Sunday, July 12, 2009

Quakers & Education: The Few, The Proud, The Quakers

Have you heard enough about Quaker education from me yet? If so, I promise, this is new light. And when I say "light" I don't mean the domesticated lovely light that most Quakers talk about where everything is happy and good and peaceful. I'm talking about the light that might compel us to change, might show us the errors of our ways, light that might sting a little or a lot.

I've written about education before here and here and here. Then, I just had a general sense that the way Quakers do private school education is wrong. Now I see the truth so clearly it hurts, and it's bursting to get out.

We are sinners. Not in the fire & brimstone way, or the hell in a hand basket way, but in the Julian of Norwich way, where our sin is not a condemnation or reason for shame, but an opportunity for redemption.

Quaker K-12 education supports and reinforces racism and classism in the U.S.

Please keep in mind that I'm not talking about individual teachers or schools or students, but structures and systems. As I said in this post, individuals can do lots of things breaking the rules of society, but little of that, if any, actually changes the rules.

Our class society depends on a few assumptions about the world, and a few rules that we need to follow in order to support those assumptions.

1. There's a natural hierarchy to our class structure, and only the most deserving are on top (or near the top) of that structure.
2. There must always be a class of poor people in order to keep wages low for the working class.
3. The working class must do the majority of the physical labor, and their wages must be low.
4. The middle class must manage and educate the working class and poor, and keep them in their place.
5. The owning class gets to set the rules and/or live outside the rules.
6. Only the hardest working and naturally brightest of the poor and working classes deserve to move up in the class structure.
7. Dark-skinned people are at the bottom of the ladder because they are the least hard working and the least naturally bright people in the U.S.

Quaker K-12 schools in particular are supposed to help people climb those ladders, are supposed to break those myths down because of our testimony of equality. And they do, for some people.

Like Andre Robert Lee, an African American man who grew up in a poor neighborhood in Philadelphia. He got a "golden ticket" in the form of a scholarship to Germantown Friends School. His film, The Prep School Negro, explores issues of race and class in his life and in the lives of other African Americans today in Quaker prep schools. He talks about his painful cultural separation from his family when attended GFS. He also talks about how hard it was for him to be at in the same class with the son of the man who owned the factory that employed his mother. The tuition was more than his classmate's father paid Andre's mother to work in the factory. Andre lied to his classmates about his mother's work. "Peace worker," he'd say when she was paid by the piece of clothing she produced. In the film, I saw his pain but I also saw his sister's pain of being left behind. Why wasn't Robin given a golden ticket too?

We workshopped (a movie term to view and give feedback for) the film at the Gathering this year at the film's first public workshop. The next day, George Lakey made some connections in the social class workshop between the movie and the social class structure in the U.S. that made it clear to me that some of the arguments people have made for private Quaker education, and Quaker education itself, support racism and classism.

When I've tried to have conversations with people before (and I also tried to do so at Gathering), they've given me several reasons why Quaker K-12 education should stay the same (but perhaps be more diverse).

[Aside: I'll address other arguments for Quaker K-12 education to stay the same in subsequent posts, and I won't publish on this post comments that address other arguments.]

One primary argument is that Quaker schools give out a lot of scholarship money. I've always countered this argument with the fact that tuitions in the tens of thousands gives lots of middle class families access to scholarships, and not just poor people. But my argument was missing the main reason for social class and racial oppression: the concept that only certain people are worthy of this kind of elite education. Only the best and brightest get plucked from the ghetto to attend our elite schools. Quaker schools require applications and essays, from which they choose only the best and brightest. The GFS website says that they give "no distinction made in the admissions process between applicants who apply for financial aid and those who do not." That seems to indicate a sense of equality.

But as one Friend pointed out at a listening session hosted by FGC's committee on racism, that equality isn't the same for everyone. She was in a group where each person was given the same amount of time to speak, but one Friend, who spoke very slowly because of a disability, pointed out that for her equality would mean the same number of words rather than the same amount of time.

