Baltimore Friends School Blows It

Baltimore Friends School Blows It

The educational “Philosophy” stated on the website of the Baltimore Friends School [BFS] sounds great. The high points:

[Baltimore] Friends School seeks to live the conviction that there is that of God in each person. At Friends, we work together to build and sustain a community that is inclusive, respectful, and supportive of all people; we value diversity and cherish differences. . . . Quaker education is a pilgrimage–a continual seeking after Truth. The search for truth requires a willingness to listen openly to the ideas of others, even in fields of controversy.

Excellent. But this high-minded talk went out the window this week, after the school posted a link to a Washington Post  article about one of its graduates, one Ryan Anderson.

Anderson happens to be a public spokesman for opposition to same sex marriage. He’s one of the bright young, right young things working for the conservative Heritage Foundation.  He’s an Ivy-leaguer, a millennial, a Conservative Catholic — and a grad of Baltimore Friends.

Ryan-Anderson-2
Ryan Anderson, of the Heritage Foundation — And Baltimore Friends School.

 

Presumably Anderson’s alumni status at BFS was why the school posted his article — that and “a willingness,” as the Philosophy states,  “to listen openly to the ideas of others, even in fields of controversy.”

But it turned out that this “willingness” was not universal. Within hours, the article was deleted, and in its place was soon posted a long, abject apology and self-flagellating mea culpa from  school Head Matt Micciche.  That statement also was soon deleted from the page, but can be read in full on a conservative site here. It said, in part:

matt-micciche-BFS
Matt Micciche, Head of Baltimore Friends School.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

While Mr. Anderson undoubtedly has the right to express such views, by posting this article we created legitimate confusion as to whether or not they were being validated by the school.
And yet, the decision to remove the post, once I had heard the deep concerns it was causing, was not without conflict for me. I found myself torn between two seemingly opposed aspects of our School Philosophy. We believe, as we say in that document, that “Quaker education is a pilgrimage–a continual seeking after Truth. The search for truth requires a willingness to listen openly to the ideas of others, even in fields of controversy.” I take very seriously our responsibility as a school to encourage the free and open exchange of all ideas, from across the political spectrum. I firmly believe that we must support, foster, and celebrate divergent thinking to the greatest possible extent. There can be no “party line” in a truly great educational institution, no sense that there is only one acceptable view on any complex topic.
We also affirm in our Philosophy that “Friends School seeks to live the conviction that there is that of God in each person. At Friends, we work together to build and sustain a community that is inclusive, respectful, and supportive of all people; we value diversity and cherish differences.” With this ideal in mind, the celebration of divergent viewpoints is not, and cannot be, without boundaries. When the views that a person espouses call into question the full humanity or the full access to human rights of others, based on their very identity, the active harm that the espousal of these views causes outweighs the opposing value of freedom of expression.
My decision, in other words, places a priority on the very real and human sentiments of the actual members of our community (as expressed to me in the wake of our posting of this article) over the more purely philosophical commitment to the free flow of ideas. Those of us in the majority – in this case, the heterosexual majority -have the luxury of treating the debate about same-sex marriage as an issue of abstract ideals. That luxury is simply not available to those whose humanity and civil rights have historically been degraded in this area and many others.

I see two issues  in this statement by Micciche, and in my view  one is legitimate, and the other is a deeply troubling and problematic one.

The legitimate issue is what I have called the “Paradox of Universalism.” Such “universalism” is in the schools philosophical commitment to “build and sustain a community that is inclusive, respectful, and supportive of ALL people.” [Emphasis added.]

This is a noble sentiment, which one can hear in liberal Quaker meetings any First Day. But in practice it is very difficult to carry off; indeed, in my experience, it is unsustainable.

Why? Because if your group undertakes to include “all people,” how do you deal with those people who say, “Only the people I choose or who  agree with me can be part of this group”?

If the group permits such exclusion-oriented people to stay, it will not be “inclusive of ALL” very long, because many will be tossed out, and others will leave in protest. (This is no abstract matter; it’s happened to many political, cultural and religious groups, including many among Friends, present as well as past.)

But if the group acts to defend its ability to include — maybe not ALL people, but a pretty broad range — then it will have to limit or exclude those who would make it arbitrarily “exclusive” according to whatever criteria.

Yet if the group sets such boundaries, whether of belief, speech or practice, then it has in fact given up the claim to be “inclusive” of “ALL.” It’s no longer universal, even in intent.

So there’s the paradox: many groups, especially those associated with liberal Quakerism, want to be “inclusive of ALL.”

But in practice, they can’t be; not when push comes to shove.

Most liberal Quaker meetings these days manage this paradox informally and by passive aggression: persons who are outside a local meeting’s de facto, usually unwritten limits, are quietly frozen out. But occasionally these boundary struggles break into the open.

So it was this week at Baltimore Friends School.

Why did Matt Micciche rush to, first, delete the offending Washington Post article, and then apologize so profusely?

In his own words:

I regret that by highlighting this article, we have caused pain to many members of our community, first and foremost, to our students. We have no greater responsibility than to continually strive to create a safe, nurturing environment for all the children in our care, and it is clear to me that leaving this article in place on our Facebook page is counter to that goal.

And later: “While Mr. Anderson undoubtedly has the right to express such views, by posting this article we created legitimate confusion as to whether or not they were being validated by the school.”

Posting the article “caused pain” to some. And reading a profile of Ryan Anderson somehow produced “legitimate confusion” as to whether the school “validated” (i.e., approved) of Anderson’s anti- same sex marriage views.

