Simplicity and/or Quaker Education

April 5, 2011

“What would Quaker education look like if it was both available to anyone, effectively equipped its students to thrive in a hyper-capitalist society, and at the same time prepared them to lead us into a new, more just social order? We have no idea. Like everything else, this ultimately is a spiritual problem.”

No idea?  I thought Earlham was an ongoing experiment towards those combined ends.  I’ll admit I know we don’t wholly succeed at any of the three goals, because they are each difficult, and because they are also in difficult tension with one another.

The quoted question comes from Steve Davison in a reply to a post (by Bob Doto, I think) on the blog Not  New York entitled “The High Cost of Simplicity, Angry Quakers and the Fallacy of Neutral Money.”  The post continues the discussion of the recent New York Times article about the conflict that has arisen between New York Quarterly Meeting and Friends Seminary, the Quaker k-12 school that is linked to NYQM through facilities and governance. (I was drawn to this through a link from QuakerQuaker.)

Doto himself asserts, “These days, spiritual understandings of “simple living” go to great lengths to evade discussions of finance, thus perpetuating an environment where “living simply” requires “spending amply.” It is this environment that makes buying local seasonal foods cost twice as much as buying foods from overseas.”

Later in the piece he says, “While a person could easily make the argument that having a Quaker school in Manhattan requires an inflated tuition, the obvious retort is rarely stated. If having a Quaker school in Manhattan compromises the tenets of your tradition, don’t have a Quaker school in Manhattan. No one is forcing you to have a Quaker school in Manhattan.”

I don’t agree with Doto.  It is difficult to provide a quality education, Quaker or not, inexpensively.  Teachers must be paid, facilities built, services provided.  Doing that in New York makes it all the more expensive even that doing it in Richmond, Indiana. Doing it in a Quaker way may reduce the needed expenditures somewhat, but may also add costs in other ways, especially in terms of making sure the education is carried through in the context of personal, caring relationships.

Does that undercut the possibility of living with simplicity?  Certainly it makes it more difficult.  But education is also a Quaker testimony.  I’d be reluctant to say that living with simplicity fully and completely trumps becoming educated in a Quaker way.

Fifteen years ago I was living in New York City as a single Dad with my son, Tommy.  My job was in New York.  I needed to live there,  and I needed to provide an education for him.  My best option to provide a good Quaker education for him was Friends Seminary.  (Brooklyn Friends was also an option; not much difference in terms of cost.)  Doto could object: you didn’t need to have that job; you could have worked elsewhere.  True, though the work was something that I was led to do.  But even if I had lived elsewhere, providing a good Quaker education would have cost money.  There’s a real dilemma here that can’t just be wished or imagined away.

So, again, here’s Davison’s question: “What would Quaker education look like if it was both available to anyone, effectively equipped its students to thrive in a hyper-capitalist society, and at the same time prepared them to lead us into a new, more just social order?”  At Earlham we are trying to provide an education that is as accessible to as many students (and families) as possible, that equips our students to be effective in the world into which they will graduate, and that prepares them to help change the world into a place of greater peace and justice.

I’m sure we can do better and think about that every day.  But I don’t think the answer to Davison’s question is “We have no idea.”

About Doug Bennett

Doug Bennett is Emeritus President and Professor of Politics at Earlham College. He has a wife, Ellen, and two sons, Tommy (born 1984) and Robbie (born 2003).
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10 Responses to Simplicity and/or Quaker Education

  1. Pingback: Simplicity and/or Quaker Education: Mary Garman | The Observatory

  2. Pingback: Money, Simplicity, and Embracing New Paradigms // Quaker Tuition Follow-up | NOT NEW YORK

  3. This is an interesting discussion brewing! BTW, if you don’t know Steven Davison has a awesome blog on Quaker economics that goes beyond the usual thinkings and engages with past Quaker understandings. It’s at: I’d love to see you two talk more about this–I suspect it could go deeper than the kneejerk defend-or-denounce arguments Friends too often get into when discussing these questions.
    Martin, pub of

  4. As a parent of three children, one in Guilford, with two more to go–high school twins who are determined to attend different colleges–I have found only college in the U.S. besides Guilford that appears Quaker to me: Earlham. It has Quaker roots and a Quaker meeting, uses Quaker practices and avoids groups that separate people into cliques. Unfortunately, it is expensive … to make a school affordable, I would prefer fewer amenities and a strong soul, but I know I am in a minority. 🙂

  5. asg says:

    Thank you for your thoughts. I agree that Doto’s comment about not having Quaker schools in Manhattan was maybe a bit extreme, but as a Friend and former teacher, I have to say that I think that a lot of what people think of as being essential for a “quality” education just isn’t. For example, I’m pretty sure that students don’t need computers in school until high school. Some of the best math education that I’ve seen in the middle and lower grades didn’t use anything more high tech than giant pieces of adhesive-backed paper and markers. Even at the high school I attended, which was among the most prestigious in the world, only the science classrooms had equipment more sophisticated than an overhead projector. While there are some costs that you can’t cut below a certain level, I think that injecting a little simplicity into schools – both Quaker and non-Quaker – can only be a good thing.

