and students alike told me that I was close-minded and was not trying to see the positives of the Village. People told Ballard that he clearly didn’t understand Deerfield culture. No one asked to have a conversation with Ballard or me about why we feel the way we do. No one who spoke to us tried to understand our opinions. We wanted to shed light on areas of weakness with the hope of improving our school and home; in response, we found disrespect.
My frustration with the response from the community did not come from people disagreeing with me. I would have been glad to elaborate on my experiences that led to my opinions about The Village or to hear about others’ experiences, both those similar to and different from mine. Unfortunately, my experience following the article’s appearance in The Scroll led me to conclude that Deerfield can be a stifling place when it comes to freedom of expression.
In my four years here, I’ve found that there are a few people who are very vocal about their opinions. I respect that. At the same time, I’ve found that many of these people are also so set in their ways that they aren’t willing to listen to opposing views. If they do, they condemn the other person for disagreeing and disregard his or her opinion. This attitude leads community members who aren’t as confident about their beliefs to fear expression, stripping them of opportunities to develop their opinions and practice thoughtful conversation and debate.
I’ve personally experienced a peer attacking me when I tried to discuss the presidential candidates at a sit-down meal. A teacher with apparently liberal political views told a friend that she should stop watching a more conservative news source she referenced in a class discussion. My opinions about Deerfield life have been met with insolence from members of the administration.
I am not upset that people disagree with my beliefs. I think we learn most from those whose beliefs are different from our own. I am troubled that our value statement calls for “respect, honesty, and concern for others,” yet often we do not respect each other’s beliefs. We owe it to each other to listen to others’ opinions, ask clarifying questions about why someone believes what he or she does, and then offer one’s own opinion without regarding the other as invalid. This kind of disagreement promotes open-mindedness. It allows us to see the other side of an argument and question our own beliefs without feeling disrespected.
I am concerned about the effect Deerfield’s culture of silence will have on students once they graduate. Deerfield is home to some of the brightest young minds in the world. In the classroom, on the field, on the stage, and in the studio, we excel. Yet too many of us are either disrespectful or afraid and unprepared when it comes to discussing topics like the presidential elections, ISIS, and climate change. I have no doubt that we are intelligent young people who are capable of solving many of the issues gracing the headlines today. But in addition to equipping us with the academic tools we need to face these issues, Deerfield should teach us to stay well informed and develop and express opinions with confidence, respect, and open-mindedness.
We owe it to each other to accept diversity of thought and to understand that people will still disagree with us, even when we share our side of an argument. We constantly contemplate how we can break the notorious “Deerfield bubble.” When we create an environment where people feel safe speaking freely about their opinions, the bubble will pop.