Principled Neutrality in Our Glass Menagerie

Our Head of School Dr. John Austin refuses to comment on or even publicly acknowledge many critical and era-defining events such as the war in Ukraine or the Israel-Palestine conflict. This is mainly due to his belief of “Principled Neutrality,” which he developed in “Educators Should Practice Principled Neutrality.” Dr. Austin writes that educators should strive for “pedagogical neutrality” and “argument inclusiveness” in which discussions about controversial topics are neither led nor professed not by the teacher, but rather student inquiry. Yet Dr. Austin’s optimistic hope for a neutral “political classroom” falls short.

While in principle the doctrine has merit, the current implementation lacks an application to current events happening throughout the world and leads to blissful and radicalized ignorance. While Deerfield Academy is a college preparatory school, its primary focus should be far from just that. An arguably more important goal is to prepare students for the world we will graduate into, which is reflected in one of our core values: connectedness to our unique setting and the contemporary world.

Principled neutrality’s current implementation at Deerfield neglects the trends of our contemporary world. Dr. Austin describes the current state of media as “sloganized” by social media, and disrupted by the “noise of the digital news cycle”. He writes that the classroom should be an “elevated” place where discussion “embraces civility, rigor, complexity of thought, and intellectual humility.” While civilized discussion is admittedly an important and essential skill of an academic scholar, per the contextualization of Dr. Austin, the world we currently live in is far from a society that facilitates it. Principled neutrality at Deerfield attempts to quarantine students rather than prepare for the ruckus that is modern media and politics. Instead, we should learn to meaningfully engage with news, being educated on how to glean information in a highly polarized and radical environment. While 280-word X (formerly Twitter) posts may not be as academically valuable as a historical paper, the former has become the primary way to express one’s opinions especially in the political scene, and denying the shift in dynamic is iconoclastic and luddite. The current implementation of principled neutrality completely neglects the ever-important topic of modern media literacy. With an overemphasis on elevated discourse and a virtual shunning of modern media literacy skills that are imperative in today’s society, Dr. Austin’s policy implementation doesn’t teach necessary skills to prepare students to engage with media for the world that extends beyond Main Street. While ACEing a historical document regarding the French Revolution may be possible, it is inapplicable when scrolling through rapid-fire short form content. While we can keep our emphasis on the scholarly, we need to become more comfortable in expanding our bubble, eventually becoming comfortable with the idea of popping it.

Another impact of principled neutrality at Deerfield is blissful and radicalized ignorance in the student body at Deerfield. Teachers do not have time to fully explore a topic unless it is directly relevant to class material. As most humanities courses at Deerfield are focused on history and the past, there is a lack of emphasis on the current and contemporary. To combat this, many of our peer schools, such as The Peddie School, have implemented mandatory “current events” classes to help students stay informed and connected with the world that exists beyond campus. However, as there currently is no such class at Deerfield, the classroom cannot become an “elevated” place of discussion regarding current events. Supporting this notion, I’ve noticed teachers rarely referencing what is going on in the world.

Naturally, this means students will be turning to modern media to stay updated about the world while on the island of Deerfield Academy. This is supported by countless studies which have shown teenagers get a majority of their news from social media, a tool optimized for radicalization. I myself first heard of the Israel-Hamas conflict while scrolling on Instagram reels nearly a week after its start, without a single mention from any of my teachers. Despite principled neutrality advertising itself as a way to “noise of the digital news cycle”, its current state entails that students will be turning to the most radicalized aspects of the digital news cycle to stay updated.

The creation of courses that focus on discussing the world that exists beyond just our campus, in collaboration with a focus on media literacy in a polarized and social media driven climate, could address the flaws in the current implementation of principled neutrality. The heart of principled neutrality lies in embracing controversy, especially those currently manifested, rather than shying away from it. The newly implemented “round table” discussions are a step in the right direction, yet they are limited in scope and dwell in systemic problems that have existed in the United States for decades. While some students may feel disinclined to engage in charged topics, administration-led efforts would help create an inclusive and lenient environment where everyone’s voice could be heard. After all, if Deerfield prides itself on a discussion-based, fluid experience that exemplifies civil discourse, its pride should be effectively and widely exercised.

Principled neutrality is an extension of Deerfield’s obsession of being a “private school.” The dress code is one such example, especially when it is uncomfortably worn to athletic events to “show class,” as if we as Deerfield students inherently possess a quality that rival schools do not. The administration also has the audacity to move MLK day, a federally dedicated holiday to a date of their liking, a concern raised by numerous voices. All of these actions illuminate a sense of entitlement.

This sense even bleeds into extracurricular activities too. Minimal investment is put in academic extracurriculars, and even in well-established groups such as Deerfield Speech and Debate, we exclusively compete in a private-school only league where the “World Championship” invites 15 countries. We seek activities only with other private schools in which we have a comparative advantage, such as in lacrosse or rowing, lacking participation in staple experiences such as Mock Trial, Quiz Bowl, Science Olympiad, and a myriad of other competitive high school experiences. Principled neutrality follows the same vein of logic—Dr. Austin’s response to the trends of modern media sends the message that Deerfield students don’t need to engage with it. By isolating ourselves, how much more will we disconnect from our contemporary world?

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