Thursday, August 19, 2010

A Modern Plea

Wealth is attended with power, by which bargains and proceedings, contrary to universal righteousness, are supported; and hence oppression, carried on with worldly policy and order, clothes itself with the name of justice and becomes like a seed of discord in the soul. –John Woolman, A Plea for the Poor

I started this essay, originally intended for a Friends Journal1 special issue on education, not knowing what I was going to write. All I knew was that I felt a “seed of discord” about Friends prep schools, and I had no idea how to convey this sense that in our efforts to provide a good education, we're privileging the already privileged in order to give the same to those we deem worthy of getting it.

So I set out to learn about the social class diversity of Friends schools. Working with education professor Jane Van Galen, I developed a survey about the students who receive financial aid at Friends schools and part way through my research, I had to stop because someone with a measure of power among Friends schools decided they didn't like the questions I was asking and didn't like what I'd written before. And suddenly all the interviews I had scheduled from that date forward were cancelled and people stopped returning my calls. I don't know who it was and I don't know what was said. And that's not the story I want to tell here and now.

I tell you this because what initially looked like a wall turned out to be an opportunity. I don't work in education and didn't go to a Friends school. My college degree is in writing, not sociology. What was I to write about if I don't have "the facts" so many well-educated Friends ask for when I talk about Quaker education? So I pondered and prayed.

In my reflection I thought about the people I got to interview at fifteen schools before I had to stop the research. I found hard-working people with good intentions, people who crave excellence and equality. They reiterated some of what I already understood about Friends education: Quaker college preparatory schools supply a good education to students whose families can pay the tuition, and as many less wealthy students as the schools can afford to subsidize; some of the families receiving financial aid are pulled permanently out of poverty, so staff work hard to find funding for more and more families; Friends schools introduce students, families, and non-Quaker staff and faculty to Quaker worship, simplicity, peace, equality, integrity and community.

In story after story, I heard staff who themselves had become convinced Friends because of their experience of Friends education, and remembered that I count among my friends people who became convinced Friends at Quaker schools.

When I heard stories of the kids who Quaker prep schools helped, I forgot that my limited research was affirming my belief that a lot of the financial aid recipients have other social class privileges that would give them advantages over most other public school students.2

But when I closed my eyes in meeting for worship, I saw an auditorium full of poor and working class families holding lottery tickets hungering for one of the 20 or so spots at a Seed school in Washington, D.C. or Baltimore; I saw the poor and working class kids in sociologist Annette Lareau's "Unequal Childhoods: Class, Race and Family Life" who wanted to be in the band or play soccer or go to the library but starved for adults in their lives to make that happen; I saw urban Quaker prep schools surrounded by a throng of young people not knowing they need the educational nutrition inside those walls. And I wept. Not metaphorically, not just in my heart. Real live heart-broken tears.

Then I saw a vision of a food shelf as if it were run like we run Quaker prep schools.

It made me ask, if we had a blank slate in today’s society, in a culture that claims it’s a meritocracy but has one of the highest degree of economic status heritability among industrialized countries, would we have schools that give a very good education to kids who were lucky enough to be born into wealthy families, educate those who already have the most access to education? Does that system fit with our sense of the truth about equality?

Thus oppression in the extreme appears terrible, but oppression in more refined appearances remains to be oppression, and where the smallest degree of it is cherished it grows stronger and more extensive: that to labor for a perfect redemption from this spirit of oppression is the great business of the whole family of Christ Jesus in this world. –John Woolman, A Plea for the Poor

Before I ended my research, I got an opportunity to talk with a head of school who helped me see a vision of what’s possible for our schools: Dennis Hoerner at Wellsprings Friends School in Eugene, OR.

This Friends school started in 1994 like most other Quaker schools, as a private college prep institution with traditional entrance requirements and financial aid funded primarily through tuition paid by those who could afford it. Then in 1998, Oregon law changed to allow students struggling in public schools to be referred to any other school, public or private, and that student’s public school funding would follow the student. Within two years, Wellsprings became a school of almost entirely hard-to-teach public school students who are now thriving with the kind of tender attention and honor for which Quakers have such a capacity. William Ravdin, a Friend who became convinced because of his experience at a Quaker school and who has worked in Friends education his whole long life says of Wellsprings, “It is educating children who need to be rebuilt, emotionally and educationally, from the foundation up. Children whose families and schools in many cases have given up on them. Children who have given up on themselves."

