On the Study of Race and Racism and Academic Freedom

This directive from the President of the United States is antithetical to the values of Phillips Academy and to the fostering of an educated citizenry.

As members of the Department of Interdisciplinary Studies at Phillips Academy, we affirm our commitment to improving our students’ understandings of race, ethnicity, gender, socio-economic class, sexual orientation, and other axes of identity as well as of structures and systems of power and oppression, of histories of inclusion and exclusion, and of our individuality and our shared humanity. We also affirm our commitment to continually question and transform our own pedagogy and practice in order to empower all students.

Our commitment to understanding and empowerment lies at the heart of a good education and at the heart of our academic program:

“In its Constitution, Phillips Academy is charged with ensuring its students learn ‘the great end and real business of living.’ While our lived lives differ from those of our founders, certain habits of mind remain: engagement in one’s humanity and the humanity of others; development of one’s identity; and critical discernment born of wide content knowledge, aesthetic sensibility, analytical practice, and nuanced skepticism. Adolescence is the time for students to foster their abilities to question the beliefs of adults, peers, systems, and cultures and to develop their own—to think about the world as it is and the world they seek to create.” (Academic Program, Mission Statement) 

Democracy depends on educated citizens who are strong synthesizers of information, interrogators of knowledge, and discerners of meaning.  Democracy depends on educated citizens who engage with new ideas and approaches, including those that conflict with what they already know and believe, and who seek to deeply understand those new ideas and approaches before assessing them, certainly before dismissing them.

On 4 September 2020, Russell Vought, under the direction of the President, demanded that all federal agencies cease “any training on ‘critical race theory,’ ‘white privilege,’ or any other training or propaganda effort that teaches or suggests either (1) that the United States is an inherently racist or evil country or (2) that any race or ethnicity is inherently racist or evil.” 

This directive from the President of the United States is antithetical to the values of Phillips Academy and to the fostering of an educated citizenry.  It is a demand for ignorance, not knowledge, not understanding, not empowerment.  The study of race and racism, including “critical race theory,” is grounded, as is all good academic work, in evidence, analysis, argument, nuance, complexity, and disagreement.  It is precisely the job of schooling to engage students in such work, not to foster their active acceptance nor passive acquiescence, but rather to generate their own informed understandings and assessments. 

In recent days, other individuals and groups, including the Critical Race Studies in Education Association, have documented the tremendous extent to which misinformation and ignorance fuel the President’s directive.  The directive embodies this administration’s inability to express any understanding of race and racism in the United States, and its labeling influential means of studying and understanding race and racism as “divisive, anti-American propaganda” is absurd. 

Yet, we cannot dismiss this presidential weaponization of willful ignorance. 

This moment demands our seeing how power is functioning in this directive, which hierarchies are being solidified, who is being included and excluded.  This moment demands our solidarity with our fellow teachers and scholars, many of whom are in more precarious positions than ours, whose work is being diminished, marginalized, and canceled.  This moment demands our condemnation of the harassment, and even violence, too often unleashed upon the targets of this president. 

The president’s attacks on studies and understandings of race and racism are timed to distract from the myriad ways in which legacies of racism and white supremacy, of cissexism and patriarchy, of genocidal settler-colonialism, of laissez-faire capitalism, of heterosexism, and of ableism are manifesting in our contemporary crises.  By seeking to eradicate some of the very means, some of the very tools, by which we can better interrogate this moment, the president attacks the democratic, emancipatory pursuit of an equitable and just American society.  

Our work is all the more important. As stated in our school’s Constitution:  “though goodness without knowledge (as it respects others) is weak and feeble; yet knowledge without goodness is dangerous; … both united form the noblest character, and lay the surest foundation of usefulness to mankind.”  We will continue to position students to foster knowledge and goodness, to more thoroughly question and better understand the past and the present, to assess what they learn—not as ends in themselves but rather as means to action, as means to “lay the surest foundation.”


Leon Calleja, Instructor in English and Interdisciplinary Studies

Stephanie Curci, Instructor in English and Interdisciplinary Studies

Mark Cutler, Instructor in Spanish and Interdisciplinary Studies

Noureddine El Alam, Instructor in Mathematics, Computer Science, and Statistics and Interdisciplinary Studies

David Fox, Chair and Instructor in English, Art History, and Interdisciplinary Studies

Rafael Kelman, Instructor in Art and Interdisciplinary Studies

Corrie Martin, Instructor in English and Interdisciplinary Studies

Elizabeth Meyer, Instructor in Classics and Interdisciplinary Studies

Rachel Murree, Instructor in Philosophy and Religious Studies and Interdisciplinary Studies

Marisela Ramos, Instructor in History and Social Science and Interdisciplinary Studies

Flavia Vidal, Instructor in English and Interdisciplinary Studies

Ryan Wheeler, Director of the Peabody Museum and Instructor in Interdisciplinary Studies

Judith Wombwell, Instructor in Theater and Dance and Interdisciplinary Studies

10 September 2020

Ways to Get Involved

Now entering its second year of a three-year pilot, we have a few ways in which faculty can get involved in the work of the Department right now.

