March 26, 2011
A candidate for a position at Earlham asked me last week what made Earlham College special. I said that if you wanted to build a college from scratch that maximized the likelihood of young people learning deeply and well, gaining as much as possible the capability and the desire to go on learning, and becoming adults who always think carefully about the purposes and values they serve, then you would design a college that looked very much like Earlham College. I said that we were a college that embodied as closely as I thought any institution going the best practices of learning. I noted that many of these best practices had been common at Earlham for many years, but had been validated in recent years by a good deal of research on learning.
That is, I didn’t say a word about Earlham’s grounding in Quakerism. I staked the case for Earlham’s excellence entirely on our being a superior place for learning. Does that mean our Quaker grounding is irrelevant? Unnecessary? Not at all. Many (most?) of the essential features of Earlham that make us a superior learning community we have derived from Quaker teachings: insisting on unreserved respect for each individual in building our community, grounding learning in personal relationships, being committed wholeheartedly to seeking truth without fear or favor, believing that much of the best learning comes ‘experimentally’ (that is through hands-on experience), and believing that approaching problems in a multi-perspective (inter-disciplinary) way yields a rounder, deeper understanding. Not a complete list, of course.
We have drawn these leadings, these practices, from our grounding in Quakerism. We didn’t have to: we wouldn’t make the case that Quakerism is the only way to learn these things. No doubt there are other pathways to grasping how and why these practices are essential and effective. But you do need some way to learn these things: some taproot through which to draw on deep understanding about what best realizes human potential. Quakerism is our taproot. That’s why we are a Quaker College.