Back To Class: Friends, “Our” Schools, And The Shock of Recognition

Friends seminary, Manhattan New York
Friends Seminary, New York City

Settle in, guys and gals; this one is lengthy. But worth it. (It should be especially useful for recovering from an overdose of Supreme Court hearings.)

In a couple of earlier posts– here and also here — many months ago, I mentioned discussions of class as a factor that complicated self-understanding and community-building among Friends today, and promised to return to them at some point.

This is one of those points, precipitated by another New York Times report back  in 2011, describing tensions between some Friends in New York City and an expensive private school, Friends Seminary, which adjoins and shares facilities with the Fifteenth Street Meeting in Manhattan. It seems there are New York Friends who say that ties with the school should be cut. This saga is part of the background to the current issue at the school over the firing of its only remaining Quaker teacher.

The 2011 Times article notes that

“ . . . some church members are also pushing for the separation because they say the school is no longer really Quaker. Among other complaints, they say the school’s [2011] $32,870 tuition, selective admissions and private-school culture fly in the face of the signature Quaker credos of simplicity, openness and equality.

“There are a number of Quakers that are concerned, who believe that the school over time has become a rich kids’ school,” said Michael Schlegel, the leader of the trustees of the New York Quarterly Meeting of the Religious Society of Friends, the city’s chief Quaker body.”

This is really old, old news, which has been repeated many times around American Quakerdom. One example: more than fifty years ago, a weighty, active woman Friend in Massachusetts recounted to me how shocked she was when Cambridge Meeting, down the street from Harvard, decided to help create the Cambridge Friends School (CFS) in 1958. (It has been open since 1961 – Pre-K tuition for 2011 was $20,500; it’s $26,800 in 2018.) Her sense of social equality, and commitment to public education, were so offended that she left the Meeting, started another one in a small distant suburb. Then as part of her witness, she ran for the local school board and served for several years, to help shape the town’s public education system. There were many other such stories in quiet circulation long before the New York Times noticed.

Yet the Quaker schools have their Quaker defenders. As a new member of Cambridge Meeting in the 1970s, I heard many glowing reports about the achievements of CFS, and have no reason now to doubt them. And as the Times noted,

“There are a number of Quakers that are concerned, who believe that the school over time has become a rich kids’ school,” said Michael Schlegel, the leader of the trustees of the New York Quarterly Meeting of the Religious Society of Friends, the city’s chief Quaker body.

Some members of the meeting, as well as Bo Lauder, the school’s headmaster, say it is too simplistic in the 21st century to say cachet and Quakerness are mutually exclusive. And many argue that the school still adheres to the Quaker way.

“It’s baffling that people have opinions that don’t reflect the reality,” Mr. Lauder said. “We live the Quaker values every day in multiple ways.”

This view is echoed from Philadelphia:

Irene McHenry, the executive director of the Friends Council on Education, a national organization of schools, said Friends Seminary met the council’s criteria for being a Quaker school, which include worship; instruction or “testimonies” in Quaker values; and community service. Sidwell Friends meets the standard, too, she said. . . .
That is one reason some Quakers oppose separation. “If Quakers don’t appreciate all that’s going on in Friends schools,” Ms. McHenry said, “they have this precious form of outreach and they’re undervaluing it.”

Well, beyond the field of vision of the newspaper’s prying eyes, vigorous discussion of all this continues to bubble. And it is a part of this that I’m eager to share with readers here. It is re-posted from the Non-Theist Friends email list, and was written by a New York Friend, Dave Britton. Friend Britton discusses the issues more perceptively and trenchantly than any other commentator I have seen. He also seems to have shed the illusions of ignorance which afflict so many others who wax indignant about the issues. I don’t entirely agree with all his points below, but he makes them so well that I’ll save my quibbles for later. Britton brings a great deal of value to this discussion, but not the last word.

So Friend Britton, over to you – though I will put in an oar from time to time in your exposition:

150 years ago lots of American Quakers were fairly well-to-do. All the big Quaker names in banking, insurance, food, technology, etc. were joined by many smaller but successful entrepreneurs in shipping, farming, etc. It was a source of consternation with respect to slavery – could you morally be in the business of shipping and selling items that depended on slave labor? After the world wars, with the rise of big corporations Quakers lost any pre-eminence in the business world, and by now at least in the U.S. there are hardly any Friends you could call rich, and only a few that are reasonably well-off. Most are middle to lower-middle class and many are older and relatively poor.

