With campus-wide Internet access and the ubiquity of technology, students have unprecedented access to news. In the midst of a controversial political era and intensifying primary races, this twenty-four-hour news cycle has increasingly fueled both political discourse and ruptures among the students and faculty.
Such discussions are prevalent between students. “I’ve always heard of political conversations happening at dinner. Students bring up some ideas in conversation, and they are discussed respectfully,” Young Democrats Vice President Harry Niles ’21 said.
The Young Democrats and Young Republicans have joint meetings that facilitate across-the-aisle dialogue. Niles continued, “In club meetings also, both the Young Democrats and Young Republicans do a lot of free speaking about political issues. Our groups provide a safe space for like-minded people.”
He added, “We don’t want all the democrats to join the Young Democrats and the Republicans to join the Young Republicans, and for there to be this separation between the two. We want students to together learn about what is happening in the impeachment process, the primaries, and the news in general.”
Yet, political disjunction exists within the student body. Dylan Bane ’20 said, “Boys, who generally lean more conservative, let their opinions fly with their friends, especially in the dorm. Girls generally lean more to the left. There is definitely some political tension between boys and girls because they are afraid of offending someone.”
Indeed, according to an online survey conducted by The Scroll in 2018, of the 154 students who identified as conservatives, 62% were male, while 63% of 110 self-reporting liberals were female. However, a 48% majority identified as “other or unsure” or as independents.
“Guys are together all the time, and girls are together all the time, so Deerfield is a pretty separated campus,” Niles stated. “Those political collaborations between the genders do not happen all that often.”
When students do express their opinions, they can trigger unsympathetic or even hostile responses. Teddy McCarthy ’20, President of the Young Republicans, said, “If I share those beliefs other students do not agree with, they will brush them off or laugh them off. Sometimes, their answer is to simply ignore my comments.”
“Most of the time, though, they express a genuine understanding of my comments, and then we can have genuine political discussions. That’s why collaboration between the Young Republicans and Democrats can be so rewarding,” McCarthy continued.
On the other hand, in humanities classes, where politics can affect the flow of the curriculum and discussion, teachers shape the curriculum and discussions, acting as political mediators.
Philosophy and Religion teacher Ben Grimm teaches a fundamentally political class, “Religion and American Politics,” Regarding his role in political discourse at Deerfield, Mr. Grimm shared, “My role is to give students the permission and the resources to have elevated discussions about politics. I see myself as a provocateur. Anything that someone says, unless someone else in the class readily tries to undermine, it is my duty to challenge because that’s the crux of having an adult in the room.”
Continuing, he admitted that “It is impossible, though I try, to completely conceal what I think [politically], mostly because there is an inherent bias in designing the curriculum as such. When I choose texts for my course, I inherently posit that there is a connection between them, and that alone is an imposition of my own political beliefs.”
According to McCarthy, “There is a definite feeling among conservative students that they cannot express the totality of their views in class to predominantly liberal teachers for fear of discrimination in class and against their grades. Conservatives feel silenced because of the faculty and administration.”
“There are cases in which teachers teach their politics. As a senior at Deerfield, I have learned to take things [from teachers] with a grain of salt. The problem lies in little comments they make, but it was painfully obvious to me after the 2016 election. A few teachers skipped class the next day because they were so upset, and there were no repercussions,” McCarthy continued, referencing Republican Donald Trump’s victory over Hillary Clinton in the most recent presidential election.
Dylan Bane ’20 also acknowledged that self-imposed censorship and politically sensitive classroom environments preclude many conservative students from expressing their views. “They don’t want to risk their grades. For example, they might write papers, arguing for a more leftist or neutral position. Despite what teachers say and aim for, the overall tone of class is that if you have a conservative opinion, just keep it to yourself,” he said.
According to the same data published by The Scroll, 86% of conservative students last had censored themselves as a result of their political views.
However, Mr. Grimm contested the on-campus significance of the faculty’s political outlook, saying, “There’s a prevailing sentiment among students that there is a tyrannical liberal faction among the faculty. In some ways, it is inconsequential what the faculty’s politics are. It’s a red herring—a convenient excuse for not talking about politics—to say that there is too much tension in classes.”
“I think students often express a feeling of being unable to discuss politics on campus without necessarily being able to identify the origins of that unwelcoming environment,” he continued.
“It’s a snowball effect; if students, in general, begin to discuss politics more openly, other students will realize that they are allowed to. We need to be out there, seeking to understand one another. We are promoting a discourse that’s defined merely by it’s civility, we are really telling people to have superficial conversations,” Mr. Grimm added.
Still, another Philosophy and Religion teacher Michael Cary emphasized that politics are not as relevant to Deerfield life as Deerfield student might think.
Mr. Cary stated, “It would be unfortunate if we lived in this presidential politics terrarium for the next thirteen months [until the election]. In a twenty-four hour news cycle, we are constantly bombarded with this kind of news and much adieu about not very much. Life will go on, Deerfield.”