Philly Paper Slams Friends Central School: “Lacks Integrity”

The Philadelphia Daily News is out today with a searing editorial about the ongoing flap involving Friends Central School, a cancelled speech about Middle East issues by a professor of Palestinian heritage, and the suspension of two teachers who supported his appearance.

The headline is biting:

DN editorial: Friends’ Central lacks integrity in shunning controversial speaker

“ANOTHER WEEK, another hit delivered to free speech, this one coming from an unexpected source – a Quaker school.

Last week, the head of Friends’ Central School, a Quaker private school in Wynnewood, uninvited a Palestinian who had been asked to speak by a student club. Students protested that decision, in part by walking out of an all-school gathering. This week, head of school Craig N. Sellers suspended two faculty advisers to the student group, saying – in effect – that they were inside agitators who had whipped up the student protest.

Or, as Sellers put it in a statement, the teachers disregarded “our guiding testimonies, which include community, peace and integrity.”

We see it differently. In our view, it was Sellers who disrupted the peace of the Friends’ Central community. And you can hardly call the muzzling of an invited speaker an example of integrity.”

Ouch. That hurts. It’s the kind of report that makes Quakers of all stripes cringe.

Back in the day, “integrity” was a key linchpin of the “Quaker way.” Maybe some of it was myth, magnified in the telling (there have definitely been some Quaker scoundrels; Richard Nixon?), but overall, the Society of Friends gained a kind of fame that money can’t buy, for being stubborn about the truth.

In practical ways, like Quaker shopkeepers setting fixed prices, rather than cheating uninformed customers.

In even comical ways, like carefully hedging their speech to be strictly factual (which this anecdote may not entirely be):

Hoover: a cautious Quaker talker

Once, it is said, Herbert Hoover (the Quaker president who wasn’t a crook) was riding across the prairie on a train, when another passenger spied some skinny-looking sheep in a nearby field.

“Looks like those sheep have all just been sheared,” said the passenger.

Hoover eyed them warily, paused, and then replied, “Yes, it does — at least on this side.”

Those were also the days when going bankrupt was not just a  misfortune, but an infraction that would get a Friend “disowned.” That’s because it marred the Quaker “Reputation of Truth,” one item of which was that Friends always paid their debts.

Well, the  Friends’ “Reputation of Truth” is pretty tattered in the eyes of this editorialist:

“The Quakers have always embraced free speech and espoused many unpopular causes. They opposed slavery and war at a time when you could get shot over those beliefs. William Penn went to jail in England because he would not give up his beliefs.

It would sadden Penn to see a school founded on his principles cowering in the corner, afraid to let students hear another viewpoint.”

They’ve got a point there. Who remembers Philadelphia 1838, when Quakers and other early abolitionists erected their own building, Pennsylvania Hall, because other groups wouldn’t let them speak or hold meetings? It opened in May, for a meeting of antislavery women: and was burned down the next night. The fires were set while Quaker Angelina Grimke was speaking.

Did this arson and attempted murder silence the women, or their movement? No.

Pennsylvania Hall, burning: Philadelphia 1838

But that’s not all. The editorial goes on:

“[Sa’ed] Atshan [the Swarthmore College professor whose talk was squashed] hasn’t spoken publicly about the controversy, but let’s assume that he is fervently pro-Palestinian, does favor economic sanctions against Israel and that he expressed those views before a group of high school students. So what? Would the students rush out of the room waving PLO flags? Would he convert them into rabid anti-Zionists? We think not.

Consider such a speech either food for thought or a foolish viewpoint, but it hardly represents a danger to the minds of these students. Being a student means being exposed to conflicting facts, theories and beliefs. It’s called learning.”

Yes it is. And here’s hoping the FCS leadership finishes this lesson in a hurry and fixes this mess, before their reputation, that of Friends Central School, and that of Quakers at large, suffer more harmful, unnecessary hits.


3 thoughts on “Philly Paper Slams Friends Central School: “Lacks Integrity””

  1. Heademaster Sellars’ action do not reflect the beliefs of Friends nor does it reflect the current viewpoint of many Friends who know and respect the speaker who is a Palestinian and a Quaker. Since the majority of the students at this school are not Quakers, it is possible that Sellars responded to the complaints made by non-Quaker parents. This was an opportunity for the Headmaster to share the full meaning of living in community. If Friends’ Central cannot behave in the manner of Friends when it comes to living the Quaker testimonies of Integrity, Equality and Community then perhaps they should remove the word Friends from the school’s name. However, I see great Light emitting from the students and teachers who had the courage to speak truth to power and respectfuly ask that the Headmaster reflect upon his actions in an open display of discernment.
    A member of Charlotte Friends Meeting (NC)

  2. A travesty to be sure but not unlike the trend in 21st century Quakerism. It seems to be leaning away from historical Quaker testimonies for one reason or another. This rickety-shack model is unlike historic meeting houses and is usually framed in some theological or political structure. The architecture of such weakness is probably built on either popular Conservatism and/or the need for a continued stream of funding. Quakerism is losing strength due to these two structural faults. With every quiver of the postmodern landscape, more tiles fall from the Society’s roof.

  3. The part of this that your readers might not have knowledge of concerns the nature of Swarthmore: it is not only a Quaker school by heritage (just as there are Jesuit schools by heritage), but it is a school with a history of intellectual rigor that is matched but not surpassed by any other schools. That the planned speaker is a Quaker and also teaches at Swarthmore is enough to know that whatever he might have said was going to be well discerned and well supported.

    This background reinforces my conclusion that the response of the school is a “behind-covering” lie. The speaker is not a fake-news, alternative construction, Spicer/Conway/Miller for the PLO. He’s a serious thinker, with a background of growing up in a occupied land.

    Somewhere I heard that Quaker Schools have a sponsoring Meeting. I hope that’s the case and if so I hope the Meeting has it in them to seek clarity on this matter.

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