Deerfield is a school of tradition: it is one of the last New England boarding schools to require the sit-down meal, it is one of the last schools to require a formal dress code, and it was one of the last schools, in 1989, to make the leap from single-sex to co-ed learning.
It is conservative in its politics, too. One interschool Scroll survey found that roughly sixty percent of students polled identified as conservative, in stark contrast to the liberal politics that kids are often assumed to embrace — and, indeed, the numbers from that survey indicate that students at peer schools like Andover and Northfield Mount Hermon are very liberal. But Deerfield takes its funny politics a step further: teachers, not students, are the campus liberals.
That first Scroll survey is two years old, but its results ring true now. Conservatives on campus rumble about their “liberal teachers” and “censorship.” And I have heard their progressive counterparts at Let’s Talk, Deerfield!, for instance, complain about the absence of “white males” (read: right-wingers) at meetings.
Likewise, tensions between pro- and anti-Trumpers reached their highest point off-campus, spilling over into protests of police brutality last year and the January 6 Capitol siege. Trump may have since departed the White House, but his supporters — and his baseless claims of election fraud — remain. And all the while, a false prophet dispenses fortunes on 4chan to thousands of believers. (I have myself joked that The Deep State is really running the show at Deerfield. I am not so far off the mark.)
Deerfield has failed to meet the moment. No one has said it — not officially, at least, or perhaps only in Deerfield’s back rooms — but the school is divided. Teachers, then, must step up. To open their classrooms to real political conversations, teachers must first express their own political beliefs.
So far, I have noticed that teachers have made use of two opposite philosophies about politics in the classroom. Neither one fully embraces genuine political discourse. The first involves semi-political discussions around, say, important Black scientists during Black History Month or around the dangers of climate change. The intention is noble — what could be wrong with a conversation about racial equity or scientific realities?
Yet these conversations often devolve into echo chambers and engender bitterness in students who might hold differing opinions. Students, for fear of creating “controversy” — one of modern America’s many bad words — are unwilling to offer dissenting viewpoints, much less solutions. Teachers do not often partake in these discussions, in order, I suspect, to give their students space to talk, but also to avoid risking offense. I praise the teachers who do participate actively, but those teachers are often too dogmatic for those (conservative) students who disagree. I urge teachers to both participate in these discussions and, crucially, to outline their personal biases beforehand, to ensure trust from their students and cultivate open dialogue. Present your arguments with vigor, but encourage dissent from your students.
Conversely, many teachers at Deerfield have chosen to simply shun politics in their classrooms. Perhaps this has minimized controversy and the minute-to-minute distraction of current events that has characterized politics in years past. Again, however, good intentions have led to bad outcomes.
In today’s aggressively partisan climate, conservative students will assume their teachers are simply trying to stifle their political expression when those teachers remove any mention of politics from their curriculum. On the other hand, liberal students — look at Black at Deerfield’s Instagram account — will assume their teachers have made a goal of avoiding any mention of the issues that are important to them. These assumptions are far from universal, but they will continue to erode honest dialogue on campus.
Moreover: any value-based, dialectical education is inherently political. Who decides, after all, which opinions are even worth considering? Classes in philosophy and English are the most obvious examples. A highlight of my freshman-year English class, for instance, was Emily Wilson’s Odyssey, which was chosen by the English Department, we were told, specifically because it was the first-ever translation of the classic by a woman.
The translation brought its feminist undertones with it into class discussions and stirred up resentment in my conservative peers; they viewed the English Department’s adoption of Wilson’s translation as yet another left-wing attempt to rewrite history. Most of us enjoyed the epic nonetheless; the Odyssey is the Odyssey, after all. But, had my teacher or the department acknowledged the politics behind their decision to adopt Wilson’s translation, and had they opened that decision to criticism from students, our class discussions would have flourished, and everyone would have felt included. When we do not acknowledge politics in the classroom, we misrepresent its intrinsic role in our value systems and do a disservice to our community.
The administration bears some of the blame. They have, implicitly and explicitly, discouraged faculty from airing their opinions and, in general, have attempted to expunge political controversy — there is that bad word again — from our campus. The Student Life Office, for example, declined to distribute The Scroll’s pre-2020 election survey in a campus-wide email for fear of appearing somehow political. We had to post it on the Daily Bulletin instead. Upon a later request from The Scroll to publish one faculty member’s opinion on presidential voting, the administration simply decided to prohibit our newspaper from publishing any faculty opinions, ever.
In other words, money. Deerfield has quietly upheld a tradition of political conservatism to appease wealthy donors, some on the Board of Trustees, who are typically conservative themselves and stand to benefit from conservative-backed tax breaks. Our school is selling out.
This moment in American history is a teaching opportunity; the community cannot afford to lose it. Teachers, not students, bureaucrats, or donors, are the soul of this school. Teachers must lead the way.