Improving ASM for the PA Community

We should have good All-School Meetings, and we can. Students may not have much control over life at Andover, but Wednesday mornings are an exception. The student body should take advantage of its power to suggest speakers and make ASM more than Mrs. Chase reading the A.B.C.’s of Andover or the Top Ten Reasons to Go Blue. We’re already here; there’s no need to keep congratulating ourselves for it. Instead of a chance to catch up on sleep, these gatherings of the student body should be extraordinary, thought-provoking forums. Speakers should finish lectures to standing ovations, stunned silences, or a deluge of challenging questions from inquisitive minds. So why do I so often walk out of the chapel worrying about whether or not I have time to get a bite to eat at Commons before my next class? Why do I find myself thinking about the freakishly cold weather or an upcoming sports competition that day, instead of what I just heard at ASM? It’s because All-School Meetings don’t quite reach the high Phillips Academy caliber they ought to. Shelter-in-place drills, announcements about upcoming events and updates on the survey for the bell tower chimes too often take up the time that should be set aside for invigorating speakers from off-campus who can bring a welcome outside perspective into our well-guarded Andover bubble. Unquestionably, the best speakers on campus are the ones brought here by a club or organization. When Daniel Glassberg ’09 contacted representatives from the Genocide Intervention Network to speak at an All-School Meeting, it was an indication that someone at Andover cared enough to make an effort to learn more about the tragedy in Darfur. When PA’s Republican Club brought the head of Planned Parenthood to campus to give a presentation, the turnout was made up of students who were genuinely interested in what he had to say. And though this audience was smaller than one at a mandatory All-School Meeting, students filled the question and answer period with serious comments and considerate inquiries about the issue of abortion. People paid attention. Clearly, for some speakers, the Andover audience is bright, alert, well-behaved and responsive. We laugh, gasp and clap at all the appropriate places. For others, applause is grudging at best, and students are not so much engaged in the speech as they are in math homework for next period or a new song on their iPod. So what makes the difference between a great speaker and an expensive waste of time? Price is not always an indication. Jared Diamond, a big name and accomplished author, gave a lecture that many considered disappointing. Reverend Ebner, chair of the All-School Meeting Committee, said, “Good name speakers can run from five to fifteen thousand dollars. However, many of the groups who request get Abbot grants and are talking to much lower-paid speakers who take a modest honorarium or just do it for transportation and housing costs. Some actually look for donations to a cause in lieu of honorariums.” He went on to say, “There is no budget for the [ASM] committee. Groups are responsible for getting funding. We are trying to change this long term but for now all we do is offer the slot.” Hopefully in the future, the school will decide that All-School Meetings deserve a budget of their own, instead of forcing students to shoulder the burden of figuring out how to pay for their heroes to come and talk. Dan Glassberg paid for his All-School Meeting, which was hosted by Jewish Student Union, with money from Andover’s chaplaincy. He told The Phillipian, “All in all the cost was approximately $1500, all of which (minus a lunch) was paid for by various chaplaincy funds.” There is no question that an All-School Meeting can be both effective and affordable. Success stories from years past make up a long, telling list. In 2005, Andover welcomed Ralph Nader, a man who has been honored by Time magazine as “One of the 100 Most Influential Americans of the 20th Century.” In 2006, former U.S. Presidential Envoy to Iraq L. Paul Bremer III spoke and signed copies of his book. These high-profile, influential speakers made an impact on students at PA. They are the type of lecturer we should strive to attract. Even more recently, Sarah Chayes’s recount of her work in Afghanistan was gripping, and Chris Abani’s speech about his experiences with torture brought students a tragic reality check. Cliché as it may sound, speakers who broaden our horizons or teach us something new are the ones that hold our interest. Prestigious alums talking about their successful careers show us that an Andover education actually can prepare one for the real world. When Andover yawns through a lecture, we only perpetuate an image of our school as being an apathetic, over-privileged community of kids, which we are not. Politicians, journalists, war veterans, poets and authors come to this New England prep-school in the hopes that they can shape our still-malleable minds, and we should not insult their efforts by tuning out what they have to say. Chances are, the speaker has some idea what he or she is talking about, having had years of experience in a particular field. Wait until you at least have a college degree (and maybe have written a book on the subject in question) before you dismiss the lecturer’s views. Or not – speak up and disagree. After all, we should not only bring to campus speakers whose ideas coincide with our own. That would create an equally boring, homogenous series of speeches. All clubs, be they political, artistic, or community-service oriented, should apply for an All-School to bring speakers that interest their members. Reverend Ebner said in an e-mail, “I am not sure how many groups have requested [an ASM], but I would guess about 5-6 and all that I can think of have been granted. It is sometimes hard to schedule a speaker when there are limited times available so groups struggle to make it happen.” That is a disappointing number of requests. ASMs are enormous opportunities. Let’s stop wasting them. The All-School Meeting with Andover’s speeches for Student Body President might be everyone’s favorite ASM of the year, and while that reflects well on the intelligence and eloquence of PA students, I have no doubt that there is a lot of competition out there in the real world. For example, former presidents of the United States. So pay attention at All-School. And if you don’t think what you hear is worth listening to, do something about it. The All-School Meeting Committee is waiting. It considers requests, which may be sent in online, from anyone, anytime. Seniors, as you look toward life after college, consider this question: Would you speak at Andover? And will you lead a life that will make a future student body pay attention?