Where is the “Quaker” in 21st Century “Quaker Schools”?
Twelve Ways for Friends Schools to Reclaim Quaker Education
by John Scardina
Purchase Friends Meeting
Quaker schools were founded to provide a “guarded education” for the children of Friends. Amidst the class-oriented, ritual-based, militaristic, and materialist societies of the time (still sounds familiar, eh?), Quakers sought to live Spirit-centered lives that embraced simplicity, ongoing revelation, rigorous honesty, and peace. Children in Friends schools could find a version of their parents’ faith practice, a “let your lives speak” experience, in their school, and thus they could grow into the goodness of “walking in the Light.”
So—now in the 21st Century—we see Quaker schools competing in the independent school marketplace for a reasonably fixed number of largely non-Quaker families. We hear from Quaker schools about prestigious college admissions lists, competitive numbers of AP courses, elaborate fundraising efforts, and tuition fees beyond the reach of most practicing Friends. Friends schools have fewer and fewer Quaker faculty members and fewer and fewer Quaker children. Those schools not under the care of a monthly or yearly meeting can go for years without significant contact with Quakers beyond their own walls— thus eliminating the discernment that comes from careful policy deliberation with attention to faith and practice; these schools are essentially creating their own version of “Quaker” education.
My own journey in Quaker education has been long and blessed. With very little knowledge of Quakerism, in 1978 I got a job at a Quaker school after a highly experiential teaching opportunity in a school dedicated to progressive education. I soon found myself in a faculty meeting that promoted healthy community based upon shared Quaker values that I immediately found consistent with my own spiritual yearnings. Then I was in a meeting for worship with students who were articulate, passionate, and creative, and I knew I was home. I fell in love with a Quaker version of progressive education—the “Adventure in Quaker Education” (AQE) program for seniors at Oakwood Friends School—that educated hearts and minds with classroom excellence, community service that was substantial, and practical skills that could include building a canoe, rebuilding an engine, or planting a garden. My career in Friends schools began, and I have never looked back.
I am worried about Quaker education today. Might our Friends schools have become too comfortable in the elitist world of independent education as they strive t0 survive financially in the 21st century? Can we be true to our tradition of a “guarded education” and still attract families to our communities?
I want to encourage our Friends schools to constantly “reinvent” themselves, as all institutions must do if their original mission may seem unclear. I believe there is a place for Quaker schools in the world, but I worry that being a “good independent school based upon Quaker values”—which is my unfortunate appraisal of many Friends schools today— is not really what we ought to be doing.
With much humility, here are some thoughts going forward:
- Remember that every Quaker school is a “holy experiment” just the way Philadelphia was in 1682. Like with all good experiments, there is a carefully designed and open-minded process in place that looks to open new doors rather than confirm old beliefs. Just because you’ve been doing something good for a long time doesn’t mean you’ve got it covered now…
- Make sure that every part of your Friends school family—the Board, the administration, the faculty and staff, the parent organization, the alumni group —embraces Quaker business practice and Quaker values. There are no inherent contradictions between fiscal responsibility/educational excellence/a healthy and just work environment/parent education/alumni support and Quaker practice that is centered in our testimonies.
- Be clear that Meeting for Worship is at the heart of a Friends school. Help all who participate in Meeting to learn all of the various ways in which Quakers and Quaker educators in Friends schools have found to center and embrace the moment. Make no apologies for the time spent together in silent worship.
- Find more ways to help Quaker families partake of this gift of a Friends education: I know we are trying to do this in many ways, but there are too few seats at the table for Quaker children who lack the means to attend.
- Ask your local community how your Quaker school can be a resource. Open events to your neighbors and ask them to participate in programs where their own expertise can be quite helpful. Have people be naturally attracted to your school for the right reasons: “this is a place where we see what love can do.” Then—if families seek us—let us create a diversity in our student body that comes from attraction rather than promotion and find the funds to make that happen.
- Value exploration over conformity. Quakerism is an experiential faith, and only reinforcing the mainstream culture in the classroom provides few new avenues for spiritual growth. (I see the AP course infatuation as a curse: it is, for me, “the Common Core for independent schools” with all of the inherent hypocrisy of teaching to the test.)
- Always ask the following question of your teachers: “If I walk into your classroom, how would I know I was in a Quaker school?”
- Ask all families about their spiritual practice at home. Explain that they are joining a faith-based community that can enhance their own faith journeys.
- Talk a lot about what Quakers believe. We are not just “nice” and “kind” institutions, and our schools are not just “safe” and “friendly.” Quakers were active protesters against the status quo— John Woolman and Lucretia Mott and Bayard Rustin among many—and these individuals might be held up to our families as the models for their children to emulate. As Parker Palmer has said, all Quaker education is by nature counter-cultural.
- Teach students to think critically and act compassionately about diversity, equity, and inclusion. Have your hiring practices and school culture model active striving for true social justice. Train your staff to recognize implicit bias and institutional racism. Realize that at times you will upset part of your constituency: embrace this tension as you strive for an honest way to go forward. Schools in general—and especially Friends schools—need to be restless and unsettled at times. As Leonard Cohen said, “There is a crack in everything: that’s how the light gets in.”
- Ask your teachers and parents to look at teaching and parenting as celebrating gifts rather than overcoming frailties. Since we Quakers believe that children are “growing into goodness” let’s create the environment for that to happen. (You might term this “positive psychology” nowadays, but Quakers have been doing this for a long time.) Look to restorative practices to guide our young people rather than old-fashioned and ineffective discipline systems.
- Work hard to explain what “a sense of the meeting” means whenever you can—from administration meetings to classrooms to parent council gatherings. This is radically different from the majority-rules culture we live in and can provide opportunities for true struggling with finding the way forward as we work for unity.
- Look beyond test scores and middle school/high school/college acceptances when talking to prospective parents and point to the remarkable opportunity for a “beloved community” that our schools can provide.
- Be gentle and humble with yourselves. This is a process. With a loving sense of community we can stumble forward together.
In the end, this is just one person’s musings in the waning days of a career spent promoting the role of Quaker schools in our world. I want to hold us to a higher standard, just as Friends have been asking tough questions of the mainstream culture for a long time. Blessings to us on this journey.
John Scardina (Purchase Friends Meeting) has been a Quaker educator for over 40 years.