The schools were started during the wealthy period, and originally catered to Friends, but over the years began to accept non-Friends to keep revenues up as enrollment went down. Eventually they evolved into fine upstanding members of the independent private school industry, where their signature branding as “Quaker” brings an aura of excellence tempered by being kinder and gentler and liberal, which many rich people like.

COMMENT (Putting in an Oar): The history of class tensions among Friends is much older than US Quaker schools. It can be traced back as far as the 1680s, when William Penn was both a leading Quaker and a bosom buddy of King James II.

James II, clad in what passed as plain dress for royals.

The monarch, it is useful to remind Americans, stood (and stands) at the pinnacle of the British class system. Many of James’s courtiers fumed at being left out in the cold while the monarch spent much hang time with his brown-clad, non-blue blood compadre.
William Penn
William Penn, in what looked too much like royal threads to many Friends of the 1680s.

But more than courtiers were not amused; many Friends thought Penn was putting on airs and selling them out while schmoozing with His Majesty, who was widely unpopular. Why exactly James liked Penn so much is a fascinating story, but one for another time. In any event, James was kicked off the throne in 1688 in what was called (by the winners) “the Glorious Revolution,” whereupon Penn, because of his closeness to the now ex-king, was obliged to take it on the lam for several years, to avoid charges of treason. That danger finally passed. The associated class tensions, though, became a lasting Quaker legacy & burden.

There is  chorus of complaints about the class character British Quaker schools, which parallel those in the US, but precede them. I won’t deal with those here.

But like them,  it was quite predictable that the older Eastern Friends schools, some of which have associations with colonial founders, would become well-established in Eastern patrician culture. So much so that they earned their own separate section in a  classic of upper class preening, The Official Preppy Handbook, published in 1980. Billed as a “parody,” the book’s underlying accuracy has made it equally useful as a guide for upward strivers, especially women, as is frankly admitted in reviews at

The “Parody” that was a dead-serious guide for social advancement.

(For a genuine parody of Eastern Old Money mores, albeit likewise based on sound knowledge of the milieu down to the Nantucket Red pants, watch the YouTube video below of a preppy “rap,” one of the all-time top viral videos, “Tea Par-tay”.)

In the Handbook, Friends Schools are identified as “The Organic Preppies,” a subspecies of the prep genus distinguished for their dietary peculiarities, devotion to the latest bien pensant causes (see Public Radio, National), and a penchant for unconvincing professions of guilt over their “privilege.”

Given this long history, the one real surprise in the recurrent internecine Quaker struggles over such schools is the surprising ignorance thereof evinced by succeeding waves of convinced Friends, who are shocked, shocked to discover that Quakers could ever have been party to an actual class system, never mind that some of these connections could have survived into the present. The underlying notion, that becoming a Quaker somehow brings one into a magic circle emancipated from actual social history, is one of the least appealing features of present-day liberal sensibility.

Nevertheless, as Dave Britton elaborates, even a familiarity with the history doesn’t banish all the questions and dilemmas. Though as he also shows, it helps in crafting a useful response:


So, should contemporary American Friends be supporting the operation of elite private schools in the face of so much deprivation and injustice in the public school system? Many of us think not, myself among them. I was an initiator a few years ago of much of the critique of the two Friends schools under the care of New York Quarterly Meeting [Brooklyn Friends is the other] and I have gotten both a lot of horror and a lot of behind the scenes encouragement over the years. We sent our daughter Liberty to Friends Seminary during middle school (jr. high – grades 6-8) and she was greatly relieved to get out for high school. Her attitude was, it isn’t really Quakerly at all, it’s just a misleading veneer, and I’m tired of going to school with snobby rich kids.

The real issue in the New York Quarter is the money involved.

Here’s Another Oar: (Ah, the money. Again, the Preppy Handbook had it right: this is always at the center, even as the true Prep learns starting in the crib how to conceal that fact from outsiders; the Friends schools are one of the seams in this carefully-constructed camouflage, where it peeps out from between the stitches.)

Britton: When Brooklyn Friends School split off into a separate corporation, the Quarter (acting while I was away at Yearly Meeting and unable to stand in the way) gave the new school corporation the $12 million worth of real estate that it had been using. The Quarter owned and operated the school, so it owned the property, using tuition to pay the mortgage (what little there was) and the capital upkeep expenses, but the proponents of the school (a handful of well off upper middle class Friends who identify with the well off parents the school serves) argued the property “belonged to the school” because tuition revenues were paying the upkeep. As if the tenants could claim ownership of an apartment because the landlord uses their rent for upkeep… Still, Friends’ fear of conflict led them to avoid a fight and just hand over the property. I was aghast – what we could have done with that $12 million besides subsidizing the wealthy families who enroll their kids!

