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.”