Wellsprings Friends School’s only requirement to attend is that the student wants to be at the school.

Wellsprings fell into the work Woolman showed us three centuries ago. How can our other schools work toward a “perfect redemption” as we’re called, intentionally and with God's help? What will a Quaker school that embodied our sense of the truth about equality really look like?

1I submitted a version of this article to Friends Journal and retracted it a couple of days later, feeling like it wasn't finished. I'm not sure this one is finished, but I'm done with it.

2This statement comes from information I've gotten from a number of resources including Lareau's book that outlines how families where parents have a college education give their kids advantages that working class and poor families don't have, and how those advantages benefit the kids in school and later in life. Other more longitudinal studies have been done including Lewis Terman's "Genetic Studies of Genius" that show how much impact social class has on educational and professional accomplishments, and how IQ isn't an indicator.

My limited research of just 15 Quaker prep schools showed that while the majority of financial aid recipients income was low, an equal majority have very well-educated parents and caregivers. Many are choosing professions that don't pay well, many are artists or non-profit administrators. Few don't have a college degree. And of all the school's websites I visited (all the schools that have at least an 8th grade), all but one have admissions requirements that would favor families that have very educated parents of all incomes.

Given Lareau's work and what I found in my research, I concluded that Friends prep schools are mostly educating those who are already privileged educationally.


Tania said...

Jeanne, I don't have anything to add, but wanted to thank you for writing about this. I too feel a seed of discomfort about Friends' schools, but haven't felt really called to speak about it... and have partially felt that it's not my business, since I don't have kids and don't plan to.

So, thank you for bringing this discomfort out into the open and faithfully following your Guide.

chelavery said...

Your comments touch on the extreme ambivalence I experienced during four years on the faculty of a Friends school. I saw incredible, creative, caring teachers working with bright, creative, caring, students who --whatever their role in future life-- were preparing to use their skills and voices to do good and to support values we believe in. At the same time, I saw a school under financial pressure to attract families who could pay the full tuition in an area of the country where there is strong competition between the "best" independent schools. To stay in the running, the administration was pressured to buy into "bells and whistles" features that ran contrary to some of Friends fundamental values and that continued to help raise the price of tuition. I could see no end to the spiral. I think I celebrated and grieved every single day I worked there, and 7 years later am still healing.

natcase said...

Thank you for writing this.

I guess the only point I'd make is that we're not going to change anything by asking parents to give up providing their child with the best they can manage, whatever their class. That's a non-starter. But by deinstitutionalizing inheritance, by making it harder to just slide someone along on inherited wealth, we do a lot. I really like the Wellspring School story.

I wondered at the time what (if anything) my Quaker school alma mater would do with the enormous gift it got a few years ago. I still have some hope for something radical, but so far it's been pretty predictable: endowment, teachers salary, new library...

And whoever put the kibosh on your work interviewing school folks needs to be called out. That is just wrong. Even if I disagree with you a lot of the time.

Jeanne said...

Tania, thanks for your comment.

Chel, I really appreciate what you added to the conversation. After that mysterious message went out to Friends schools, I actually got a call from one of them saying they wanted to pull out of the survey because they were now afraid of their donors finding out about their participation! I found several people who were enthusiastic about my doing research and curious about what I'd find, and no one willing to go on record. So thank you. I am sorry you were wounded by your experience, though.

Nat, thanks for your comment. I appreciate the opportunity to clarify something.

Of course I'd love to see inheritance de-institutionalized. But that's not the bit of Light God has given me to share and to struggle with. Agree with me or not.

Perhaps as a parent, the only way you can see what I've written is from the parent's point of view. But I'm not writing about parents and their choices. I'm writing about Friends and our schools.

In Fit for Freedom, Not for Friendship, I read that in the 1700s, when some Friends wanted to undo the institution of slavery, they began to see that people buying goods made with slave labor drove the market for it. They couldn't force people to make a different choice about slavery and slave-made goods, so some people set up "free goods" stores, where all the items in them were slave-labor "free", thus giving people a different choice.