  6. Jane Stokes says:

    Our experience as a family leads me to recommend that Friends look closely at what can be achieved through child-centred home-learning and distance education. Even if we had lived somewhere with Quaker schools in the vicinity we could not have afforded them and would probably not have chosen to go that route. There are a growing number of people recognizing that there is a paradigm shift occurring in education – away from the industrial model of compulsory, bricks and mortar schools and back into learning in the community and home. There are learning models and programs that can speak to the hearts of Quaker families. Now I have daughters working on high school graduation. The older one smiled with delight as she read out one of her social studies assignments from her distance learning program”Write a radio interview dialogue between a Vietnam war era draft resister coming to Canada and a Doukhobor elder ” – simply put that was her family history as a Quaker and it gave her a chance to examine her relationship to war resistance. Our younger daughter is busy working on a Peace Studies 10 class online. Formal online classes have only become their choice in these last years of high school because they have both chosen to work for recognized high school diplomas. The financial costs to us have been minimal, we can live simply, encourage our children to respond to their own inner guide to discover their learning interests and passions and help them to learn in a way that is consistent with our Quaker values. I would encourage Friends to look at the writings and work of both David Albert and Brent Cameron. I would like to suggest that at least part of the future of Quaker education may not be in school buildings at all.

      • Jane Stokes says:

        In most circumstances – no, not college too. However for the young adults who head off to college because they feel they “have to” rather than because there are interests they really want to pursue self-directed options may be a better option at least for a while. I do wonder if Quaker educators at all levels could explore creating online learning resources and classes. Imagine, for example, an online high school class on “Right Sharing of World Resources” with students participating from Kenya, Bolivia, UK , Canada and USA – mentored by a professor from Earlham and a high school teacher from a British Quaker school. Or a series of dvds exploring simple living for Quaker families to use at home with their 4-8 year olds. I think that there are lots of possibilities that could be explored to expand the concept of Quaker education.

  7. Kerry Frank says:

    Quaker or not, it would seem that while we have expenses related to providing a quantitative education which is meaningful and purposeful in the eyes of contemporary society. That love allows us to provide our children with exactally the discernment they will need to function in the future. Great children come from great homes that are filled compassion and joy. A Quaker education regardless of institution comes from that spirit filled heart.

  8. Recently in my twelve grade “New Media” class at Brooklyn Friends School, I asked the students to log off of their computers and circle up in the center of the computer lab for a discusion. I posted on the “Smartboard” the word and definition of integrity and asked the students to consider it. One student asked, “why, did we do something wrong?” I said, “no it’s just we are a Quaker school and this an important testimony to consider.” Another student asked if I was a Quaker and I told them I was and that the integrity testimony is one that I struggle with. The class considered the testimony for fifteen minutes or so with one student surmising that integrity ment being honest and that if one is not honest there can be no trust with others leading to conflict within the community. I then had them log back on.

    The New Media class is charged with publishing a multi-media blog, (iQuakenews) about community service actions taken by Brooklyn Friends School students and featuring our community service partners. The class teaches 21st century communication skills with 17th century values. This is the first year BFS has offered the course and the challenge is to continually simplify the technical complexities of the digital media process in order to effectively communicate the values of our Quaker school.

    I love my school and wish every child had the opportunity to attend it. Be that said, the next best thing that can be done is to offer outreach to the public. Brooklyn Friends does this in a variety of ways including partnering with the Horizons program. “The Horizons National Student Enrichment Program, launched in New Canaan, Connecticut over 40 years ago, is an organization which links independent schools with nearby public schools in their communities. The mission is to strengthen public school students’ learning retention and reduce the “summer achievement gap” often faced by children in economically troubled areas.”

    BFS also supports the Bridge Film Festival. The festival encourages student filmmaking from student’s attending Friends schools or Meetings. Since going on-line three years ago, the work of our students is available to any class room anywhere with internet access. The website even includes lesson plans.

    Are there issues of equality, simplicity, integrity, peace and stewardship in our schools, meetings and homes? You bet there is. Thirteen years ago during my first year of teaching there was a controversy at school concerning one of these values and I was discussing it with a teacher who was very agitated when I broke out in a smile. She asked me what I was smiling at and I said, “after working in the private sector for twenty years, it was a pleasure to discuss issues of integrity.”

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