Here we get to the second and very troubling issue. The sentiments Micciche reports and explicitly validates are in flat contradiction to the other, and I would contend, more central part of the school’s philosophy, which (pardon the repetition, but it’s important) comes down to cultivating, a willingness to listen openly to the ideas of others, even in fields of controversy.

If Micciche really thought posting the article would leave the impression the school was endorsing its alumnus’s views, there could have been a simple disclaimer appended, for instance: “Ryan Anderson’s views in this article are his own, and not those of BFS staff or board.”

Or more positively, “We are posting this article in keeping with our commitment to ‘to listen openly to the ideas of others, even in fields of controversy,’ and because Anderson is a BFS alum.

There is yet another dimension. Micciche also states in his apology statement that

 I take very seriously our responsibility as a school to encourage the free and open exchange of all ideas, from across the political spectrum. I firmly believe that we must support, foster, and celebrate divergent thinking to the greatest possible extent. There can be no “party line” in a truly great educational institution, no sense that there is only one acceptable view on any complex topic.
We also affirm in our Philosophy that “Friends School seeks to live the conviction that there is that of God in each person. At Friends, we work together to build and sustain a community that is inclusive, respectful, and supportive of all people; we value diversity and cherish differences.” With this ideal in mind, the celebration of divergent viewpoints is not, and cannot be, without boundaries. When the views that a person espouses call into question the full humanity or the full access to human rights of others, based on their very identity, the active harm that the espousal of these views causes outweighs the opposing value of freedom of expression.

To be sure, there are boundaries to freedom of expression; courts and legislatures have set them in such doctrines as “crying fire in a crowded theater,” or posing “a clear and present danger” of violence.

And if Ryan Anderson or the Washington Post were thus “crying fire” or organizing events that posed a “clear and present danger” of actual violence, then I’d be first in line to call the cops.

But I am unable to find anything in the Washington Post article , or in Ryan’s reported statements there, that even remotely approaches such boundaries.

In the Post article, to summarize, Anderson points out that the Supreme Court, which is soon expected to render a decision on the constitutionality of same sex marriage, and he argues the court should leave such decisions to the states.

In doing so he repeats a familiar set of arguments about heterosexual marriage being ancient,  universal and best for children. He has also co-authored a book, What Is Marriage, making his case at length.

I don’t find his talking points persuasive, and note that a long succession of judges has rejected them as well. I’m no lawyer, but my hope is that the Supreme Court will reject them this time around as well.

[BTW I first published an article supporting same sex marriage in 1988, and paid some dues around it. We’ve come a long way in 27 years, but I guess there are still dues to pay. The 1988 piece can be read here. ]

As for “boundaries,” a close reading of Ryan’s views as portrayed in the Post article turned up nothing even close to inciting violence against persons. The fact that some persons find the Washington Post article about him and his views “painful” is regrettable, but hardly the same thing.

For that matter, in the article several of Ryan’s opponents speak respectfully about him, dismissing his arguments, but lauding his civility and articulateness — characteristics one may hope were inculcated in him at Baltimore Friends.

And for pete’s sake, calling the posting of a profile of a school alumnus the equivalent of “validating” his controversial views is way over the top.

To be sure, it is to be expected that BFS will work to protect and nurture its students. But here I see things differently from Micciche. To me, “safety” and “nurture” are strengthened by taking seriously  the BFS  philosophy’s declaration that

Quaker education is a pilgrimage–a continual seeking after Truth. The search for truth requires a willingness to listen openly to the ideas of others, even in fields of controversy.

To thus attempt to spare some persons the “pain” of reading a profile about a conservative BFS graduate is in my view to stunt the school’s efforts to help them learn how to “search for truth,” and to develop the resilience and grit to “listen openly to the ideas of others, even in fields of controversy.

Persons thus prepared will be safer, better-nurtured, and can be expected to fare better in the diverse and often conflicted society they will face outside the school.

I believe Micciche was mistaken about the dilemma he faced: fleeing from the “pain” of disagreement was a shameful default on the Baltimore Friends School’s educational mission, not a choice between conflicting aspects of it.

It also suggests that the school’s “Philosophy” in fact is different from the stated one. In actuality, it is more like this:

At Baltimore Friends, we work together to build and sustain a community that is inclusive, respectful, and supportive of all people — well, at least many people.

We value SOME diversity and cherish SOME differences, but NOT all. . . . Quaker education is a pilgrimage–a continual seeking after SOME Truth.

The search for SOME truth requires a LIMITED willingness to listen openly to the ideas of others, EXCEPT in fields of controversy.

You know, I liked the original much better, paradoxes and all.

 

 

 

 

2 thoughts on “Baltimore Friends School Blows It”

  1. A very clear exposition. Thanks.

    Is Anderson really “call[ing] into question the full humanity or the full access to human rights of others, based on their very identity..”? Or is he just saying he doesn’t agree with equal marriage?

    Like you, I am much troubled by the view that ” the active harm that the espousal of these views causes outweighs the opposing value of freedom of expression.”

    Firstly, I appreciate that those remarks may cause offence, but active harm?

    Secondly, and much more importantly, in any society which purports to be free, democratic and civilized, freedom of expression is a fundamental bedrock. There must be a presumption in its favour, and anyone seeking to impose limits upon it will have a heavy burden to discharge.

    BFS has not so done. Their action is authoritarian, in effect if not in intent.

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