Another “Quaker” School Makes Waves

As a journalist, I mostly have the “Quaker beat” to myself: Friends are a tiny sect, known mostly for being “quaint,” the inventors of oatmeal, riders in buggies, and extinct. (Never mind that the last three are not true; they’re still what we’re “known” for, by many in what the elders used to call “the world,” when such folk bother to think about us at all.) So when I report on Quaker stuff, it’s rare that I have to compete with “normal” reporters.

But sometimes I get scooped; and that happened again today, and in no less an outlet than the New York Times. (But hey, if you’re gonna get scooped, it might as well be by the best.)

And why would the Times bother with us? If you don’t already know, think for a minute: The Times’ base constituency is the affluent (and up) of the nation’s largest city. And what artifacts of Quakerism are such moneyed folk most likely to bump into? (Hint: nothing to do with oatmeal.)

Right: “Quaker” schools. Several such are at or near the top of the social/prestigious/rich private school hierarchies of their respective hometowns, places that charge as much as $50,000 for a year of high school.  You’ve likely already heard of the Sidwell School in Washington DC, where the Obama girls went, the latest in a long line of presidential progeny who enrolled there.

It seems that Manhattan has one such school, called Friends Seminary, down toward the southern end of the island, not far from Wall Street, Greenwich Village, and some of the most expensive gentrification on the continent.

But “Friends,” as it’s called for short, was there first, going back to 1786, and was started to provide the culturally separatist Quakers of the day a “guarded education,” long on basics and the Bible, short on contact with the “world” outside, and “peculiar” then because Quaker education included young women Friends.

However, merely being 240-plus years old and pricey does not open the way to the top of the private school heap in Gotham. According to the Times,  the city’s truly elite educational cognoscenti sniff at it as being “second tier” in its league.

But “Friends” is peculiar no more. Its headmaster (who came there, not coincidentally, from a stint  at Sidwell), has been determined to vault it into the first tier, and is doing so via a path that’s all too familiar to those who follow such things (which includes me at a distance): raising millions for the endowment, buying up adjacent buildings to fill more and cooler educational stuff, and slimming down the Quaker heritage so it fits seamlessly into the marketing plan (which means quietly dumping the religion part, and turning it into a “SPICE-y” mix of something called “Quaker values”; but don’t let me get started on that hot mess.  A related rant is here.)

Such trading up and slimming down, as you might expect, raised all sorts of hackles about money, class, and Quakerism. Some of these  have been momentarily sticky with many New York  City Friends, but have been largely smoothed over (some with a bulldozer). Yet it has also meant cutting back on actual, you know, Quakers in roles like, the faculty. Indeed, a year ago “Friends” was down to  single Quaker teacher, named Ben Frisch. Who also happened to be its longest-serving teacher.

But last March, the headmaster fired Frisch.

Not “released”; not retired; not quietly eased-out-with-a-severance-package-&-a-non-disclosure agreement (tho they tried). Fired.

The result has been chaos, continuing protests, Trump-style publicity, and most recently, a union arbitration hearing. (Wait — a teachers UNION at a Quaker school?)  Yes. For the moment.

In fact, the current article is the Times‘s second: they broke the story on March 23, under the excellent headline, “Someone went too  far at Friends Seminary, but Who?” 

WTF?! (What’s This, Friends??) 

Well, I won’t say much more here, because really, all I’d be doing is cribbing from the Times‘s new report, which describes the whole ungodly mess in intriguing detail. So take a break from the secular agonies of the news day and check it out.

Though alas, it won’t really be a break from the agonizing issues of the day, especially for Quakers. And it’s not over yet.

8 thoughts on “Another “Quaker” School Makes Waves”

  1. Yeah, I’m really keen to hear how the arbitration board decides.

    Is there no place for mistakes/jokes-even-if-not-very-funny/light-hearted-moments in today’s society? You’d think this would be so insignificant next to school shootings that it would hardly be noticed, but I guess you have to start where you’re at.

    1. Is there no place? Especially in a reputedly “know place”? Did thee notice that the whole thing grew out of an effort to explain angles of elevation in geometry? Not a history or politics class; the Friend was clearly reaching for a vivid, if outlandish, comparison. Worked for me; I’ll never forget it. Further, he was trying to distinguish between angles of elevation and angles of depression. I got the former, but this whole unfinished saga leave me sliding down the latter.

    2. I’m all for refraining from saying or doing things that might make somebody feel bad or feel scared. As a former kid who used to pretend to go to the restroom when some classroom material was too upsetting, I’m all for “trigger warnings,” too. After all, school kids are a captive audience. But some of today’s reflexive reactions simply to words or gestures seem downright superstitious to me and certainly unworthy of a school, Quaker or not. Yes, whatever happened to perspective, to letting a person say, “Gosh, that may have been insensitive. I’m sorry?” What happened to forgiveness, for Christ’s sake? (As they say.)

  2. Wow! Who would have guessed that the last Quaker teacher standing would be a teacher of MATHEMATICS! And the students love the guy in spite of his teaching math because he loves them enough to try to connect and shows his human side, foibles and all. They seemed to have understood it and even have learned about Quaker processes. (note: I became a NYC Public High School and Junior High School math teacher when my draft board allowed me to get a deferment for teaching in the inner city. The lower East Side was one of the neighborhoods I taught math. (1967 to 1970)

    Perhaps the NY Quarterly Meeting needs to “disown” the school? They seemed to have sold their “good name” for $1,000,000.00 in rent a year.

    I wonder, as Hank asks, where did the HUGE BUCKS needed to expand the “Friends” school come from?

    Looks like there may be some work for you to do on this story as only a Friend can truly grok the size of the earthquake that is happening in Friends’ meetings.

    1. Free, like the NY Times reported, all those new millions came from new folks who had ’em to “spare,” to turn Friends Seminary into something else for their kids & grandkids. Many other “Friends” schools have traveled the same road. Besides, with the NY Times on the trail, I’ll just jump onto their running board now and then and go for a ride. And I kind of like it that the last Quaker teacher there was in math — it helps highlight how much all this mess doesn’t add up.

  3. They got the bucks from the wealthy parents who want to “protect” their kids and got Frisch fired. Using money to get their way is a way of life. Same story as Philadelphia.

    Hey, did you catch the Butterfield Blues Band free concert in 1967 in the East Village (the park that was down the end of Houston)? I was there. 🙂 Walked down with friends from Eric Andersen’s loft on Houston (my friend knew Eric, I was just tagging along).


    1. Hank, I was only a rare visitor to the Village in those days. For much of 1967-68 I lived in Brooklyn, but then, you know, Brooklyn was only Brooklyn and very uncool, and the coming of Millennials was still two generations away. But I did see The Fugs there once: Kill for Peace!” and “I Couldn’t get High,” the classics, man!

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