An Oar to the Side of the Head: A twelve million dollar giveaway. Sometimes the liberal Quaker fear of open conflict gets expensive.

Britton: Friends Seminary is not such a cut and dried argument, since the school shares a lot of its space with the operations of the Quarter, other rental property and administrative space as well as the Meetinghouse itself that the school uses as an auditorium. Since the Brooklyn school was so contentious to resolve, Friends want to avoid similar contention by figuring out how to handle the real estate issues for Friends Seminary before the matter comes to a corporate split. I was a proponent of not separating the school, but rather reforming it to be more Quakerly and to have more Friends on the staff and enrolled. But I lost that struggle and the separation seems inevitable, as the school continues to be endorsed by the Friends Council on Education, [whose director] was quoted in the article as claiming that Friends schools are great outreach (what baloney, will the Obamas consider becoming Friends now their girls are at Sidwell?).

The most likely outcome is that the Quarter will get an income stream from the separated school, which we can use for socially conscious purposes. The amount of that income is what will be hotly debated, with the proponents of the status quo arguing to keep it minimal, while I and others argue to keep it at market rates (about $1 million a year).
What’s going on is this:

For many years, dating back to the 1990’s at least, Friends in the Quarter experienced occasional incidents that caused them great pain in their interactions with Friends Seminary, e.g. Quaker kids being refused admission without recourse or explanation, or disturbing situations handled in unFriendly ways. These were always dealt with in hush-hush fashion and anyone who made reference to them was told they were just isolated instances. Of course over time what the lawyers call a “pattern of practice” could be clearly seen.

Being an unreformed community organizer I instigated an open discussion of these issues, which many Friends found extremely uncomfortable, but which lanced the boil of distress and led to the beginnings of a discussion about how to make the school more Quakerly and get more Quakers into the school (students, parents, faculty and administration), and importantly it overcame the stigma of shame and hurt that came from community denial of real mistreatment.

However, the school community vigorously resisted and continues to resist any encroachment into its structure, functions or operations. The dominant culture of the school is generated and supported by wealthy parents, most of whom are liberal nice folks, but who really don’t want any annoying Quakers telling them what to do. As one Friend put it to me, “The parents love this school; they think it would be really perfect if they could only get rid of those darned Quakers.”

In the end, or at least at this point, it seems clear that any real fundamental changes to the school are not possible; there are too few Friends involved in the actual school community to have significant influence on the culture of materialism and the assumptions of class and privilege that prevail underneath the lip service to “Quaker values”, or to find openings for emphasis on Quaker practice and action rather than “Quaker values”, whatever they are.

An oar: I am exceedingly grateful to Britton for calling out this “Quaker values” flim-flam. And he says more about it further on.

There is just too much inertia; FS will continue to be no more than an excellent New York City private school, despite the efforts of us annoying Quakers. 15th St. Meeting has established a “care committee” with the school, but it has shown no traction so far.

A couple of specific issues have in more recent years provided particularly provocative problems: The school got the trustees of the Quarter to borrow $20 million for a major renovation, without consulting the Quarterly Meeting. As clerk of the audit and budget committee at the time, when I found out I stooped to a shouting match with the head of the trustees finance subcommittee on the floor of Quarterly Meeting.

An Oar to the Other Side of the Head: Let’s see — the wealthy school got the local [mostly non-wealthy] Quakers to borrow $20 million for the wealthy school to do renovations . . . neat.

Britton: Trustees thereafter went after me big time, and failed to dislodge me from audit and budget, but it was a done deal in any case. The amount of indebtedness is more than the value of the Quarter’s endowment, but the wealthy parents and the headmaster were confident they could raise the capital funds from donations to cover the loans, and claimed that the wording of the loans only put the school’s revenues and assets, not the real property or the endowment, as collateral. Stunning! Meanwhile the school routinely interferes with the 15th St. Meeting’s physical space, especially the Meetinghouse, but the Friends are too conflict-averse to confront the situation head on and instead their sense of being exploited and disrespected grows and festers.

The school wants separate incorporation, as do the trustees of the Quarter, the school because it removes them from the trials of having to deal with the Quarterly Meeting, and the Trustees because it removes them from having to be fiduciaries and thus fiscally responsible for a program they do not really control. The separation is inevitable, but rests on prior resolution of the issue of dividing up the property, a big part of which is shared, used by both Meeting and school. Audit and budget has recently completed a detailed shared use survey identifying the extent and nature of the use, and my hope for the ultimate resolution is that the Quarterly Meeting derives an ongoing revenue stream from the school, which it can use to support Quaker education in various ways, such as the Quarter’s project to provide uniforms, tuition and supplies for AIDS orphans at a Friends school in Kissangoura, Tanganyika.