By choosing Andre and not his sister Robin, GFS unwittingly supported the classist assumption that there's a group of people who "deserve" for one reason or another, an elite education, and a group who don't. Equality in education would not mean that we educate rich people in order to give 25% of our students some scholarship (or loans). It would mean that Andre Lee would have been educated alongside his sister.

It would look like the Seed Schools in Washington, DC and Baltimore, MD.

Some say that only the smartest and most motivated kids could survive such a rigorous education (another group also thinks that only the best belong with them: The U.S. Marines), but the Seed Schools, both public residential schools, disprove this racist and classist assumption. If they can send nearly every graduate to college (including schools like Princeton), then why can't we? Or, a better question, why aren't we? The Seed Academy schools don't pick and choose, they don't require an application or essay or financial aid disclosure--they use a lottery to choose from all the people who want to attend. Then they educate everyone, mostly poor African American 6-12th graders. And just in case you think that only the most motivated parents put their children into the Seed Academy lottery, Thomas Friedman proves you wrong when he talks of crack-addicted mothers begging the school to take her kids. Everyone wants better for their children, but only some have access to "better." If you yourself didn't go to college, how will you know how to coach your kid on writing an entrance essay?

The video on the Baltimore Seed School web page says of the school kids about to enter, “It’s their turn for them to become all that God meant them to be.” Isn't that what Quaker schools are hoping to do?

Remember that list above, the hierarchy of our class society? At the heart of the social class structure is this belief that the system works to bring the deserving to the top and keep those who don't deserve status at the bottom. We all know in our heart of hearts that this isn't true, don't we? We all know that our human resources are wasted when people of one class go to the top just because of their class, and people in another class stay at the bottom because of their class or their race.

Now, for the redemption part I promised.

At Gathering, I talked with Irene McHenry from Friends Council on Education and she says that Quaker schools do more for each dollar than most schools. If that's the case, we could be educating K-12 students differently. Maybe we could even improve on Seed.

But this requires a serious change.

What if Quaker schools educated anyone who wanted an education, not just a few, and not just those deemed by society as "worthy?"

I'd love it if every Quaker school administrator read my post and saw the light. That's not going to happen, so I'm going to ask you to help shed light where you can.

How is what I've said sitting with you? What speaks to you? What gives you new light? What new light do you have to offer?

If you're convinced and want to know how you can help, here are a few things I'd suggest:

1. When your K-12 Quaker school asks you for money, make a donation to the Seed Foundation. Let your school know why you're doing so.

2. Write a piece for your blog (or a guest piece for this blog) on your understanding about this issue of racism and classism in Quaker schools.

3. Talk with your friends about this issue.

4. Host a discussion group.

5. Ask your Meeting to consider the issues I've raised.

6. Print out this blog post for others to read. Forward it to your friends. Post it on your facebook page.

7. Start a Quaker charter school that educates everyone who needs an education.


8. Hold me in the Light as I continue to write on this subject. There is more to be said.


WeaverRose said...

About suggestion #1 - Detroit Friends School is struggling to stay afloat. I don't have a lot of $$ to give but not supporting a Quaker school to make a point on class is untenable in this situation.

earthfreak (Pam) said...

Actually, I didn't notice at first either, but Jeanne didn't say DON'T give money to your Friends school, you could theoretically split your donation, or donate the same amount to both.

I personally love this idea.

Friendly Mama said...

This is totally timely for me. After homeschooling for 12 1/2 years, we've gotten involved with a small private school. It's not Quaker (we have a very small Quaker community) but the mission is to provide a good education to a diverse community. 40% of the student body are there on scholarship. The tuition is about half that of the other good private schools (like the Waldorf). I love the school environment and the socio-economic and ethnic diversity.

