The Panel Examines the State of Open Discussion Across Both Campuses
Last February, during The Panel’s annual switch day, Dr. Buckley’s “Institute of Politics” class left a lasting impression on Winsor editor Betsy Kim ’17. Expressing her thoughts on the Switch Day, she remembered being “struck by how Belmont Hill students” discussed politics, engaging in discourse that prioritized open debate and fact-based analyzation. Similarly, former Belmont Hill editors were impressed by the enthusiasm with which all Winsor students engaged in political conversations.
The release of this month’s issue coincides almost exactly with the one-year-anniversary of the 2016 Election. On the campaign trail and in the past year, we Americans have witnessed a degradation of civil discourse. Polarization has increased, compromise has proved elusive, reaching respectful disagreement has become challenging, and open, reasoned discussion lacks. Instead, members of Congress are heckled out of their own Town Halls; nationalist groups like the one seen in Charlottesville this past summer spew hate and violence; single-minded politicians point fingers; and speakers are shouted down on college campuses.
Observations from last year’s Switch Day, as well as these trends, prompted editors at The Panel to engage in a comprehensive investigation into civil discourse at both Winsor and Belmont Hill. The Panel’s Center Spread serves as a timely opportunity to compare an issue of relevant concern across two campuses. We seek to explore the ways in which each school’s administration, faculty, and students engage with and value political discourse. Ultimately, we hope that the following reflections enable community members to understand the approaches to civil debate at Belmont Hill and Winsor. Both schools have much to learn from one another.
Discussion On the Hill: Administration
It was August 30, 2016, the first day of classes, and boys with shades and summer tans strolled into chapel, reconnecting with friends and faculty. The summer had been filled with insults, mudslinging, and loud shouting on the campaign trail, and as the general election intensified, it had become clear that political arguments among average Americans, as well, had lost an important decorum. Dr. Melvoin wasted no time in addressing our country’s lacking civility, and his opening address provides the perfect example of how Belmont Hill’s administration sets the tone for civil political discussion.
Entitled “We Need to Talk,” Dr. Melvoin highlighted the importance of respectful disagreement at Belmont Hill, connecting issues of relevant concern—immigration, the Middle East, and Massachusetts charter schools, for example—to discussions and debates that take place around campus. Pushing aside “all the rhetoric and noise,” Dr. Melvoin primarily called for an exchange of ideas grounded in issues and facts. By encouraging students to offer their opinions without fearing attack, Dr. Melvoin acknowledged that civil disagreement would be healthy and beneficial.
One day later, Harvard President Drew Gilpin Faust struck a similar tone in her convocation address to the Class of 2020. Criticizing hatred that had spread over the summer, she joined Dr. Melvoin in celebrating disagreement: “We need to feel safe enough, included enough, understood enough to dare to disagree.” A lack of political civility had become a national issue, and educators around the country have since grappled with how to address such conversations in secondary and post-secondary settings.
In addressing this issue, Belmont Hill’s administration has prioritized the structured conversations boys have with peers and faculty members in the classroom. In an interview with The Panel last week, history teacher and Assistant Head of School Mr. Armstrong emphasized, “the most important work is always at the ground level with the faculty…the most important work happens when you guys are interacting with your teachers.” Also Dean of Faculty, Mr. Armstrong revealed that although neither he nor Dr. Melvoin advises teachers on how to handle their own political views and opinions in classroom conversations, a clear “boys first” mindset exists among the faculty: “We are very aware that we deal with boys first; when you do that, you need to put some of your personal opinions aside.”
At the same time, Belmont Hill is careful not to overdo conversation around or reaction to political issues. Classes are rarely cancelled for school-wide discussion, and faculty-initiated conversations in classes are usually subjugated to the first ten minutes of a period. As the political climate grows more polarized, returning to the refreshing regularity of classwork and routine commitment creates common ground among boys. For teachers too, Mr. Armstrong acknowledged, being able to put the news aside and focus on the task at hand—teaching, coaching, or advising—can be therapeutic.
Belmont Hill’s administrative team consists of faculty members who tend to associate most with the History Department. Mr. Armstrong, Mr. Grant, and Mr. Bradley all teach History classes, and Mrs. Bobo, Director of College Counseling, used to teach Form I History. Dr. Melvoin has his doctorate in early American history and has even published a book on colonial Deerfield. As teachers who engage with the past and politics most directly with boys, they’ve successfully established a community cultivating respectful political discussion.
Belmont Hill Faculty & Political Neutrality
Amidst rising polarization in political discourse nationwide, Belmont Hill faculty members are faced with a litany of questions to address: How should we address current events? Should we reference or reveal our own opinions? What is our obligation as educators to maintain neutrality in the classroom?
