Quaker Schools: The Testimony of Cognitive Dissonance

(9 am. – promoted by ek hornbeck)

A recent article in The New York Times about Quaker schools has ginned up no small controversy within the Religious Society of Friends.  The association between individual Quaker meetings and churches and affiliated schools has long been contentious.  And it has been contentious in meetings and churches across the country.  This issue is especially commonplace on the East Coast, which is historically where most Quakers settled and lived.  The Times article correctly notes that these schools have often become bastions of higher income, not of Quaker teaching.  Quaker principles often include self-sufficiency, making do, and keeping matters simple.  

This is difficult to manage when tuition for one year at the average Friends school is equal to that of a top-rate college or university.  Furthermore, I myself have noted that the majority religious identification of students in many Friends schools is, in fact, Jewish, and that many schools only have a handful of students enrolled who are Friends.  One would assume the opposite.  Furthermore, Quaker school leave such a bad taste in the mouths of more than a few Friends that they are considered antithetical to the faith itself.  More than one bitter story has been told about an actual Friend denied entrance to a Friends school.  As an outreach tool, they are dubious at best, but still they continue.      

This section in particular was most controversial.

But some church members are also pushing for the separation because they say the school is no longer really Quaker. Among other complaints, they say the school’s $32,870 tuition, selective admissions and private-school culture fly in the face of the signature Quaker credos of simplicity, openness and equality.

“There are a number of Quakers that are concerned, who believe that the school over time has become a rich kids’ school,” said Michael Schlegel, the leader of the trustees of the New York Quarterly Meeting of the Religious Society of Friends, the city’s chief Quaker body.

Beyond cursory observations, I think this society (well beyond this Society) is long due for a discussion about privilege.  Privilege is, simply put, a set of unquestioned, often unchallenged rights and abilities granted to people in the majority.  These are not equally shared with others, nor granted to them.  I benefit from both male privilege and white privilege every time I open my mouth in a public setting.  The next time you yourself are in a gathering of people, see who opens his or her mouth first.  It will likely be a white male.  Men have been socialized to be this way, just as women have been socialized to not assert themselves as adamantly and insistently.  Though it may not be anyone’s fault, privilege is still everyone’s responsibility to address and eliminate.  This goes for racism, sexism, and how we choose to educate our children.

In this article, class privilege is the foremost offender.  With no one to hold parents and others accountable for their insistent demands, it is no wonder that Quaker principles fly out the window when money and appearances are more important.  The elite private school mentality in the article states that “nothing is too good”, when the Testimony of Simplicity to me is “waste not, want not”.  When how we look on the outside is valued higher than our inner selves, then the unfortunate priorities inherent here will flourish.  Progressive education will always cost more, due to the fact that there is often effort made to pay fair wages to employees and keep fair business practices.  Nothing could be more Quakerly in this regard, but taken to extremes, fair becomes lavish and regal.  

It is indeed curious that environmentally conscious liberals will often grow their own food, make a concerted effort to avoid harming the planet in what they buy, avoid excess wherever they see it, and yet spare no expense when it comes down to their children’s education.  Sometimes you do get what you pay for, but taking out that third mortgage might not be one’s best option.  Since my mother was a teacher in a public school, I spent my K-12 educational career there.  So, I cannot speak specifically to this issue through my own personal experiences. Among fellow Friends, I find a majority of them do enroll their children in private school somewhere.  

I myself would have loved to attend a Quaker school, though I would also have expected to also be properly schooled in Quaker theology and teaching.  As the article points out, most Friends school include at least some elements of this, but they do focus much attention in other areas.  When so many students are not Friends themselves, parents have been known to complain if their own religious beliefs are not being respected.  I find this laughable, since no one would ever dare argue that a Catholic school isn’t supposed to teach about Catholicism.  It does, however, speak to the fact that within liberal Quakerism, there is a wide variety of personal religious expression.  Sometimes inclusive practices border on extreme.  They should not be seen as paying ransom.    

Furthermore, I’ve always found it unfortunate how discussion of privilege is often structured.  It becomes transformed at times into a contest of pointing fingers.  Though this might feel cleansing, it’s nonetheless counter-productive and unhelpful.  Quakers consider speaking Truth to power a cardinal virtue, but there are better ways to achieve it than an argument.  Producing defensiveness rarely grants greater understanding.  A more effective strategy might be stating a case with compassion, while still not soft-peddling the message.  Allies and marginalized people must form a working covenant, a living document subject to periodic revision and further discussion when necessary.  Famed Quaker William Penn sought to achieve the same thing through his fair dealings with Native Americans.  Friends and others can use his example here, should they wish.


    • RUKind on April 7, 2011 at 01:30

    I seem to recall that. The cognitive dissonance still reverberates.

    It’s too bad the Quakers don’t get more press. There’s some very decent value systems to be shared.

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