U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona was in the south parlor of Emily Dickinson’s house on a Friday afternoon in March, chatting with the seven students taking English 355/American Studies 364, a course devoted to the poet.
It was his third stop in a day that had kicked off in Boston, where he’d visited the K–8 dual-language Rafael Hernández School. Then he went to MIT for a conference on the 50th anniversary of Title IX, the 1972 law that prohibits sex-based discrimination in schools. “What a contrast!” said the 12th secretary of education about his day. “I’m talking to a WNBA superstar. Then I’m here in the room of Emily Dickinson.” Both women, he said, were agents of transformation.
Inside the unfurnished parlor—which is under renovation and stark, save for a gray swatch of paisley wallpaper—Cardona asked the students and Karen Sánchez- Eppler, the L. Stanton Williams 1941 Professor of American Studies and English, to talk about what they want to change in the world.
Anna Smith ’22 said she is interested in changing the way museums talk about race and gender, thus “having more truthful and open and inclusive conversations.” Eugene Lee ’23 hoped “to really change access to equitable education” and mentioned that, before coming to Amherst, he taught third grade in Boston public schools. “We’ve got that in common,” said Cardona, who began his career teaching fourth grade in Meriden, Conn.
The secretary praised the Five College Consortium and how it amplifies resources for learning, as well as the experiential learning he saw up close in Dickinson’s house—namely, touring the space of an author you’re studying, and examining original manuscripts. “You will document the history that’s in here that people don’t know yet,” Cardona said. “You’re part of a chapter of the book of Emily Dickinson. And that’s pretty special.”
Cardona and the students had been struck by the sight of Dickinson’s desk, how tiny it is compared to the magnitude of her talent and vision. “It makes it so much more real, to be able to smell, to see, to touch the space that she was in, and the place that she was producing these amazing and famous poems,” said Fiona Anstey ’24.
Later, as Cardona took questions from the media outdoors, Sánchez-Eppler reflected on the day. “I’m so proud of my students,” she said. “I think that’s the main thing that just swells up in me. And I love the museum, and I’m so proud of it. So having these things that I cherish being valued and recognized by Secretary Cardona’s visit is just enormously moving.”
Photograph by Maria Stenzel