I am, though, beginning what I think will be a struggle with the board of directors. The board bi-laws require that each board member commit substantial financial support to the school. A nice idea, in theory, but one that prohibits anyone who is not wealthy from participating. Last year, there were no parents on the board and when the school had a financial crisis, rather than turning to the school community, being transparent and asking for help, the board said nothing and discussed closing the school (a large foundation grant saved the day). This year there will only be one parent: The founder of the school. I met with him last week to discuss my concerns. He said he saw my point but argued that people who were not business people, folks who've never sat on a board, don't know how to act. I pointed out that when a few affluent people make all the decisions for the less affluent, many people experience it as paternalism. I suggested that, if the board is truly committed to diversity and equality, they begin systematically training parents on how to participate in board meetings by inviting us onto ad hoc and standing committees. I also suggested that the board be two-tiered so that there can be parents/teachers and financial supporters.

We'll see where this goes. Today, I'm going to re-enroll my youngest, who is going into first grade. I'm on the PTO board and will be the volunteering as the volunteer coordinator for the PTO and the school. I'm doing this because I want every parent to have the opportunity to be able to contribute to the school and to feel included in the school community. I strongly believe that learning to use one's voice comes from being in a safe community and feeling supported to test one's talents. The mission of the school is to educate children but, if it's done well, the school has the potential to be a force of good for the whole community. The board just needs to stop thinking that it knows better than we do what's good for us.

Your posts really help me to see things more clearly. You articulate ideas that I have had but hadn't been able to define. Thank you very much for being true to this leading.
Mary Linda

Jeanne said...


I would think that Detroit Friends School might be open to suggestions for change precisely because they're in financial trouble.

As noted in the book Fit for Freedom, Not for Friendship by Donna McDaniel and Vanessa Julye, Friends School of Detroit is one of a handful of very racially diverse Quaker prep schools in the country. It's an intentionally diverse urban school, with low tuition costs as compared to other Quaker schools.

But buried in the end notes of Fit for Freedom, Not for Friendship is the fact that the majority of families at Detroit Friends School are middle and owning class.

You're only going to go so far with racial diversity as long as you focus solely on skin color and ignore issues of class oppression. A LOT of racism in modern society (though decided not anywhere near all) is about class.

As I said in my post, picking and choosing who goes to the school supports the idea that only some deserve a fine education. Even if you pick a lot of African Americans.

Jeanne said...

Mary Linda,

Thank YOU for giving public witness to what you're doing to empower more and more people in education. You're right on the target.

I think when we break social class rules we should also give public witness to that.

I've been thinking of John Woolman a lot of late, and think his individual actions (like wearing undyed clothes because the making of dyed clothes involved slavery) would have done no good toward the ending of slavery had he not gone out to minister to the unconvinced. In fact, it's a pretty apt comparison because when Woolman turned from individual actions, other Quakers were also doing just individual actions to "break the rules," such as buying slaves, treating them humanely and educating them.

However, the purchase of slaves still supported slavery.

He took it upon himself to break the rules and then minister to Friends about the need to stop supporting the trade of human lives.

You're breaking the rules, and now you've witnessed to us about this. I hope you'll find a way to talk about this at your Meeting.

Su Penn said...

A school like Friends School in Detroit does seem at first glance like a different case than some of the older, elite schools in the east. But I'm not entirely sure. A Friend from our Monthly Meeting who attended an information session about FSD's financial crisis was disappointed that the school had decided not to consider becoming a charter school. As she reported it, one of the reasons given was that it would change the student make-up of the school. How, and why that would be a bad thing, wasn't specified, at least not in her report, but it was a comment that made me curious to know more about the school's reasons for that choice.

Jeanne said...


I'd love to hear that excuse too. Of course it would change the makeup of the school! You'd have a lot more poor kids in the school. But they could follow the Seed School model to give a great opportunity for poor kids.

I'm guessing they're using one of the other arguments I've heard (which I'll address in other posts).