I ask nothing of parents. I ask if our schools give good witness to our testimony of equality. Is the choice Quakers are giving parents in our schools fully congruous with our values?

Kathleen said...

Having quite recently attended a round of open houses at Friends schools, I can say that a person could get almost all of the information you're asking for on your survey by attending open houses and asking questions. If you asked a team of people across the country to attend two to five open houses, ask questions and take copious notes you could probably get all your questions answered.

Regarding whether you are asking anything of parents, or just of Friends schools -- I don't see how we could separate those two things. And every time we have a conversation about Friends schools the idea of privilege bites us and usually ends up shutting down the conversation. The most recent discussion I led at my Monthly Meeting ended up hurting a number of people who felt accused of either hoarding privilege for their kids or having had privilege hoarded for them as students.

Trying to lead a caring, honest, loving conversation about Friends schools is one of the hardest things I've tried to do as a Friend. (...right up their with talking about race and trying to get Quakers to spend money.) That doesn't mean I'm going to stop trying, just that it's hard to get this conversation going in a manner that will be productive.

Hystery said...

I don't think Friends are trying very hard at all to use education as a means of honoring our testimony of equality. I'm also not convinced that institutional schools are always the best approach to education. Friends could provide a lot more kids a quality education if they experimented with online and home school options in addition to traditional brick and mortar institutions.

Jeanne said...

Hystery, there's another Friend who is actively working on exactly what you talk about. I'll see if I can put him in touch with you. Is your email on your blog? If not, email me at n.jeanne.burns at gmail dot com.

Kathleen, thanks for your (and Nat's) perspective about parenting. I'm not a parent, so it's completely outside of my understanding and view of the world.

In the defensiveness, I can't help but hear echoes of past conversations about privilege and oppression the Society of Friends have had (like the example about integrating Sidwell from Fit for Freedom, Not for Friendship...parents didn't see the issue of justice, they could only see their own choices and their own children and the possibility of miscegenation).

And that makes me wonder if we can have this conversation about Quaker schools honestly without evoking those feelings.

A question for you: why can't a conversation be productive if those feelings are present or real?

natcase said...

[note: this is out of order; I sent it last night and Blogger gave me an error. I also had an anonymous quote from a F/friend who works in Friends education, and I had forgotten Jeanne does not allow anonymous posts. I've deleted that portion of my post and am reposting here. Some of which echoes Kathleens thoughts, and which Jeanne alludes to in a response above.]

No, I can see it from both points of view. I'm sorry that wasn't clear in my comments. Indeed, before we had Daniel I don't know that I could really have understood the parents' point of view.

You may not believe you are asking anything of parents, but you do, basically because Friends who are parents are asked to be good parents and good Friends. And I'm here to tell you, as a Quaker parent, I feel torn. And we send our kid to a public school.

Part of the difficulty is that schools feed into and are integrated with an inequal world. In a peaceable kingdom, school "fit" would not involve judging a kids as "better" or "worse" at something. It would be based on personality and learning style and skillset and interest and other purely qualitative aspects.

But we don't live in that peaceable kingdom; it is a goal to strive for rather than something outside my (locked) front door. And parents, feeling a responsibility to their children, want them to have the tools not to be trampled. And we don't have time to rebuild society first because the kid is growing up Right Now.

And so education is always a matter of compromise: what can you teach this year, with these kids, in this classroom. Nobody wants to compromise on principle, but my sense is that education is all about doing the best you can Right Now, with much less really deep, long-term thinking than one might wish for such an important institution. Actually, I think Friends Schools do an unusually good job with that big picture thing. They also tend to be funded by wealth. So there you are.

Kathleen said...

A question for you: why can't a conversation be productive if those feelings are present or real?

I don't believe that's true. I think we need to acknowledge and fully honor the feelings before we can get anywhere with the question of what God is demanding of us with regards to Friends Schools. But I have yet to be part of a conversation that has been able to do that in a tender, gently enough way that people are able to listen to each other openly. I am actively working on setting up a conversation in my Meeting that acknowledges the wide range of feelings but doesn't get stuck there.

We also have to fully acknowledge the privilege involved in order to address the full question.

