School Choice & Charters

At a Quaker School, Mixed Feelings on War

By Mary Ann Zehr — October 17, 2001 10 min read
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Leah A. Markowitz doesn’t consider herself very political, but she recently accompanied friends to a peace rally in New York City. While marching, the senior at Germantown Friends School here received word that the United States had begun airstrikes against targets in Afghanistan.

Seniors Leah A. Markowitz and Jacob A. Lamay, at top, take opposing positions on U.S. military action.
—Allison Shelley/Education Week

Something about the irony of marching for peace at the same time that war was under way, something about the way that discussions with her parents unfolded after the rally, caused Ms. Markowitz to take a step in her beliefs toward pacifism.

“I decided I really did stand for what the peace rally stood for,” she said, “that nothing is going to be solved by bombing.”

Like many students in the upper grades at this historic Quaker school in Philadelphia, Ms. Markowitz, who is Jewish, has been forced to re-examine her views on peace and war since the terrorism of Sept. 11 and the start of U.S. military action in Afghanistan last week.

Students say that the climate of this highly academic private school, which was founded and has been governed by Quakers since 1845, is liberal, and that questioning is encouraged. Thus pacifism, a perspective that is brushed off by many Americans but is taken very seriously in this school community, has received a lot of scrutiny at the same time that the school has carried out its long tradition of critiquing war.

The Quakers, along with the Amish, the Brethren, the Hutterites, and the Mennonites, constitute the historic Christian peace denominations in the United States.

Membership in one of those groups has helped individuals gain conscientious-objector status during military drafts. A series of U.S. Supreme Court decisions during the Vietnam War, however, determined that everyone has an equal opportunity to apply for such status.

“Quakers are controversial at times like these,” said Rich Nourie, the acting head of Germantown Friends, which has graduated a number of thinkers who are well-known in Quaker circles. Mr. Nourie is a Roman Catholic, but has spent most of his professional career in Quaker schooling and is strongly attracted to the pacifist view.

“Some people think, ‘Where are you guys? If you’re not part of the war effort, are you truly patriotic?’” Mr. Nourie said.

In a statement to students and parents posted on the school’s Web site in response to the Sept. 11 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, Mr. Nourie noted that “what the peace testimony won’t do is tell us how to respond to this global situation. This will take our own individual and collaborative active reflection, learning, discussion, and prayer.”

Peace is part of the curriculum at Germantown Friends School in Philadelphia, including the 7th grade class on Quakerism.
—Allison Shelley/Education Week

Only 13 percent of the faculty and 9 percent of the 900 K-12 students at Germantown Friends are Quakers. More than a third of students are Jewish, a substantial number are members of Christian denominations other than Quaker, a few are Muslim, and many consider themselves nonreligious. But 11 of the 25-member committee that governs the school are members of the Germantown Monthly Meeting of the Religious Society of Friends, which established the school.

At least 22,800 students attend any of the more than 79 Quaker schools in the United States, according to the Philadelphia- based Friends Council on Education.

While the current of peace runs throughout the Philadelphia school, students and teachers acknowledge that they represent a wide range of views on how peace is relevant in the current international crisis.

“It’s not like everyone is joining hands and singing ‘Kumbaya,’” said Meg Goldner Rabinowitz, a 12th grade English teacher who describes herself as Jewish and “increasingly” pacifist.

Rahim Kassam- Adams, a junior at Germantown Friends whose family is of mixed Muslim and Quaker traditions, said that the current situation has made a pacifist out of him.

“I definitely consider myself a pacifist. I didn’t before” Sept. 11, he said. “Before, I felt if I found a cause that I believed in enough, I would myself feel violent. What I’m feeling now is violence won’t lead to an answer. It would keep the cycle of violence going.”

But Sarah Laskow, a junior, has experienced a shift in her thinking in the opposite direction. Before the terrorist attacks, she thought she agreed with the teaching of her Quaker family and school that all conflict can and should be resolved peacefully. Now she’s questioning what Quakers call the “peace testimony.”

“I’m struggling as a Quaker,” Ms. Laskow said. “I’m having a hard time figuring it out. I don’t see how we can end what [terrorist leader] Osama bin Laden is doing. ... I don’t see how we can stop him without killing him.”


The peace position of Quakers shows itself in subtle ways throughout the school.

Security guards here are unarmed, as Quakers frown on weapons. The school doesn’t display U.S. flags in classrooms or ask students to recite the Pledge of Allegiance, because, as Florence B. Mini, a Quaker and a Latin teacher at the school, puts it: “Too often, the flag is used to stir up militaristic jingoism.”

From kindergarten onward, students are encouraged to resolve disputes by talking, rather than hitting. To support that teaching, Craig W. Stevens, the school’s psychologist, has developed a regular activity, called FEEDBACK, in which children sit in a circle and take turns expressing either negative or positive feelings to particular classmates.

Among the rules: The classmates targeted for “feedback” can opt not to hear it. If they do choose to hear it, they must wait to reply until it’s their turn to talk around the circle, a stipulation that is meant to give children time to form a constructive response.

“I don’t like how you excluded me by not making the house with me,” a 4th grade girl told one of her classmates during a recent FEEDBACK circle. “Could you not do that again?”