I would much prefer that we turn the school into a Quaker-based public charter school and serve the local community and our own children, but that would require too much assertion for the Friends of New York Quarterly Meeting. Those wealthy parents are really fierce!

The Splash of the Oar: Not only fierce, they can afford better and tougher lawyers, and will bring them out when needed to grab and hold on to the money. (Remember: behind the curtain, the money is always at the center.)

Britton: As for 15th St. Meeting, it is notoriously contentiously diverse (watch the Christocentric homophobes dealing with the gay Buddhists! and vice versa!) and rife with disagreements and fraught with personal dramas. It seems calmer this year, but that may be only a surface sense. It was that way during Elias Hicks’ day too I understand. Morningside [Meeting, which meets at the Riverside Church, up near Columbia and Harlem] is notoriously tolerantly diverse, so you should come here next time you’re in town.

My take-away from reading the 114 comments on the NYTimes web site after the article, and on other reactions I have read, including the [Non-Theist Friends] list, is that it is the school’s culture, in the anthropological sense, that is a deciding factor in its compatibility with actual Friends Meetings. A culture of Quakerly action, i.e., behavior in practice, that knows and consistently applies the manner of Friends to everything they do, is what works well.

Let’s Swing That Oar Again:

The whole “Quaker values” frame is a hoax, [emphasis added] a myth conjured probably by the Friends Council on Education that lets a school culture off the hook for its behavior as long as they espouse “Quaker values” in their talk and once in a while hold an event that purports to be Quakerly. The term is meaningless, as Quakerism is a religion of practice, not values. We don’t take oaths to integrity, equality, peace and simplicity, we act on them, we struggle to incorporate them in our behavior as best we can. The phrase itself betrays ignorance of our religion’s foundations, especially as the phrase is used in the context of Quaker private school education.

Irene McHenry, [of the Friends Council on Education] an inveterate apologist for Quaker participation in the elite private school industry, is quoted [in the Times article] with the old saw that because our schools provide us Quakers with outreach to the wealthy, they add value to our religious community. Perhaps, but what much greater value we could add to our community if we focused instead on providing a Friendly education for our own children, who might then stay active in the Religious Society of Friends in much greater numbers than they do now!

Instead Friends cannot afford to send their children to Friends schools or refuse on principle to participate in an educational program that violates our Testimony of equality, and our kids suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune in the public schools or we are led to home school them.

Meanwhile, the schools’ lack of Quaker students, parents and teachers turns any semblance of strong attention to the inner Light into an outward glossy packaging of a Quaker brand of kinder, gentler, liberal education with much appeal to certain wealthy demographics. Being a Quaker is a challenging, demanding, religious perspective, poorly suited to the hypocrisy of operating elite private schools, given our history of involvement with the creation of public schools and our historical commitment to education for all.

When the school drifts into the pattern of being culturally responsible to the community of independent private schools (instead of to a Quaker community), it adopts practices at variance with the manner of Friends, such as secrecy in decision-making that pretends to be protecting confidentiality, a focus on appearances for the sake of marketing that undermines simplicity and integrity, hierarchical decision-making in the name of efficiency, centralization of power and influence with a focus on money or prestige or things like college admissions that drives admission practices and financial aid, and an approach to dealing with trouble or problem events that favors protecting the institution’s good name at all costs regardless of any harm to individuals.

I suspect that the culture is only somewhat permeable, and depends a great deal on the school’s leadership. A headmaster can lead by example and support a Friends-oriented culture, or can view his or her role as that of a captain of industry leading the institution to financial success, growth and positive evaluations in the world of the private education industry. Which worldview does the headmaster take: looking to Friends for guidance and clarity, or looking to other private schools for definitions of success and prestige and appropriate behavior?

The latter orientation leads to conflict with Friends, even to hurting or dismaying them, and leads to their withdrawal to the sidelines except for those Friends who personally identify with the business approach and like the class-driven selectivity and material success, and join the Board to be part of this, not to steer clear of it. If a private school industry-oriented headmaster can recruit and maintain a few of these Friends for the Board, then the culture is doomed, as the Board becomes self-selecting and the school’s culture become impermeable. “Everyone” says the school is great, and if you don’t think so, you become an unfortunate and marginalized anomaly.

