Since its founding in 1797, Deerfield Academy has undergone a variety of changes. Some obvious shifts that have affected the Academy include the switch to co-education and the renovation of campus buildings, such as the Koch Center and the Hess Center.
However, Deerfield has also experienced more subtle changes, such as a diversified student body, an increased use of technology, and a rise in specialization.
Firstly, a larger pool of applicants over the years has resulted in a diversified student body.
Philosophy and religion teacher Mr. Michael O’Donnell said, “The student body is more diverse in an authentic way.”
For example, the student body has become more well-rounded over the years.
“School spirit in the past was driven a lot by athletics, so it was cheering, competing, and winning [that mattered],” explained science teacher Mr. Andrew Harcourt. However, now, with a larger variety of students being accepted, Mr. Harcourt noted that the theatre and arts branches of the school have developed into much more prominent aspects of Deerfield life.
However, some wonder if the growth and diversification of the community has also meant a loss of cohesion between students and faculty.
In the old days, “most of the rules and decisions were set by the faculty,” English teacher Mr. Joel Thomas-Adams explained. “Part of that is because the students knew the faculty and the faculty knew the students.” In previous decades, as Mr. Thomas-Adams pointed out, administrators would be selected from faculty members who would later resume their positions as teachers, so their primary roles were as educators closely in touch with the student body.
However, Mr. Thomas-Adams believes that today, faculty members look more towards “the direction of parents and trustees” rather than towards students to guide their decisions. In turn, “the faculty as a body of power, as the core of this school, have been pretty marginalized.”
Interactions between faculty members and students are not all that have changed. Students’ mindsets have also dramatically shifted, which is largely due to the increase in specialization in recent years.
Mr. Harcourt explained that this trend towards specialization in sports, arts, or academics “is definitely a change from the well-rounded, broad-based liberal arts standard that we used to have.”
Previously, tri-varsity athletes were quite common, whereas nowadays they are much more rare. Now, students more frequently get sports exemptions during off-seasons.
History teacher Ms. Mary-Ellen Friends added, “In the past, I used to see more kids ‘kicking it around’ on the weekends, while now I see them with tutors, and not having as much fun. Now [they are] getting out for rink time, whereas before they’d be playing wall ball.”
Many believe this intensity has increased due to college pressures.
“I think nowadays the stakes are so high and there’s a concern that your particular child may not be able to cut [it],” said Mr. O’Donnell. “Therefore, there’s less and less risk taking, and more ‘I’m going to have a private coach for my kid, a Skype tutor, and an outside consultant for college advising.’”
Like students, teachers too have become more specific in their areas of focus.
“We get a lot of faculty now who are specialists, so that sense of [a] ‘triple-hitter’ (a dorm resident, teacher, and coach) is not the definition of a prep school teacher anymore,” said Mr. Silipo. “I always felt that this, though, was a core reason why people wanted to be at these places. Whether as a teacher or as a student, you wanted the total package.”
Many say that, as a result of specialization, the stress levels of students and their families regarding college have grown and continue to grow with every incoming class.
“Sometimes the kids who come in are a little more intense [in their respective areas of focus],” said Mr. O’Donnell, “so that is definitely something that has changed over time.”
Another shift that has impacted the campus environment is the increased use of technology.
“In teaching science having technology is fantastic,” remarked Mr. Harcourt. “In terms of bringing people together, however, it doesn’t work as well.”
Mr. Harcourt articulated that one of the main problems Deerfield faces is the overuse of the cell phone, which he believes can hinder students’ ability to grow and mature as independent individuals.
In the past, there was only one phone on each dorm hall, “so there wasn’t that sense of talking to your mom once or twice a day, or texting in general,” described Ms. Friends. “This sometimes discourages students from the hard task of working with their teachers and encourages them to go to their parents first.”
Although she believes the phone can keep students from becoming more self-reliant, Ms. Friends also sees how it has provided them with an easily accessible support system.
“I think in some ways it has been very positive in the sense that if a student has hit some difficulty, it’s pretty easy to get a team of people together, including parents, to help,” she said. At the same time, she mentioned that this connectivity threatens the entire premise of a boarding school, where isolated students in a close community can consider the wider world from afar.
“This generation has been raised inside the technology and is almost incapacitated from the ability to think critically about it,” stated Mr. Thomas-Adams. He mentioned that, while “places like [Deerfield] could provide that experience for them,” students may be too connected to the world to consider it critically.
Nonetheless, Deerfield has kept some aspects almost exactly the same throughout the years, such as maintaining the focus on dorm life on campus and preserving traditions such as sit-down meals.
However, as Mr. Silipo put it, “these places, as old fashioned as one might say they are, are still quite dynamic.”
Over the years, Deerfield has readily adapted to change, embracing the reality of a modernizing world. For better or for worse, it will likely continue to do so in years to come.