Overwhelmingly, students interviewed from both schools admire the efforts that Belmont Hill faculty take to foster an environment conducive to productive discourse. Indeed, for several Winsor editors attending Belmont Hill classes last March, the political discourse on campus served as the highlight of their experience at the school. Attending Dr. Buckley’s “Institute of Politics” class, for instance, former editor Betsy Kim ‘17 was “impressed…by how fluid and varied the political discussion was.” Among Belmont Hill students, a similar consensus is held.
To better appreciate the issues faculty at Belmont Hill must face, we spoke with several faculty members on campus.
As the chair of Belmont Hill’s history department, Dr. Buckley finds herself engaged in discussions of current events both in-and-out of the classroom. Leading two senior electives in the fall — “American Politics and Policy” and “International Relations” — she remains keenly aware of her responsibility as an educator to “maintain balance” in class discussions. When preparing for her doctorate in political science, Dr. Buckley was no stranger to biases in the classroom. “While not entirely problematic,” Dr. Buckley maintained, “I could tell you how every one of my professors voted.” Still, when teaching her own courses, Dr. Buckley looks to withhold her own opinions: “My role as an educator is not to tell you how to think, but to instead give you the academic toolset to perform the analysis on your own.”
Primarily working with Upper School students, Dr. Buckley looks to provide boys the “tools” necessary to navigate the rough seas of political discourse in college. From stressing the importance of substantive analysis over “knee-jerk” opinions, to playing “devil’s advocate” when boys are particularly one-sided on an issue, Dr. Buckley instills in boys an enthusiasm to “lean into tough discussions and consider the opinions of the ‘other side.’”
For Ms. Zener, a faculty member in Belmont Hill’s history department, discussing current events is “entirely a study of power and negotiations of power throughout history.” Mindful of the reality that “teaching is inherently political,” Ms. Zener strives to embrace equality and not endorse any “isms” in class discussions. Furthermore, to alleviate the heat that often accompanies current events, Ms. Zener often looks to the past for parallels that can be used as tools to discuss fiery topics.
Mr. Hegarty, Director of the Brynes Library and a Form III history teacher, is Belmont Hill’s infamous libertarian. He’s both open with and proud of his political views, and though his opinions differ from most other faculty members—during Belmont Hill’s mock election last fall, 47 of the 51 who voted supported Clinton—he agrees that “it is very important to maintain neutrality in the classroom and to offer perspectives from as many divergent sources as possible.”
“We need to talk.
We need to be able, as the saying goes, “to disagree without being disagreeable.” We need to be able to debate ideas vigorously, but in a civil manner. What does this perhaps anachronistic idea of “civility” entail? I think it is simple: It means that one respects the views of other, speaks thoughtfully, listens carefully, and responds appropriately…
…You can and should be willing to debate ideas. The ideas are not you; you should be able to put out an idea and not face personal attacks. Will people disagree with your ideas? Of course they will, and that is healthy. If we can debate ideas in an open and civil way, we will have taken an important step forward. After all, Belmont Hill in some ways is an experiment. We bring together students from 60 different cities and towns, from 110 different schools: public, private, and parochial. We come together and we work together—and if “working together” is to remain the motto of this school, we need to find ways to exchange ideas.” – Excerpt from Dr. Melvoin’s Chapel Talk (August 30, 2016)
Belmont Hill Students Consider Campus Discourse
For Belmont Hill students, expressing their political opinions comes naturally. Whether in class, with activist-oriented clubs, or through mediums such as The Podium, all Belmont Hill students have the opportunity to not only voice their stances but engage actively with their community in the process. Yet, perhaps as a reaction to the polarization of country and world politics, Belmont Hill students have become increasingly aware of how to respectfully package their political arguments.
As a Form VI student heavily involved with politics, Gavin Colbert ‘18 readily paints Belmont Hill’s political climate as celebratory of political diversity. From “It’s Debatable,” an English elective on rhetoric with Dr. Tift, to contributing to student-led discussions in SAFE (Students Actively Fostering Equity), Gavin acknowledges a healthy pressure by faculty and administrators for students to actively move beyond political neutrality. Emphasizing the diversity of opinions within his classrooms, to Gavin, Belmont Hill encourages students to “grapple with their own convictions, deconstruct their assumptions, and purposefully share their beliefs with the community.” Among his classmates, Gavin adds that students always push aside their disagreements when needed. For Belmont Hill, class discussions thrive upon the political diversity bred by faculty, administrators, and students alike.
