Earlier this year I posted about a controversy at Friends Central School in Philadelphia, where a Palestinian Quaker, Sa’ed Atshan, was invited to visit and speak, then abruptly disinvited & the two teachers who invited him, Ariel Eure and Layla Helwa, were suspended.
The news site philly.com reported on May 10 that the two teachers have now been terminated effective June 30. Along with that decision came an invitation from the school to Sa’ed Atshan to speak at Friends Central sometime in the future, on “his personal experiences and path to peace education.”
The report added that
[The suspended teachers] were offered severance pay of $5,500, but that is contingent on their dropping a federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission lawsuit, said Mark Schwartz, their lawyer.
“This is a ridiculous offer,” he said. “I’d be surprised if they took it. Unlike the school, these two have some principles.”
School representatives on Tuesday declined to give a reason for the terminations.
The school set up a task force to consider how to handle issues around invitations to speakers. This task force has recommended that a nearby university Dialogue Institute be “invited to work with students and teachers to promote ‘intrareligious, interreligious, and intercultural dialogue.’”
A couple thoughts: The great Yogi Berra once said, “Predictions are hard, especially about the future.” But I’ll go out on a limb here, and predict that while I have not met Sa’ed Atshan and am unfamiliar with his scholarly or activist work, that he’ll be slow to accept such an invitation, especially in the wake of the teacher firings.
Another thought: I wonder what Friends Central students are thinking about this whole matter?
And a third: I posted an open letter to FCS students, much of which still seems pertinent as a comment. So I’ve updated it a bit, and reposted it here. (They tell me repetition is good for learning.)
A Message to students at Friends Central School:
From Chuck Fager
In late January, I visited Friends Central School (FCS) and shared a story with you, about getting arrested in Selma, Alabama in 1965 and spending the night in jail with Dr. King.
I told you that for almost 50 years, that true story had a happy ending: from the black struggle in Selma came the Voting Rights Act, which had advanced freedom, elected presidents, and made America better.
But then starting a few years back, that happy ending was snatched away. In its place came massive vote suppression, and following that, continuing attacks on the other freedoms that democracy protects. So my story about a fight for freedom was not over after all.
At my age, I said, passing on these stories is my main contribution. It’s a passing of the torch. As for the real activism, as for the new leadership demanded by our times, — and these were my final words:
“It’s your turn.”
Now it looks as if your turn has come already.
I don’t know Sa’ed Atshan; but people I respect (like former FCS teacher Max Carter) say he’s well-informed & reasonable. Yet I gather some of his views are controversial.
I’m no expert on his views, or those issues. So maybe Atshad’s views are right, or maybe they’re mistaken; that’s not for me to say.
Instead, that’s for you to say, by hearing his views, and those of others, studying & debating them & making up your own minds.
That’s what we call education. In FCS fundraising materials, like for the “Vision2020,” it’s called “Educating for Excellence.”
We also call it freedom.
But somebody doesn’t seem to want you to exercise that freedom, or get that education.
So now the line is drawn: not only in Alabama, but right there in Wynnewood, on your campus. Not just for students, but for the two teachers who were suspended, and have now lost their jobs because of it.
So the question now becomes: are you ready to claim and defend your freedom, as part of your education?
Or will you let an unnamed few chop off this piece of it– this important piece?
The message being sent is clear: you may not hear these views here. That topic is verboten on this campus. Teachers who stood up for that have now paid the price: not just wth their jobs, but possibly wth their careers.
Just so you know, all this makes a mockery of the claims about educational “excellence.” And if you accept this, there are more pieces of freedom waiting to be chopped off, like limbs from a tree, and others ready to give similar orders.
But here’s something I learned in Selma, and not only from Dr. King:
You don’t have to comply.
An order not to hear, not to consider, not to think and debate or push back about matters of this importance –such an order may be technically legal, but it defies the higher law that we were all given minds to be used, freely and fully, for knowledge, and for seeking justice.
One of my Quaker heroes, Philadelphia’s own Lucretia Mott, put it as well as anyone: “Truth for Authority, not Authority for Truth.” For her this was a Quaker Testimony, a central one.
Dr. King put it another way:
But you don’t have to be silenced.
In 2017, it’s easy to imagine alternatives: check your social media, you’ll see that similar attacks, — and resistance to them — is rising all around you.
Spring has now come and almost gone. I read that Sa’ed Atshan has been invited to speak at FCS, sometime in the future, on a carefully limited topic. I wonder if that will really happen, under the present circumstances. i also wonder if FCS students are satisfied with this outcome. And if not, how you will respond?
But, some may say, what if we protest, and get in trouble? Look what happened to the teachers: will it cut our chances of getting into an elite college? Affect our career chances?
Who knows? Freedom, as they say in the army, isn’t free. The same often goes for achieving “excellence” in education: it’s not just book work; it can mean struggle. It takes organization, and it takes courage. In Selma it led Dr. King and me to jail; a few years later it led him to a bullet in Memphis.
But chill: chances are no one will be in mortal danger insisting on real educational excellence and freedom at FCS. If you haven’t noticed, it’s a pretty cushioned, advantaged place.
So I ask that you think about how to put these advantages to work, for your benefit now, and as training in “education for excellence” in the not-so advantaged world that awaits beyond the campus.
That’s a world in which just in the past few months since I visited FCS, the struggles for freedom have heated up on every side. Looks like they won’t leave you alone even now.
Which means, my parting words to you last month weren’t a prophecy, and not even a prediction, but simply an announcement, even more accurate now. Brothers & sisters:
“It’s your turn.”
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