To explore any of these opportunities, please contact me (dfox@andover.edu).   

1.  Acknowledging or Revamping Current Courses

Because the faculty offers more than 300 distinct courses each year, it is difficult for any one person to be familiar with all of them.  If you currently teach a single or multi-section course that you think is consistent with the goals of the Department, or if you want to revamp a single or multi-section course that is currently offered to make it more consistent with the goals of the Department, please let me know.

2.  Offering New Courses

If you have an idea for a new course, or are already developing a new course, that you think is consistent with the goals of the Department or that you want to make more consistent with the goals of the Department, I will work with you and others to answer many questions, including:

  • Is this new course a replacement of a course currently in our academic program, or is it an addition to it?  (With a finite number of students, it is easier to replace a current course than to offer an additional one).
  • If it is an addition to our academic program, where will the students come from?  What are they likely to not be taking in order to take this new course?
  • For the teacher, is this new course a replacement for a course she already teaches, or is it an addition? 
  • If it is an addition, what course/section will she not be teaching?  Will that course/section not be offered at all, or will someone else need to cover that course/section? 
  • A similar line of inquiry needs to be addressed for each additional teacher involved in a new course.

The Academic Council must approve all new courses.  For a new course to appear in the next year’s Course of Study, which maximizes the chances for adequate student enrollment, it should be approved by the end of Winter term.

3.  Leading a Colloquium

For ten years, we have used a colloquium model in which one member of the faculty serves as the lead teacher for a course on any topic that invites connections across disciplines, from “Relativity, Incompleteness, and Subjectivity” to “Justice, Law, Tyranny,” from “Darwin” to “Conservatism.”  In this model, the lead teacher coordinates the course while ten to twenty different members of the faculty come into the class for one or two sessions to offer their own take on the topic, and the students are responsible, ultimately, for putting the course together.

Leaders of past colloquia report that it offers a unique type of intellectual engagement and is great professional development, collaborating with a range of colleagues from disciplines across the school. 

4.  Creating and Sharing Contained Curricular and Pedagogical Units

Each year, many of us call on colleagues to come to our own classes and share their expertise with our own students.  We often identify such expertise by pure serendipity, and we seldom able to sustain this type of informal yet direct interaction.  Two long-term functions of the Department are to serve a match-making function and to house contained curricular or pedagogical units that others might use in their own classes. 

If you have a lesson plan or unit plan that you think others might be able to adapt to their own courses, we would like to collect, organize, and share those.  Perhaps you are a member of the History and Social Science Department and have a lesson or unit on redlining that others outside your department could use, or perhaps you are a member of the Music Department and have some exercises in close-listening that could be helpful in other disciplines, or…. 

5.  Coordinating Schedules to Share Students

This year, we are piloting a less formal collaboration between colleagues.  We are arranging for a group of 9th graders to work with the same English 100 and Art 225 teachers.  These two teachers are in conversation with each other and hope to leverage what the students are learning in the other class. 

6.  Joining a Critical Friends Group

All members of the Department participate in “critical friends groups”:  small groups of faculty from various disciplines that meet a few times each term to enhance their own teaching and learning.  All members of the faculty are invited to join a group.

7.  Courses with Colleagues

This year, we are offering an interdisciplinary course taught in the academic program to members of the faculty:  “This is America, The Wire.”  We hope to continue this pilot, with a different course, during the 2020-2021 academic year. 

Welcome to the New Endeavor

Welcome to the website/blog of the Department of Interdisciplinary Studies at Phillips Academy in Andover, MA. 

Through this site, we hope to learn from, and share ideas and experiences among, a wide range of people committed to interdisciplinary teaching and learning as well as to education as a means of improving the lives of people and bettering our world for all. 

Across the site, we seek to offer information about our efforts—identifying those working most closely with the Department at Andover, describing the courses we offer, highlighting our public outreach—and to share resources that we have identified and utilized.  We welcome suggestions and corrections regarding any of the material housed on our more static pages.

With this blog, we invite people who currently work and study at Andover, our alumni and former faculty, and colleagues and friends from a variety of professions and positions to share their thinking and observations with others.  If you would like to provide a blog entry or respond to a blog already posted, please contact us.

As “Interdisciplinary Work at Andover:  Purpose and Scope” makes clear, in many ways, the origins of the Department can be traced back more than forty years, so I link to several key documents that may be of interest:

Phyllis Powell, et al., “Draft Report of the 1977-1979 Curriculum Committee” (1979)

Tony Rotundo, et al., “Report of the Steering Committee” (1996)

David Fox and Linda Griffith, et al., “Final Report and Recommendations of the Access to Success Working Group” (2013)

Please click the “Follow Department of Interdisciplinary Studies” to be notified when new posts are available. 


David Fox