While conservatives on campus feel their opinions are welcomed among student-led extracurricular activities, many students refrain from sharing their politics in class, fearful of their teachers’ biases. In recognition that Belmont Hill has evolved to “refreshingly” embrace political diversity within the student body, a conservative Belmont Hill student argues that most of his peers do not risk expressing their opinions in class so as to not disagree with faculty’s own views. During political discussions in class, the student writes that he feels as if he must withhold his conservative principles and adopt more liberal ones instead: “I do not express opinions on contentious matters. At times, I take the liberal stance that I believe will be well-received by the teacher.”
As a community, Belmont Hill must preserve their commitment to an environment conducive to diverse political discourse. Belmont Hill currently adheres to standards that reflect civility and respect, but some students still do self-censor their opinions in the classroom. In History and English classrooms, politically-oriented discussions should adhere to a fact-based structure. Nonetheless, it will be important for Belmont Hill faculty and administrators to strike a tone of neutrality while encouraging students of all political bents to participate in conversations.
The Winsor handbook states in its “Principles of Diversity” that the school strives for “ethnic, racial, religious, and socio-economic diversity among all…constituencies.” It further states that students must recognize “individual and institutional prejudices, both overt and subtle, based on gender, race, religion, ethnicity, sexual orientation, socio-economic status, age, and physical and mental abilities.” The handbook does not, however, promote political diversity–or, rather, diversity of political thought. When we asked Ms. Pelmas, our Head of School, about this omission, she explained, “the categories we already listed are typically what politics thinks about. So, it is an odd and very recent perspective to see ‘politics’ as a topic that has substance all by itself.”
Ms. Pelmas further reflected, “I worry that “diversity of political thought” can easily mean whether we side personally with a particular candidate or elected official [or demarcate] liberals vs. conservatives or Democrats vs. Republicans…Those categories are not very useful and they are too reductive to support the level of critical thinking and intellectual engagement we need.” There exists a huge range of social issues to tackle, she adds, and accordingly “we should have many perspectives, not just 2 or 3.”
“Winsor promotes vigorous debate about our challenges—now and historically—and teaches students a variety of ways to approach and solve those problems. We value education, thoughtful engaged debate, civil discourse, and a focus on the greater good.”
Winsor Faculty Strive for Empathy
Should teachers be politically neutral in the classroom? Mr. Didier, who teaches “Human Rights, Human Culture” and “Genocide and the State,” has a unique take on this question. After all, he says, “It’s not clear to me anyone would necessarily want a teacher of classes involving episodes of human rights abuses or genocide to be politically or morally neutral.” Neutrality is not necessarily a virtue: to be neutral, he explains, is often to be “politically and morally empty.”
In his opinion, we should aspire not to be neutral–but rather empathetic–in our political discourse. The act of empathizing is a tricky concept, and Mr. Didier certainly takes care to emphasize this point: “Empathizing with another is NOT the same thing as condoning their actions; nor does it require neutrality. Empathetic understandings are just better understandings, and they allow us to act or to confront in more effective ways.” Indeed, Mr. Didier’s students apply this principle in his Human Rights class, when they examine the cultural motivations behind female feticide to write compelling and effective policy memos on the issue.
Ms. Hazard, French teacher and Panel advisor, has a similar philosophy when it comes to trying to understand the other side. In her AT1 class, titled Contemporary French Society, students learn about political and social conflicts in France, ranging from secularism to surrogacy. Since, she explains, “the discussion often tends to support the liberal side of the issue…we do activities like debates where students are asked to defend an argument they don’t necessarily support. Even if the exercise doesn’t convince them otherwise (and isn’t intended to), they all come out with a better understanding of both sides of the issue, and of the complexities inherent to the conflict at hand.”
Ms. Hazard notes, however, that “since it’s not our country, our culture, or our society I think it’s a little easier to approach those topics given the distance.” The question remains, are Winsor students mature enough to participate in these exercises when it comes to us and our country?
Mr. Braxton, Director of Community and Multicultural Affairs, offers a final reflection: “Every teacher at Winsor has a political point of view because we are civically engaged people. We can’t necessarily leave that identity at the door…it is important for me and the class to think about how we can create a place where everyone can share their point of view and…[also] see ideas from different sides.”
Winsor Students Look to Foster Open Discussion
It is not difficult to spark a debate among Winsor students. Whether it be in the form of class discussion or casual homeroom conversation, most are eager to debate their opinions. Nevertheless, there is some degree of hesitation when it comes to bipartisan discussions. Past polls reveal that Winsor leans heavily democrat–in the 2016 mock Presidential election, Hillary Clinton won 88% of the vote while Donald Trump received just 5%. Because of the general unpopularity of right wing politics at Winsor, many students are reluctant to express sentiments that might go against Winsor’s liberal grain. Margaret Michalowski ’18 expands on a pattern in these discussions, saying “I try to talk vaguely, though I’m liberal, because I’m worried that people will misconstrue my thoughts.” She went further to express a fear that peers would interpret her acknowledgement of conservative viewpoints as agreement.
