It is that last part—the changes from century to century—that most defines the work taking place in this somewhat experimental class. An observer of the mock UN debate would notice that as the students assembled around the table, each one had an iPad on the table in front of them, and as the discussion heated up, students were busily searching the Internet for statistics and facts to bolster their arguments.
“Oh yes. It’s a 21st century phenomenon. I feel like I’m in the classroom of the future,” agrees Harcourt. The model is different; students aren’t simply reading a text and then taking tests on the material. “The Internet—the world library—is basically their main textbook. The texts we assign are points of departure, and the kids have to develop the skills to critically analyze the texts.” Miller points out that in a sense, they are harnessing a power the students already have, to varying degrees. It’s a rare teenager who doesn’t spend ample time surfing the Internet these days, after all. “Spending time online—that’s what they’re doing anyway,” Miller explains. “We’re forcing them to think critically while they do that, so when they’re pulling up different pages they know what to look for.” Making a practiced judgment about the information they access is an essential component of thinking critically in the digital age. “They’re learning how to rapidly assess the validity of an argument,” Miller says, “and the validity of an author, too.” According to the AP College Board, it’s working. “When I visited Deerfield, students told me the skills they were learning in the seminar course are transferring into their other studies,” Williamson says. “They’re learning argumentation and research and presentation, and using them in other courses.”
- Global H2O students aren’t simply reading a text and then taking tests on the material. “The Internet—the world library—is basically their main textbook. The texts we assign are points of departure, and the kids have to develop the skills to critically analyze the texts,” says Andy Harcourt.
Tally Behringer ’14 wholeheartedly agrees. A self-described future scientist, Tally was drawn to Global H2O because of the subject matter, but realizes she’s learning more than chemistry and physics. She’s becoming a savvier consumer of information. “We’re gaining the ability to trust—or not trust—our sources,” she says. “You need to focus on where you get your information from, and whether it’s valuable or not.”
True to the mission of the course, Tally is also stretching her ability to make an argument. “I’m not a great debater,” she insists. But it was she, as a faux corporate lobbyist, who shut down the Bolivian ambassador during the mock UN debate. “I thought, maybe I’ll attack the moral aspect of the issue. Personally, emotionally, as a human being, you don’t want to be responsible for peoples’ deaths,” she says reasonably. And so Tally came up with a zinger that any real-life corporate lobbyist would be happy to employ. It wasn’t necessarily her personal opinion—but that’s a big part of the point, for her. “What really struck me was the ability to see more perspectives and to understand how someone in a developing country is being affected by unavailable water sources, versus someone like me, who turns on the faucet whenever I want,” she says. “I wanted to learn to see through other people’s eyes.”
Her classmate Tripp echoes Tally’s experience; he too was drawn to the course for the subject matter, but realizes he’s gaining more than an understanding of water and current issues. While Tally was speaking for corporate interests, he was arguing for the country of India—both positions that had been assigned by Harcourt and Miller. “Whichever side you were on, you had to go fully for that side. You weren’t allowed to take a happy medium. It put us out of our comfort zone a little bit,” reflects Tripp. “There have been times where I’ve had to argue against what I actually believe. It’s made me think about how to deconstruct the other side—I know where they’re coming from.”
A science course that is also a literature course, an economics course, and a philosophy course is in keeping with a plethora of facts and data that Tally, Tripp, and their peers are sailing into; in order to navigate, they have to learn how to figure out whose data to trust, integrate it with other data, and gain confidence in their resulting opinions. Harcourt sums it up simply, “It’s the bigger picture.”
Which brings us back to the name of the course. It’s not just H2O; it’s Global H2O, a comprehensive look at a subject that has different challenges for someone from Africa versus someone from the US, or even someone from Nevada versus Massachusetts. Tally and Tripp are just two members of the generation who will have to face those challenges, but they are already readying themselves to take them on. While Deerfield sits on the same plot of farmland it has occupied for two centuries, its students have always had to learn to think expansively . . . now more than ever. ••
Naomi Shulman has written for The New York Times, Real Simple, Ladies’ Home Journal, Whole Living, FamilyFun, and other publications. She is a frequent contributor to Deerfield Magazine.