“I don’t remember excluding you at all. I don’t remember your asking to play,” the classmate responded when it was his turn to speak.

One of the few places where peace is formally part of the Germantown Friends curriculum is in the Quakerism class that is required of all 7th graders. In a recent class, teams of students created posters to illustrate central ideas of Quakers, including peace, simplicity, and equality.

Four lively students who had been assigned “peace” already seemed to have received considerable exposure to what the concept means to Quakers. For example, while working together, two of the students spontaneously broke into singing a few bars of a Beatles song, “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer.”

“That’s a very non-Quakerly song,” one of the singers pointed out to a visitor. “It’s about a guy who kills people with a silver hammer.”

Role of Silence

A ritual that teachers and students say feeds the presence of peace in daily interactions here is the school’s weekly “meeting for worship.”

Seen as a spiritual activity by some and a chance to stop and take stock of things by others, the 40-minute period on Thursdays is a gathering of students and teachers in the 150-year old Germantown Quaker meetinghouse, located in the center of the cluster of both historic and modern buildings that make up the school’s campus in northwest Philadelphia.

The meeting alternates between long periods of silence and short interruptions in which an individual stands up among the many rows of plain wooden benches and addresses the group. Some students close their eyes, while others focus on some point in space. They seem undistracted by the occasional car horn less than a block away—part of the hustle and bustle of Germantown Avenue.

In one such recent meeting, about 200 teenagers and their teachers fell silent at an appointed time, seemingly of their own accord. The first speaker, a teacher, expressed joy at the return to school of a student who had undergone surgery. Twenty-five minutes of utter silence—without fidgeting or whispering—ensued before another speaker rose to speak. Lastly, a 16-year-old student addressed the group about how the recent death of the father of a classmate had resurrected her own fears about death.

Students said the meeting for worship became a forum to express both emotional desires for peace and also sometimes for retaliation in the weeks following the terrorist attacks. Last Thursday, during the first meeting for worship held after the start of the U.S. air campaign in Afghanistan, some students condemned the American bombing and expressed sorrow for the people who had been killed in the strikes.

“It’s a good time,” 17-year-old Oren M. Gur, who is Jewish, said of the weekly gathering. “A certain time of the week, we’re going to sit in silence for 40 minutes, and we’re going to be assured of it. It’s a time to sit and think.”

Views Often Diverge

Yet Mr. Gur was one of two seniors interviewed last week who said they didn’t feel Quaker values had had an impact on them.

“My opinions don’t reflect the Quaker views, even though I’ve been here since kindergarten,” Mr. Gur said, adding that he supports the U.S. airstrikes. “In times of peace, you can be peaceful, but these aren’t times of peace.”

Seventeen-year-old Jacob A. Lamay expressed similar sentiments. He said he’s attending Germantown Friends because of its academic reputation, not its Quaker values. “I’m in support of the strikes,” he said. “I think they’ve taken appropriate action. They didn’t do anything too fast or too early.”

Since Sept. 11, Mr. Lamay has been displaying an American flag on the outside of his book bag, which he recognizes goes against the grain of the culture at Germantown Friends. He’s also considering signing up for a college Reserve Officers’ Training Corps program for the next year. Mr. Lamay, the brother of a cadet at West Point, said, “I’ve been planning to join the military in some way for a long time.”

It’s not difficult at Germantown Friends to come across students who hold opposing views.

For instance, senior Zack Y. Steacy said that if there were a military draft eventually connected with the current crisis, he would participate. “If my number were called, I’d fight,” he said.

But Sam E. Allingham, another senior, said that under the same circumstances, he’d seek the status of conscientious objector. “I think the retaliation that’s going on is going to destabilize the Middle East,” he said. “It’s only going to cause more terror.”

Still others say they fall somewhere in the middle. While they haven’t embraced pacifism, they say that their Quaker schooling has caused them to look more critically at war than other American teenagers might.

“I think it’s unrealistic to be a pacifist,” said Amy K. Bell, a senior who is Episcopalian. At the same time, she said, many students who share her opinion aren’t feeling gung-ho about the airstrikes.

“It’s not something we’re happy about—that’s the Quaker values coming out,” Ms. Bell said. “I don’t think students buy in to the propaganda.”

Several young men said if they were subject to a draft, they would try to land noncombatant positions in the military.

“I believe we need to answer back with force, but there is a limit to how much force is needed to react to what [the terrorists] did,” said Dan A. Berkman, a senior who has already registered with the Selective Service System, a requirement for all American men when they reach 18.

He’s tried to do his own part to work for peace. A self-described “religious Jew,” he participated last summer in Operation Understanding, a program that aims to improve cross-cultural understanding between African-Americans and Jews.

Michael Pepe-Mooney, a 16- year-old junior, said he’d also seek a noncombatant position in the military if he were drafted. While he believes the recent U.S. military action is necessary, he also views it “as an image thing to satisfy the urge for visible retaliation that a lot of Americans have.”

“Everything that gets broken in the current conflict—we’re the ones who will have to build it back physically and mentally,” he said. “We’ll face the repercussions of this.”


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