Simplicity and/or Quaker Education: Mary Garman

April 6, 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.”

This is not a question I formulated, but one that was posed in the ongoing on-line discussion of the New York Times article about the conflict between Friends Seminary and New York Quarterly Meeting.  I took a pass at addressing that question on this blog.  But I wondered how my Earlham Quaker friends would address it.  So I asked.  Here’s a terrific reflection on cost, value and worth from Mary Garman, Professor of Religion.

“I’ve been thinking about the words “Cost, value, and worth” and the differences among them and the ways they intersect. My thinking is shaped by conversations I’ve had with students over the years about their financial woes. Many of them were agonizing about the cost of Earlham relative to their families’ circumstances, and most of the time they were feeling unworthy of the sacrifices that were being made for them. In those conversations I try to reassure them by pointing out their areas of growth in skills and insight, and how that could translate into a major, some research, a job, and a life in the world. I tried to unhook price from worth, but that isn’t always easy to grasp when you are feeling overwhelmed by the demands of college.

“Cost – I’ve come to believe that Earlham has to cost a lot – it just is expensive to maintain our campus, our faculty, our programs. The dilemma we face is how to keep costs manageable while being faithful stewards. When we make decisions about how to spend money, we need to stay aware of the differences between simplicity and cheapness. That is not always easy to see in specific situations, so I think it helps to have people around when decisions are being made who have a deep grasp of the tensions. Shabbiness is not attractive, but it is also in the eye of the beholder – I do love Carpenter Hall, but sometimes when I am climbing the steps I wonder how visitors see it. How we spend money does matter. Other things on my mind are:  do we pay hourly employees a living wage? Do we hold fast to a principle of equity across departments – not paying hugely different salaries to people in some departments, for example? I’m sure there are other questions that I am not thinking about at this moment.

“Value – Sometimes is helps me to ask, “What makes an Earlham education valuable?” As I work at an answer I try not to think in comparative terms because I think that leads me toward a kind of snotty and uninformed self-righteousness about other schools that doesn’t benefit anyone. Instead I think about what we set out to do in the classrooms, labs, practice rooms, etc. at Earlham. I won’t spell it all out here, but the summary for me is that we prepare people for the world as it is, and also the world as it could be: more just, more peaceful, more filled with lovingkindness. I have tales to tell about how hard this is, but this is not the time. We need, then, to stay focused on assisting young people to imagine and then find meaningful work that sustains their lives. They need also to find their vocations, whether that is also their job or not. An Earlham education is valuable when it does that, and we all need to be engaged in this process. That said, I think (back to cost for a moment) that it is important to do what we have to do to staff areas of the college that focus on that work.

“Worth – This quality is not always neatly separated from value in my head, but I think of it in the sense that people mean when they write a lost-and-found ad that says, “This object isn’t valuable to anyone else, but it is worth a lot to me because…..” We are getting into the realm of the intangible here, which is also the realm of the ineffable. I’ll try, but this won’t be precisely accurate. An Earlham education is worth the price tag when the pieces come together into a whole that reflects our central mission and also reveals and empowers the uniqueness of the particular person. We know that we fall short, and that our students do too. In fact, sometimes the ways we mess up are the sources of our most growth. This is not about perfection, for which I am profoundly grateful! I think the matter of worth is about coherence (best word I can come up with) and about self-perpetuation. When I listen to alums they say things like, I left Earlham and I had some complaints about the place, and everywhere I went after that I tried to recreate aspects of Earlham in my neighborhood, my workplace, my home. In other words, there is a time-lapse in assessing the worth of an Earlham education – and sometimes it can be 10 years!”

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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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