The Board of the school must be greater than 50% Friends for it to meet the Friends Council on Education definition of a Quaker school, so it is conceivable that Friends could shift the paradigm from a Board level, but this is terribly difficult. The nominating process to the Board would have to be actively seeking change to replace the Board with Friends who support a more Friendly culture, and the new Board members would have to educate and stand firm against the non-Quaker baord members, to bring unity on movement toward genuine cultural change.

Probably the headmaster would need to be replaced, unless he or she can suffer a genuine convincement to the substantial paradigm shift.

In Ranting Friendship,
Dave [Britton]

As I mentioned far above, I have some different views about Britton’s take on the “testimony of Equality” and some related matters. But those are for another time.

With one exception. In much of the emotional reaction in the benches against affluent Quaker schools, I see the footprints of an old-fashioned, seldom mentioned, but very real issue, what the Scholastic theologians named as one of the Seven Deadly Sins, namely ENVY.

Yes, envy, which philosopher Bertrand Russell rightly called one of the most potent sources of unhappiness. Check it out.

Taking account of the invidiousness of some of the reaction does not by any means banish all the issues raised so well here. But awareness of it and struggle against it would improve the discussion a great deal, in my view. Thanks again to Dave Britton for pushing it along. And I’ll leave Friends to draw the connection between these comments from 2011 and one of the current issues.

11 thoughts on “Back To Class: Friends, “Our” Schools, And The Shock of Recognition”

  1. I remember years ago being invited to after-Meeting lunch at the suburban home of one of the “first families” of what was once one of the wealthiest Orthodox meetings in Philadelphia. Afterwards, as I waited for a ride to the train station, I was joined on the porch overlooking their vast lawn by their children (Westtowners all) one of whom, taking no notice of me, observed, “There are really only two kinds of people — those who wear sneakers…and those who wear Sperry Topsiders.” I can assure you it was unnecessary to glance downward to know how they were shod.

  2. As a graduate of several Friends Schools, high school and college, I understand the delema of providing a Quakerly Education. I went on to become a conscientious objector and later on a Meeting Clerk. I think Friends should do all they can to re-establish and maintain the Quaker influence at this school. I know it is hard and I commend and support you all. Don’t give up the school, please.

  3. Britton nails it in noting that we are a religion of praxis: we ask to be led, we listen, we experience a leading, we take action.

    Part of our praxis is Quaker decision-making, which is more than Quaker Process although that’s an important piece: resolving differences by learning more about each other until we reach a shared understanding. The others parts are: clerking (impartial, unity-building, facilitates inclusiveness), minuting (transparent, specific), committees (focused discernment), and seasoning (additional discernment tools, including time). All of these feed into and facilitate community-valuing decision making.

    Quakers schools without these two elements as their basic process for knowing what to do and coming together on how to do it are not Quaker.


  4. Are you saying that the Friends in meeting unable to afford the school are envious of the nonFriends who can? I do not know the particular situation at that meeting, but I think wanting to have a school that operates on Quaker principles is not envy.

    1. Hi Nicole,
      I’ve seen these meeting vs. “Friends school” situations in a number of places. Around such schools, I have seen many families which I have come to call “scholarship Friends”; that is, parents drawn to a meeting in hopes of getting preferential access and aid for their kids in a school known for delivering social & educational upward mobility. And if their kids miss out, for whatever reason, the parents at least are typically very bitter and disillusioned. The short version: envy.

  5. Thank you for replying. I can see that happening. I attended a Friends High School, but am unable to afford to send my children. However, I don’t feel as though they miss out on Quaker principles because they are part of the life of the meeting.

    Also, parenting is an important part of instilling principles. I support my old high school with small financial gifts because I know it is a special place. All who have the opportunity to learn there are as blessed as I was.

    Thank you for explaining.


  6. I was also confused by your last paragraph and agree with Nicole’s statement “wanting to have a school that operates on Quaker principles is not envy.” I have been a member of Fifteenth Street Meeting since I was a child and attended Friends Seminary for high school. Though many non-Quaker students gain some familiarity with Quaker values at the school, as a Quaker student, it felt less Friendly than my public primary school. Also, I am unclear if this piece is from April 13, 2011, as it is dated.

    1. This post was originally drafted in 2011, after the New York Times reported on the conflict over control of the school property, funds & direction. It was revised recently in light of new reporting of current events, which seemed to me connected.

        1. I have likewise been unable to find one. I did find an email for Britton and sent an inquiry to it, with no response to date. My hunch is that the original was taken down. When or why, I don’t know.

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