Empathy, Balance, & Dilution

Empathy. Balance. Inclusion. These three values are essential to the pursuits of Andover, drilled into its students and even visible on the front page of its website. Unfortunately, they’re beginning to feel hollow—a sentiment that echoes the efficacy of the EBI program itself. Not included in its title, but perhaps more honest as far as implementation goes: tokenization, intellectual loitering, and discontinuity. Still, despite consistently falling short in practice, EBI holds copious untapped potential. Improving the program’s coverage and execution would result in a much more educated and aware student body.

The EBI curriculum is, undeniably, white. It teaches about oppression from ground zero because it caters to a portion of the student body that has never had to experience it. EBI often forces its discriminated-against students to recount their trauma so that their male, white, neurotypical, cisgender, or straight classmates can learn without coming out the other end with guilt or cognitive dissonance. In our experiences, EBI classes have targeted “diverse” kids as the teachers’ personal wiki. It takes the form of expectant pauses after a targeted question; glances to them for approval, as if to “verify” a narrative; or requests for certain students to casually explain a loaded topic because it’s “supposed to pertain to their identity.” This token student is expected to sit uncomfortably through their more-privileged peers’ clunky comments or telling silences, blocked from opportunities to explore the complexities of their own identity so that everyone else can catch up. 

In addition, EBI tiptoes around the fragility of privileged students class after class. In both of our classes, teachers have failed to unpack concepts like white guilt, imperialism, or historical justice, and they definitely never cover anything as controversial as ongoing socio-political conflicts or really any flaws in the status quo. Any intersectionality between anti-racist history and economic/political philosophy is glossed over. We’re a year into EBI and our teachers haven’t uttered the words “capitalism,” “War on Drugs,” or “stonewall” once.   

Giving students access to the vocabulary and context we need to understand these things is crucial to Andover’s antiracist mission. Aware is proof of this, as this student-led group remains miles ahead of many of their peers on these topics. Unfortunately, because it’s optional and primarily promoted by students, the people who engage in Aware and its expansive lessons are often those who need them the least. Similarly, those who participate actively in EBI are often the ones already most informed on the topics under discussion. Andover should be at the forefront of these conversations—and, to its credit, many of its faculty and staff are—but they are not transmitting this information to their students. Why? Likely out of a want to remain “neutral” and uncontroversial. But that’s not working, considering this skittishness is leading EBI to nothing but a standstill. 

Another pitfall of the program is its total lack of continuity, especially considering this year’s virtual format. Ideally, EBI would involve a curriculum that grew with its students, getting progressively more advanced throughout coverage of each topic. Instead, each session is a recap on the week’s All-School Meeting (ASM), often introducing an entirely new topic to unpack with minimal correlation to previous sessions. It feels like taking a history course where we’ll spend one class covering the Renaissance and the next on Mesopotamia. Alternatively, if there has been a notable disaster in the time between classes, we’re offered repeated calls of, “Don’t be afraid to reach out!” along with the phone number to Sykes Wellness Center counseling… while the teachers themselves remain stoic. The very next week, classes go on as if nothing has happened, and no further support or acknowledgement remains. Accordingly, support from EBI often feels sparse and disingenuous. 

That said, EBI is far from a lost cause—and we understand that complaints without solutions can serve to demoralize more than help. The format has the potential to work well, and the intent behind the curriculum is there; EBI just needs some rethinking in order to engender the three words it’s based on. For one, especially during Junior year, Andover needs to ensure that EBI rosters do not have a few token “diverse” students who essentially serve as unpaid teachers for the rest of their classmates, regardless of Andover’s intentions. Instead, much like in Aware, early Junior EBI groups should include temporary classes for white students where they would learn the basics of antiracism together. This could be done once more with gender/sexuality affinity groups as we cover queerness, misogyny/sexual assault, toxic masculinity, and so on. 

At the same time, the students who have firsthand experience with marginalization could enter formal or informal focus groups, perhaps optional—we’d recommend sending out a survey on what students of various identities would’ve preferred this past year and building a format from there. Regardless, once privileged groups become more educated and comfortable speaking on a topic in accordance with Andover’s standards, everyone would converge into normal classes again. 

EBI would then dive into in-depth discussions on history, representation, intersectionality, and action. As the current ASM-following model doesn’t allow for knowledge to “build” on itself, we should scrap it in favor of lesson plans with continuity, just like a normal academic course. A math class is taught in units, not with one day on trigonometry and the next on statistics… and, if an adult is not familiar enough with math to teach a cohesive class on it, they would not be considered as a candidate for an Andover teacher. Why should EBI be any different? Faculty members need real training in specific areas to allow for continuous, effective lessons. EBI teachers should be educated by experts, so they themselves can discuss these serious issues with confident clarity and well-thought-out examples. When faculty teach what they are prepared to explain, it allows their students to advance beyond the basics and into deeper discussions on identity and society. Meanwhile, ASMs could continue to inform students and reinforce EBI learning with whatever the week-to-week sessions don’t cover, such as current events. Specialized speakers can offer students insight into storytelling, relaxation, music, psychology, world awareness, whatever the school chooses—the only difference being that EBI’s class time wouldn’t be dragged along for the ride.

Lastly, when comforting their students in the wake of racial violence or similarly horrific events, teachers who do not specialize on the topic should be given clear instructions on how to be most supportive, including specialized education on how to handle trauma response. This could be coupled with a guide on the appropriate ways to talk to their students, also reviewed and approved by experts. Too many times have words intended to make students feel better only served to dehumanize us. “Support” should not mean singling the “diverse” kids out, asking them to share how they’re doing like a public status update. This sort of clumsy effort coming from Andover is shameful. But, to be fair, it’s hard to find the perfect words on a heavy issue you’re not deeply familiar with. That’s why teachers should not be expected to do it on their own. 

This past year hasn’t been the best look for EBI. We’ve made it through many awkward silences, finding an almost-heartwarming camaraderie in the pain of this class itself. But it’s time for the program to mature into something creative, something brave the way Andover promises on the front page of its website. Only once the administration acknowledges the voices calling out its issues, admits honestly to its flaws, and evolves onwards will EBI truly be empathetic, balanced, and inclusive.