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.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

The Rules of the Game

In George Lakey's workshop on Quakers & Social Class we play a game that very roughly estimates the social class structure in the United States. There, the rules and goals are set out before the participants at the beginning. I've participated in this game once, led it twice, and observed it once, and I've noticed this one thing about it the game:

Lots of Quakers do things that break the rules, but no one (save me) wanted to change the rules.

Yes, my sample size is small. But I was surprised that starting a coop or creating a collective, or trying individually to play by different rules didn't change anything at all about the game or its rules.

When I played, at the point at which the power rested in the hands of a few, I blocked the door to keep them from going out to make the decisions on how the game ends. I didn't understand why their Quaker value of equality wasn't kicking in, didn't understand why they just accepted the rules as they'd been given to us.

At the time, I was immersed in the experience and couldn't be this articulate about it. I just had strong feelings of anger and hurt and confusion because I couldn't square what we say we believe in as a people of faith, and our obedience to a random set of rules.

I still can't square my experience of the game with our stated testimony of equality.

It's a poker chip trading game called Star Power with three simple rules.

1. The goal is to get as many points as possible.
2. You must be shaking hands until you've agreed on a trade.
3. All trades must be unequal.

At the end of three rounds, the sub-group with the most points gets to go outside the room to decide what happens next, how the game should end. When I played the game, I tried to convince people to change the rules, but few if any seemed to want the same.

My observations about how I've seen Quakers engage with this game matters to me because the game is an approximation of the social class structure in the U.S. If our instincts don't lead us to try to change the rules in this game, we won't be led to change the rules in our society that support and perpetuate an oppressive classist system.

I still want to change social class rules because as Quakers, if we believe in equality, we not only should break the rules in our own lives, we should be trying to change the rules. We like to think of ourselves as rule changers. Unfortunately, we're only upsetting the power structure sometimes. I can't honestly think of any rule changing behavior right now (though I can think of social class rule breaking folks).

I'm not changing the rules either. But I thought I could start here, in this little blog, by making social class rules explicit, especially among Friends. I'll start with this rule, which I am breaking among Friends:

Do not try to inhabit a role outside of your social class

I went to college in 2004, at 37 years old, at a four-year school that is primarily for working class people. There, both instructors and other students saw my leadership capacity; they and I nurtured my gifts. In the years I spent among Friends though, this capacity of me was never seen, acknowledged or nurtured. This is because people like me, who grew up working class, and people who grew up poor, are not supposed to act like managers, to be leaders.

The acts of writing this blog and giving workshops on social class is breaking this rule.

Being an expert, a teacher, is hard to do at times. I hear in my head, "Who do you think you are? What do you know? They're the ones with the fancy degrees. They're the ones whose parents read to them. They're the ones who were groomed to be standing up here, telling you some truth about the world. You're supposed to be sitting, learning from them."

Early in the week at Gathering, our suite-mate who also grew up working class described reaching for something more than she was expected to do feels like reaching through a heavy, wet blanket. This feels true to me.

Every time a person living in poverty (not situational poverty, or chosen poverty) strives for a union job, every time a working class person reaches for the middle class by going to college, we're breaking this rule.

So how are you breaking social class rules? How are you trying to change the rules of the game? What is your meeting doing to change the rules as well as break them? Does God want Quakers to support this classist system?