Maybe someone from that school would be willing to be interviewed.

Diane said...

Hi Jeanne,

I agree with much of what you say. I have a recent blog post up at Emerging Quaker about Quaker education. I would put Olney Friends School, where my husband works and my teens attend, in the category of the kind of Quaker school that hews closer to the Quaker values you espouse. I have long thought that Quaker schools need to change radically if they are really going to bring Quakerism to the world--and in ways that probably will drive away the people simply looking for a leg up or for a prep school education from Quaker schools.

Tania said...

Jeanne, you totally speak my mind here. I've been very uncomfortable with the idea of Quaker private schools for a while now, and you clearly spell out the reasons here.

Hystery said...

The idea of Quaker schools for my kids is really great when I imagine my children having an education grounded in Friends' values. However, what bothers me is that my children could never attend a Friends' school since the tuition would be about what our family makes in a year. Now what makes my children less worthy of a Friends' education than other children? I thought Friends valued equality.

earthfreak (Pam) said...

H- that's pretty much exactly the point. And Quakers DO value equality, in theory, Friends Schools are just one example of how easy it is to get off track with a "some are more equal than others" mentality (studied Animal Farm in 8th grade at my Friends School, but we never talked about how it related to us)

Anonymous said...

Methinks this is an entirely natural tension, for education is about Quality/Excellence and Quakerism is about Equality/Justice, inter alia.

And Quakers, like every other group, are going to make some mistakes when making decisions within this tension.

A Joseph Campbell quote, paraphrased: "Not until we smell the stink of humanity in our own bones are we ready to let down our guard and truly live."

So Quakers make mistakes, just like everyone else. What of it? All we can do every day is "lean toward the Light" and Quakers are pretty good at that.

Steve Kolberg

Hystery said...

Does anyone know what percentage of children attending Quaker schools are actually Quaker kids?

earthfreak (Pam) said...

H - I think it varies, but in my graduating class of 80 I believe there were two who attended meeting and another two or three who identified as quaker but werent' active. I believe the percentage is higher here at Friends School of Minnesota, but actually a lot of quaker parents I know find private schools too elitist

Lone Star Ma said...

There are no Quaker schools in my part of the world so I feel fairly unqualified to address this, but I think it is a very important discussion. My older daughter is fortunate in being very academically bright and having a fall birthday (being older is a real advantage when they want you to take a four hour test in the fall of kindergarten) so she got into our district's public school for GT kids, which was a great (free) school with all the art and music and science and social studies that I wanted for her but that most students don't get to have anymore in elementary school. I felt pretty guilty sending her to a school with so much enrichment when all, all, all the schools should have it and all the kids should get it - but I also couldn't see depriving her of it when she was one of the lucky ones who got the golden ticket, especially since my need to work for our living would prevent me from being at her school all the time fighting for more enrichment if she went to our neighborhood elementary where they would be mainly drilling desperately to prepare for the math and reading tests. These issues are really hard.

Lindellica said...

Wait, but didn't George Lakey send at least one of his kids to a Quaker school? Because that's how I remember it.

For what it's worth, I agree with much of what you've said, as I think I've said before. It was George Willoughby who said that friends schools are the quaker's mission to the upper classes, and that's pretty much true. From what I've seen of other privates, however, they don't get much cheaper, (although some are cheaper), so I assume operating costs have something to do with the cost. As far as the exclusitivity -- demand is high, because the liberal upper middle class DO want their kids raised with "nice" values and quaker schools provide that. I think it would be interesting to see if any of them worked on expansion though. If they can be successful as small schools, why not broaden their reach? Why not take the same principles and expand?

It's funny, because I also see education as one of the only arenas that Quakerism has actually been "successful" in the last few decades. But instead of expanding on that success... using it for outreach... they end up running schools for rich kids. I don't know what the answers are, but it is a curious conundrum. (And one reason I'm not that into raising my daughter Quaker.)