By now, we have all heard the term “the GDS way.” The saying is often used as an umbrella term for values such as kindness, compassion, and acceptance, but, as one gets older, the term tends to take a more political tone. On a political spectrum, Georgetown Day students tend to lean far left. This political leaning manifests itself in assemblies, curriculum, class discussions, and even in everyday conversations between students. More conservative students often feel isolated, and even attacked, in open dialogue discussions as well as social situations as they are often shamed for not being “politically correct.” When asked about this situation, junior Saul Atwood described his experience by saying, “In my experience, dialogues are not really open at GDS.” He recounted an environment in which students and teachers alike reiterated the same opinions and viewpoints but became defensive and accusatory when presented with an idea that they did not agree with.
This experience begins very early on in the GDS high school. Both freshman Alex Sevak and Atwood explained situations in their Freshman DEI classes in which upon stating their opinion, intending to add to the discussion, they were instantly ridiculed and attacked by their peers. Both go on to say that after this experience, their enthusiasm to participate in these open dialogue discussions were subdued. “I mean for the rest of my DEI class I did not say a word. I was just done after that,” said Atwood.
Sevak said that it was primarily the explosive way that students responded to his opinions that discouraged him from speaking in that class again. “It’s not okay to argue back with just screaming, because that screaming demeans and oppresses my opinion and my voice to the point that it creates a fear in this community,” said Sevak. This constant, harsh criticism from classmates can limit the quality of discussions. If students who share different opinions get shot down so quickly and aggressively, then these opinions become even more uncommon.
While addressing this problem, teacher involvement seemed to play a significant role in these students’ experiences. Sevak said, “[Teachers] are not an ally. If they were an ally they would try to calm and reason with the class and with the other people attacking me on this, but, no, they use it as support to make their argument because when I disagree with a claim that was made in class, the majority of the time it was with what a teacher said.” He went on to say that it is not only that the students that will “gang up” on their peers when one has a different opinion, but also the teacher themselves, creating an even more hostile environment.
Having more experience in the GDS high school, Atwood said, “It really depends on the person.” It is evident that, at times, it may be difficult for teachers to separate their values from playing the role of an impartial facilitator.
Anna Howe said that being impartial can be a difficult task. “Sometimes someone’s positions really seem to challenge or call into question things that you hold so dear…but we just have to remind ourselves of our project: to see humanity in each other.”
When asked how he handled this same issue, DEI and history teacher Topher Dunne said, “If asked a question, I will answer what my experience has been in this event, but to lead with… [one’s own opinion] just immediately puts the conversation on the defensive for any of the students in the room.”
In addition to facilitative methods, Dunne explored why these classrooms discussions turn so hostile so quickly. “Everything becomes in a certain way meta competitive within your academic classes like English and history, whereas DEI is meant to be an experiential class,” he explained. When different positions arise, the competitive lifestyle that has been ingrained into many GDS students can often manifest in a need to win. Students need to remember that everyone has different truths, which is why when discussing primarily political issues, having a discussion instead of a debate is more productive. Debates will never be won, but a discussion can end up educating students about different viewpoints and experiences.
It is also imperative that students are taught how to actively listen during a discussion. Students need to thoroughly listen to other students’ opinions, rather than wait for their mouth to stop moving, so one can state their point.
One way we can implement active listening in the community is through holding workshops to develop this vital skill further. In the GDS community, we do not hesitate to hold many discussions such as open spaces. However, having initial workshops on how to have these discussions could drastically improve the quality of them, and make all future open dialogues a much more impactful experience.
Lastly, one needs to keep an open mind. By having a fixed mindset, students will not achieve anything from these discussions. It is when a person is not open to change that they will not be able to listen to what others are saying. Sevak said, “When you have a conversation, especially a political one, you have to be willing to learn; you have to be willing to say ‘what if I’m not right?’”
Clearly, we, as the GDS community, need to take many steps and make many improvements to make to ensure that all students feel safe and welcomed during the open dialogue discussions that are part of what makes the GDS curriculum so exceptional.
Phoebe Braun ’22 and Maya Stutman-Shaw ’22