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.