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Political Speakers Polarize DA
Sarah Jane O'Connor '18 Associate Editor
November 16, 2016
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Throughout the fall term, one event has occupied the minds of Deerfield students and faculty alike: the 2016 election. In the buildup to this election, five speakers visiting the Academy directly addressed the current presidential election: poet Martin Espada, filmmaker Ken Burns, and an election panel comprised of three political experts.

As DA experiences polarization like that of the U.S. as a whole, many students feel that the political tones of these speakers call into question the role of DA’s administration in addressing politics.

Martin Espada is a Latino poet and English professor from Amherst, MA. Espada’s poetry addresses current issues in the U.S. such as mass shootings, police brutality against people of color, and immigration in his poetry. Though Espada’s poetry reading contained politicized content, including a comparison of Donald Trump to a cockroach, the administration did not have a political agenda when bringing Espada to DA. Jan Flaska, a leader of the Academy Events Committee, explained, “Martin Espada was local, so one of our [English] teachers asked to bring him in.”

Ken Burns, a critically acclaimed documentary filmmaker, showed clips from  his films on U.S. history and explained historical precedents for this election. However, many students were uncomfortable when during his visit, Burns  drew comparisons between Donald Trump and Adolf Hitler.        

After Burns’s presentation, conservative students felt as if there was not equal representation from both liberal and conservative perspectives. Mary Mack Brown ’18 questioned the actions of the administration, stating, “I think that it is completely acceptable to bring people with strong viewpoints; however… there must be equal representation.”

Mr. Flaska hoped to mitigate students’ concerns, stating: “[Ken Burns] has been coming to campus for many years and not speaking about presidential candidates… I think right now he feels as if he has some sort of obligation to speak up for things in which he believes… there was no intent to have certain views on campus.”

On October 26th, an election panel answered questions submitted by students about the election. The panel, organized by Head of School Dr. Margarita Curtis and History Department Chair Ms. Julia Rivellino-Lyons, featured Nancy Dwight, a long-time Republican strategist and the first woman to run a major party committee; Orin Kramer ’63, who served as Associate Director of White House Domestic Policy Staff in the Carter Administration and earned several appointments during Bill Clinton’s presidency; and Vinson Cunningham, a writer for the New Yorker who worked in the White House Office of Presidential Personnel and as Director of the African American Leadership Council within the DNC.

Although the panel represented the interests of both Democrats and Republicans, no panelist was in support of Donald Trump. The administration claimed that they tried to find a panelist who supported Trump, but were unsuccessful. However, Brown believes that the school should have made a greater effort to find a Trump supporter so that the student body could hear that perspective.

Students such as Nora Markey ’18 appreciated the panel. “The people they brought in were very informed, and instead of attacking the other’s political views, they stayed true to the policies from their own factions and explained them well. In the midst of an election based on personal attacks, it’s vital to be informed about the actual policies each candidate and party stands for,” she said.

Mr. Flaska hopes that the community can continue a productive dialogue about these issues in the weeks following the election.

He said, “I don’t know why political leanings of people becomes a thing you can’t ask. We talk about much more meaningful and deep moments in adolescents lives…You can’t ask someone who they’re voting for for president but you can be very candid about gender, race, and ethnicity, and these things… are much more personal than this one fleeting alliance.”