Part I: The Unspoken View: Conservatism at Thacher

“Silenced.” “Hushed.” “Isolated.” “Marginalized.” These are just a few of the words Thacher faculty and students alike used to describe one population of Thacher’s community. Who are these supposedly downtrodden people? These people are your team captains, your lab partners, your teachers, your roommates, perhaps even your best friends. If these students appear to be so valuable, so beloved, and so important to the dynamic community that is Thacher, then why are they so hesitant to express themselves? The answer is simple: they are conservatives.

Thacher students and faculty members seem to be in agreement: conservatives are largely voiceless within Thacher’s majority liberal community, intentionally or otherwise. Without exception, conservative student and faculty members alike reported that they felt that their conservative viewpoint is unwelcome at Thacher. One Thacher conservative felt strongly enough to say, “There is no way to offer a conservative viewpoint at Thacher without being labeled a xenophobic, homophobic racist. Conservatives are seen as evil and are isolated and marginalized because of it.”

These reports of social pressure to conform to a liberal point of view in order to avoid the risk of social isolation were striking in both their frequency and intensity, with one despondent student writing, “I often feel as if I have to choose between my beliefs and my friendships. I should never have to feel that way about my political beliefs.”

U.S. history teacher Jason Carney shared an interesting experience from this year’s election night, as further proof that conservatives are often made to feel uncomfortable in Thacher’s current political environment: “It was interesting on Election Night when I was on duty on the Hill. It was a very emotional mood, with a lot of negative speculation as to what might happen in the future. However, there were students in that Common Room who were okay, if not happy with, the result of the election, but clearly did not feel comfortable voicing these beliefs because of the potential ramifications, given the emotionally charged environment.”

Not only is this supposed bias against conservatives apparently present in social scenarios, but also, it seems, in the classroom. Says one Thacher freshman, “Most of our teachers teach from a solely liberal standpoint, and speaking from a more conservative viewpoint never goes well in class discussions. A lot of teachers talk about their liberal viewpoints and many of my classmates agree, but it is done in such a way that makes me feel inferior to the rest of the group.” The student later went on to explain that they felt that some of their teachers tended to present their perspective as fact, not interpretation, leaving this student feeling as if their opinion was not valued.  Says another, “I believe conservatives at Thacher are unheard and oppressed in class discussions. Often times people will walk into a room and assume everyone in there identifies as a liberal, and that is just not the case.” There seems to be a general consensus among conservative students that faculty members do not do enough to make conservative opinions welcome in the classroom.

This broaches the sensitive topic of how, if at all, teachers should reveal their political views to their students. History teacher Donald Okpalugo recollected that “One of Marvin Shagam’s goals was always that he never wanted his students to know how he voted. He believed that our job as teachers was not to show our own ideologies, but to instead teach you how to think critically, and how to come to your own conclusions.”

Mr. Okpalugo was not the only person to reference Mr. Shagam’s model for education. Ethan Kallett, a Thacher junior and self-professed supporter of “the liberal agenda,” remarked that “It’s not wise to have this single-minded line of thought; there needs to be discussion of both sides because that’s how people progress. For example, everybody loved to talk to Mr. Shagam because he’d listen to the most radical people on both sides of the aisle. Sometimes he’d pull out Bill Maher, and then later he’d talk about what Rush Limbaugh was saying. And, I think people respected that.”

However, Okpalugo doesn’t entirely agree with Mr. Shagam’s belief that teachers should remain inscrutable in terms of their political views, noting that, “We are in loco parentis; our job is to stand in as your parents. So, I think that for us faculty members to feel like we cannot take a stand on issues that we consider to be issues of morality, not politics, that I don’t agree with. I think that we’re doing you a great disservice by not doing that.”

Thacher sophomore and conservative George Lawrence held a slightly different philosophy, stating that “I think there’s nothing wrong with a teacher being upfront about their political viewpoint, so long as they maintain a classroom environment that’s still very open for everyone to talk. I think, as a teacher, you can express your opinion, but I think that it should be after going over the topic in general. I think opinionated conversation is important, so long as it’s not one-sided.”

Mr. Okpalugo notes that bias in the classroom isn’t just limited to teachers. During an in-depth interview, Okpalugo recalled that “last year, we had a conservative guy from a think tank come and speak. And, I remember quite vividly bringing it up in my class, and having one of my students say something like, “Oh, that guy was so conservative.” What really struck me was the tone of voice he used; it was almost like the act of being conservative was somehow worthy of derision. I think that speaks to this problem that we all automatically, especially people who consider themselves to be liberals or progressives, tend to paint all conservatives in a very negative light.”

Mr. Okpalugo’s theory that people tend to hold a false image of conservatives was widely supported among the student body. One frustrated student remarked, “I think that conservatives are antagonized and targeted at Thacher, and I think that the connotations that people here have of conservatives are much more extreme than the reality of conservatism. I believe that it is important to foster conversation about politics at Thacher, and what is happening currently is hurting this exchange.”