I'm not sure what part of my post seems to you like a parent's perspective. We cannot separate what we're asking of parents from what we're asking of Friends because of the intersection between those two groups, but that's a general observation, not coming from anything particular "parenty."

Were you thinking that part of my post felt defensive? I wasn't quite clear if you meant my post or someone else's post or the general defensiveness that arises so very frequently when this topic arises. I wasn't feeling particularly defensive when I wrote it so it would be very instructive for me to know if it sounded defensive.

RantWoman said...

I think it is really important to tell these stories and to ask these questions. However, your comments make me want to have a broader conversation: how do Friends who work in public schools feel they are living their testimonies? What is it like for students of Friends schools or for Quaker youth in public schools?

I think there are plenty of points for dialogue. I agree that it is not realistic to expect anyone just to give up privilege without a lot of soul-searching, and I am not nearly enough of a scholar of Quaker history to know, for instance, how Friends labored with one another about slavery or past points of reform.

Unknown said...

This is a very interesting discussion, and one with important implications. I find it particularly interesting because I am a convinced Friend who went to a non-Quaker elite boarding school and who taught for two years in an urban middle school in Teach For America.

One question that I have for everyone is, what is the purpose of Friends schools? Is it to educate our children in how to be good Friends? Is it a social mission to just be excellent learning institutions, because America doesn't have enough? Is it to expose non-Friends to our faith? Is it to maintain the social prestige that many Friends schools have?

This is a key question because the purpose of Friends schools will define how they carry out their mission. For example, more than one poster has suggested that Friends schools need to reach out more to the poor. However, without a huge endowment, it is difficult to do that without sacrificing prestige, because a "world-class" education is expensive. I got tens of thousands of dollars of financial aid EACH YEAR to go to my high school and my parents still paid big tuition bills, though I do know that some people whose parents made less than mine paid nothing. Anyway, all that's to say that if prestige is the goal, it's one that is hard to make accessible to regular folks.

I think that once the actual purpose of Friends schools becomes clear, it will be easy enough to understand why they are how they are.

As things stand, everyone does the best for their children that they can. It wouldn't be right to ask parents to renounce their privilege at the expense of their children's future. Parents always make the sacrifices they can to give their children a "leg up," and that's as it should be. But if Friends schools had as their primary purpose educating young Friends to be sensitive and thoughtful Children of Light away from the influences of vulgarity, indecency, violence, pride, and unfaithfulness (and these are issues even in the 1st and 2nd grade in some places), then giving our children a leg up wouldn't have to cost an arm and a leg.

-Adria Gulizia

Jeanne said...

Nat, thanks for trying again! I'm glad your comment did come through anyway.

I also don't think I'm talking about RIGHT NOW and YOUR KIDS. I'm talking about working toward that Peaceable Kingdom. Friends schools do have a lot to offer that isn't available in other school settings, private or public, as exemplified in Wellsprings.

Kathleen, I did mean the defensiveness that comes up in general. Sorry about the confusion. I realize now that the defensiveness is an unconscious fear reaction. We can't ask parents to give up privilege without that fear. "What about MY kids?" "What about MY education? Are you saying MY education was WRONG?"

I'm glad you're having these conversations in your meeting, and hope you'll keep me updated on your progress. I'd be open to publishing something you write about it here as a guest blog post if you want.

I didn't mean to say WHAT you wrote was particularly from a parent's point of's just that I'm not one and so don't see how it's relevant. Both you and Nat ARE parents, so WILL see it. That's all.

Adria, thanks for coming by and posting. Each Friends school has their own mission. I'm not talking about their mission. You say, "For example, more than one poster has suggested that Friends schools need to reach out more to the poor. However, without a huge endowment, it is difficult to do that without sacrificing prestige, because a "world-class" education is expensive." I'm challenging that our schools should aspire toward that prestige. I'm asking if that's what God is asking us to do. Are these the schools we'd build in today's world if we had to do it all over again?

Kathleen said...

Did I miss the FJ issue on Friends Education, or has it not come out yet?

I am still thinking about how to help keep that conversation going in my own Meeting but trying to balance that with the many other demands on my time, including the pretty significant volunteering I've taken on at my son's public school which is woefully underfunded. So I am not sure when that other thing is going to happen.

Jeanne said...

It came out--the October issue.