To justify their one-sided conversations, students often conclude: why should we afford respect to Trump supporters, if they don’t respect us for our race, ethnicity, sexuality, or gender? By virtue of the fact that it is an all-girls school, the thinly veiled misogyny in the Trump campaign hit particularly close to home. At Winsor, liberal and conservative students alike agreed that Trump’s boast of grabbing women “by the p*ssy” was unequivocally inappropriate, and that referring to NFL National Anthem protesters as “sons of b*tches” was unacceptable behavior from the President of the United States. An anonymous student struggled to articulate her sheer frustration: “I feel that words are not sufficient for me to express how unfathomably ridiculous for the so-called ‘leader of the free world’ to be saying these things.”
There is a certainly a distinction between an ardent Trump supporter and the average republican voter. However, these voting groups are often confused, and thus some students at Winsor are hesitant to voice their conservative viewpoints for fear that their peers might associate them with Trump’s problematic platform.
Therefore, when only the majority democratic view is voiced, it can be easy to develop an unbalanced vision of politics. This sentiment is supported by Hammond Hearle ’18, who states, “…at Winsor it is easy to forget that we are in fact in a bubble where the majority of opinions are alike.” She went on to say: “…while this [singularity] may make it more comfortable for people to voice their opinions…[it] may also limit our understanding of different political views.”
In fact, in our attempts to gather a variety of political stances for this article, we struggled to find a Winsor student who would comfortably express conservative viewpoints. This aversion to unfettered discussion, even for an article about the importance of civil discourse, is a testament to how political discord has become taboo at Winsor.
We naturally aspire to free and honest civil discourse. However, the paradox of the Trump Era is this: how can we embrace tolerance of a perspective that withholds tolerance from certain races, sexual orientations, and religions? As Mr. Braxton explained, the challenge is “how to create an environment where everyone feels ‘safe’ to express her point of view BUT ensure that our (Winsor) values/principles of inclusivity, tolerance, and respect remain at the core.” He adds, “indeed, Trump has made this task harder.”
The importance of pluralism cannot be understated. After all, the diversity of political thought is essential to democracy; it is in our very nation’s fabric. It’s important, therefore, that we acknowledge all sides of these multifaceted political issues.
While tensions along party lines have always been a reality for this country, for the past few decades we have been able to engage in civil discourse in, well, a civil manner. Clinton vs. Bush, Bush vs. Gore, McCain vs. Obama, or Obama vs. Romney…these politicians may have harbored different opinions on policy, but when it came to basic values they shared common ground. To quote Scott Dolan, president of North Colonies Teachers’ Association, “Traditionally, the American political spectrum is relatively narrow in scope. Politicians generally operated with the accepted norms of our political values. We cherish both liberty and equality, engaging in conversation about how to find a healthy balance between the two.”
However, something fundamental has changed this past election. With the advent of the Trump administration, politics became a lot more controversial—a lot more personal. We weren’t debating healthcare or finances, but rather the nation’s core values of equality and justice. How could it be that, in 2017, racism, misogyny, xenophobia, Islamophobia, anti-Semitism, homophobia, and other forms of bigotry were being openly displayed in our nation’s capital? As Mr. Braxton puts it so aptly, “The problem with Trump and Civil Discourse is that, with Trump, it’s not civil.”
In the wake of Trump’s divisive commentary, schools across the country, like Winsor, have inevitably become more polarized. After all, gender equality, sexual assault, and racism are not issues on which most at Winsor can simply “agree to disagree.” By virtue of the fact that Winsor is an all-girls school, students here, regardless of party affiliation, reacted with deeper and more visceral outrage than their Belmont Hill peers to Trump’s boastful claims of sexual assault.
When we have a president who expresses sentiments seemingly antithetical to the values of our institution, Winsor students and teachers will inevitably struggle to maintain their neutrality. But, in our opinion, this is not a problem that demands correction. We at Winsor should aspire not to neutrality–but rather to empathy, as the word is defined by Mr. Didier. We should celebrate and maintain our own convictions, morals, and beliefs, while simultaneously trying to understand the opposing point of view. Too often, Winsor students are afraid to say things like “I understand why ____ supports Trump” because they fear that their empathizing will be conflated with condoning. Yet it is this very understanding, this mental stretching, that not only allows us to grow as individuals, but also equips us to be the next generation of problem solvers.
Let us strive for a culture of understanding, not political and moral apathy.