Quaker Schools: Small But Influential Force

By Kirsten Goldberg — April 20, 1988 6 min read

GREENSBORO, NC--At 8:00 on a recent morning, some 370 teachers and administrators from Quaker schools around the world were seated in a bare, white auditorium on the campus of Guilford College here.

There was silence for nearly 15 minutes before a participant felt moved to speak.

This traditional “meeting for worship’’ opened the first major conference in more than 20 years to examine the small but influential group of schools and colleges affiliated with the Religious Society of Friends, or Quakers. The meeting was held here April 7-10.

Quaker educators, celebrating the 300th anniversary of the founding of the first Quaker schools in the United States, exchanged views on their schools’ values and prospects, and asked what they could learn from and contribute to the movement for educational excellence.

“The urgent challenge confronting American education is to go beyond the academic mandates and help students gain perspective,’' said Ernest L. Boyer, president of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching in the keynote address to the conference.

“Quaker schools,’' he said, “have a special obligation to affirm this larger, more integrative view of education.’'

Mr. Boyer, himself a Quaker, said the Friends’ traditional beliefs and educational practices--such as teaching the “sacredness of language’'--could serve as a model for education reform.

He prodded the schools to “exercise a moral force in society’’ by instituting mandatory community-service requirements for students, something many Quaker schools have done in recent years.

The conference, the First International Congress on Quaker Education, was sponsored by the Friends Council on Education, the Friends Association for Higher Education, and Guilford College, a Quaker institution.

‘What Makes It Distinctive?’

Quaker educators meeting here noted that with only 125,000 members of the Society of Friends in the United States and Canada, Quakers are almost invariably in the minority in their own schools.

There are some 90 Quaker elementary and secondary schools in the United States, and 14 Quaker-affliated colleges.

“In schools where most teachers and students are non-Quaker, the question is, what makes a Quaker education distinctive?’' said Damon D. Hickey, assistant library director at Guilford. “Friends schools have sometimes been in the forefront of education, but we have not stood up enough and shared our experience.’'

Quaker schools’ special distinction, Mr. Boyer said, is in encouraging students to “go beyond their private interests and put their lives in historical, social, and ethical perspective.’'

“The special challenge Quaker schools and colleges confront,’' he said, “is to help students discover connections that cut across the disciplines and provide a more essential view of knowledge and a more auhentic understanding of our world.’'

He listed four areas “in which Quaker tradition can contribute to the nation’s wider search for excellence in education.’' They were:

  • Promoting the careful use of language. Traditional Quaker values include using “plain speech,’' careful listening, and searching for the truth, Mr. Boyer said.
  • Developing a “curriculum with coherence.’' Quaker educators generally have been concerned with “school climate’’ and educating the “whole person,’' he said.
  • Promoting a “spirit of community’’ on campus. “In a faceless climate, it is easy to drop out because no one noticed that the student had, in fact, dropped in,’' he said.
  • Fostering community service. Students should learn to “participate responsibly in life,’' Mr. Boyer said.

‘A Peculiar People’

The Friends sect was founded in the mid-17th century by an Englishman, George Fox. Its members were nicknamed “Quakers’’ because of the way they sometimes trembled while worshiping.

The sect was often called “a peculiar people’’ for its strong belief in social action and peace, which was spurred by Mr. Fox’s admonition to his followers in 1652 to “let your lives speak.’'

One of the best-known American Quakers was William Penn, founder of the Pennsylvania colony. In 1689, he founded the William Penn Charter School in Philadelphia, today the oldest Quaker school in the world. Another school, Friends Select, was begun in Philadelphia the same year.

Of the Quaker schools now operating in the United States, nearly half are located in Pennsylvania, according to Leonard S. Kenworthy, a Quaker educator and author.

But Quakers also started schools in other parts of the country, Mr. Kenworthy notes in a recent book, Quaker Education. In some areas, especially in Indiana and North Carolina, Quaker schools were instrumental in the development of the public-school system in the 19th century.

Competition or Cooperation?

Although many Quaker schools are well regarded for their academic standards, educators here discussed whether educational excellence--and its apparent focus on competition--conflicts with the Quaker emphasis on cooperation.

Some suggested that Quaker schools, like other private schools, should adopt rigorous academic standards. But many here said there is already too much pressure on high-school and college students to earn high grades.

“We don’t want kids to come to our schools in order to get into the best colleges,’' said Len Cadwallader, director of the Farm and Wilderness Camp, a Quaker summer camp in Plymouth, Vt.

“A lot of education leaves people high and dry with respect to what to do in life,’' said Earl W. Redding, a university relations official at American University. “We ought to have confidence in teaching our values.’' He noted that in an attempt to inject “relevance’’ into the curriculum, Guilford sponsored a course for freshmen titled “How To Be Human in the 20th Century.’'

The goal of education, Mr. Redding said, is to “get people to strive for excellence rather than judge whether or not they reach it.’'

Michi Tashjian, head of the lower school of Friends Central School in Philadelphia, said Quaker schools try to provide a “person-centered’’ education.

“We’re concerned with character,’' she said. As part of that emphasis, she said, the heart of a Quaker school should be its weekly meeting for worship.

A ‘Quaker Ethos’

Fostering Quaker values in schools where most students and most of the faculty are non-Quakers requires “constant clarification and explanation of the school’s Quaker ethos,’' said Earl G. Harrison Jr., headmaster of Sidwell Friends School in Washington.

Quakers make up about 9 percent of the 1,000 students at Sidwell, Mr. Harrison said, and there are eight Quaker teachers out of a staff of 198. The school does not have a Quaker majority on its board and is not controlled by a Quaker parish.

Sidwell adopted a “statement of principles’’ in 1976 to “redefine the Quaker essence’’ of the school, he said. The school began then to take several steps to implement its principles, including hiring Mr. Harrison, who is a Quaker.

The school attempts to foster Quaker values throughout the curriculum, sponsors retreats for board members to talk about Quaker beliefs, has a community-service requirement for graduation, and sends students and their families to help at a local soup kitchen.

“The claim that we often are too reluctant to explain Quaker belief,’' Mr. Harrison said, “strikes me as an accurate assessment of the state of affairs in many of our schools.’'

Many Quaker schools require the headmaster and a majority of the board members to be Quakers in order to preserve a Quaker “presence,’' noted Dulany O. Bennett, head of Wilmington Friends School in Delaware.

But that requirement has stirred debate at a number of schools, she said.

“There is a real problem in our desire to maintain Quaker governance, and our belief that those who participate ought to have power,’' Ms. Bennett said. “Are we saying to parents that you can join and have Quaker experiences, but not being Quaker, you cannot govern? I don’t feel comfortable with it.’'

Others here echoed her remarks. Kay Edstene, president of the Friends Council on Education, said Quakers “split people into three groups: all non-Quakers, ‘convinced’ [converted] Quakers, and ‘birthright’ [born] Quakers.’'

But Richard Wood, president of Earlham College, said he would be reluctant to see schools give up Quaker majorities on their boards.

“There are people out there who don’t want us to be Friends schools, and I’m there to see that it doesn’t happen,’' he said.

A version of this article appeared in the April 20, 1988 edition of Education Week as Quaker Schools: Small But Influential Force