Rant: Complaining About Fancy-Schmancy Quaker Schools

So here it comes again: on another list, a complaint about expensive Quaker schools. Are they really “Quaker”? Don’t they sow division in meetings? Don’t they perpetuate all kinds of bad class stuff??

For the record, I never worked at one of the fancy Quaker schools; but I was briefly on the “faculty” of the fledgling (and now gone) Friends World College some 45 years ago, where I earned room, board and all the luxury a couple hundred bucks a month could buy.

Still, I’m wondering how many times in the forty-plus years of my involvement with Friends that I’ve heard this complaint. Dozens? Hundreds??

Anyway, lots. So many times, that it gets hard to take it at face value. Like, does the complainer not know enough basic Quaker history to realize that Friends from the earliest times were just fine with inequalities of wealth and class? (Read Fox & Barclay, if thee doubts this.)

No, wait: let’s read a key passage from Barclay right now, from his “classic” Apology for the True Christian Divinity, the foundational Quaker theological text for 200-plus years:

On “Equality” and early Friends. This is from Barclay’s Fifteenth Proposition, about early Quaker social “peculiarities,” (e.g., refusing hat honor, bowing, saying “thee” & “thou” to superiors, etc.) with a link to the full text online. Emphasis added, and I’ve divided some of his long paragraphs:

“Before I enter upon a particular disquisition of these things, I shall first premise some general considerations, to prevent all mistakes, and next add some general considerations, which equally respect all of them.

I would not have any judge, that hereby we intend to destroy the mutual relation, that either is betwixt prince and people, master and servants, parents and children, NAY, NOT AT ALL.

We shall evidence that our principle in THESE THINGS HATH NO SUCH TENDENCY, and that these natural relations are rather better established than any ways hurt by it.

Next, let not any judge that from our opinion in these things any necessity of levelling will follow, or that all men must have things in common.  . . .

And further, we say not hereby that no man may use the creation more or less than another. For we know that, as it hath pleased God to dispense it diversely, giving to some more, and some less, so they may use it accordingly.

The several conditions under which men are diversely stated, together with their educations answering thereunto, do sufficiently show this: the servant is not the same way educated as the master, nor the tenant as the landlord, nor the rich as the poor; nor the prince as the peasant.


(This plaque is for the Levellers, a truly radical redistributionist group in the days of early Quakers. The ones noted here were shot for their trouble by Cromwell’s army.)

Does the complainer also not know that many early Friends started small and then made lots of money, becoming, some of them, among the wealthiest people in the US colonies?

And have they missed the abundantly established fact that these wealthy Quakes were concerned about “those less fortunate” both in and outside the RSOF, and expressed this via old-fashioned “charity,” for the “deserving” poor — the kind that all us good liberals today so love to hate??

(For example, There was til recently in Phila YM a Fund For The Relief of Elderly Women Friends In Necessitous Circumstances, if you get my drift; may still be there.)

Were they expecting the RSOF today to be a sort of socialistic commune, with a common bank account and income sharing? Sorry, that’s some other church.

shaker Village

A Shaker village in Maine. Now a museum, since the Shakers all died out. They had this thing about no sex, which they kept to awfully well. Too well, in fact.

There were a few efforts in that direction back in the 1840s, but they all went up in smoke. Read historian Thomas Hamm’s fine book, “God’s Government Begun” for the gory details.
God's Government Begun

Numerous 1940-50s radical Quakes joined a communal group called the Bruderhof. Didn’t work out too well. Most of the Quakes quit, very disillusioned. One exile wrote a book about the experience called “Free From Bondage.”

Bruderhof book

Some of us tried again in the 1960s; same outcome.

Drop City, the Ultimate Hippie Commune
Drop City. Those were the days. Or were they?

So here’s what the record shows: levelling and communalism are very, very hard. And divisions of class and affluence are (and have  forever been) with us inside the RSOF as well as out. Sorry if this is hard to hear, but there it is. Maybe we can buff off some of the rough edges, but I don’t expect much more.

(Same goes for other churches, Friend. There are fancy rich Catholic churches, and humble Roman mission chapels; etc.)

Quaker schools are an artifact of these stratifications.

Many of them have lots of money in the bank left by dead quakes, some going back a couple hundred years, to “help” lower-income Quaker kids enroll. Even so, some Quaker parents get all resentful and huffy about that fact, saying such differentials shouldn’t exist, the schools are elitists, they shouldn’t be selective (at least as far as MY kids are concerned), yada yada.

I don’t get it. One of my daughters attended one of those very expensive Quaker schools, and she did it mostly on that “dead Quaker money,” because her parents didn’t have the $40K per year it took. ($50K now)

And I’ve known other modest-income families doing the same thing. Quietly, skilfully, getting their kids in on this Quaker “endowment,” and not letting the stratifiers see them sweat, or the complainers hear them whine.

You know something, speaking as one of those parents, it didn’t bother me a bit that she got those deceased Quakers’ dough. I mean, it’s what they left it for, right? I’d say do it again in a New York minute.

As for the education she got, it was great in some ways, not so good in others; but no regrets.

And as far as being divisive for meetings, my view is it’s actually better if the schools are freestanding, like Sidwell School in DC. (Which, BTW, is not simply about wealth — hey, you want stratification, Mr. Sidwell has got stratification to burn!

There it’s also about status; Al Gore’s kids went there; the Obama girls. And I think Amy Carter. Yet lots of other people with tons more money than those folks –but not their exalted status — couldn’t get in there to save their lives. And only a select few  Quaker kids sere admitted.)

If that’s an intolerable offense to thee, well again, there it is.)

And actually, I’ve come to the view that maybe if your kid has to have a fulltime Secret Service detail to keep them from getting kidnapped, maybe a special school is not such an intolerable thing anyway; after all, did Sasha and Malia ask to become “high value targets” for terrorists? And do I want my grandkids going to a school that al Queda might want especially to bomb??

Sidwell’s 2016 graduating class. Sasha Obama is in there somewhere.

When they’re formally “under the care” of meetings, expensive schools too often becomes proxies and patsies for all kinds of other resentments, which waste time and fog up the light.

I could also go on a long rant about how too many Quake schools aren’t any more “Quaker” than the Quaker Oats Co. (neither started nor owned nor ever run by Quakes; pure marketing.)

But really, folks, their vacant “Quaker values” are no more than a reflection of the theological vacancy of much of the larger RSOF. Dig it. You want better? Better do it yourself.

And anyway, the schools don’t OWN Quakerism. One can ignore them and do just fine.

Besides, a funny thing happened on the way to the Self-righteousness Forum: here in our little meeting in Fayetteville NC, a guy shows up a year or so ago, really kind of a lost soul looking for a spiritual community, and we somehow filled the bill. But why, with 300+ other churches in our county to choose from did he come here?

Simple: about a hundred years ago, he went to Oakwood Friends School, up in New York’s Hudson Valley. It’s not the fanciest of the lot, but it’s up there. He didn’t learn much about “Quakerism” at the place. But something got under his skin there, which took awhile to come to the surface.

I expect there are other such stories. In fact I know there are.

So here’s my recommendation to those who wanna moan and groan about how terrible those awful expensive and elitist Quaker schools:  chill out and face the fact that the RSOF exists in a real world of class and wealth divisions. We didn’t make it, but we’re not free of it either; never have been. Again, maybe we can buff off some of the rougher edges; but remember the Shakers and the rest.

In any case, now I’m running into this at the next level: Nearing “retirement” age, I can see that there are also lots of Quaker retirement communities, and — surprise, surprise! — they vary in cost and amenities along similar stratified lines of wealth and class, and most of them I would never EVER be able to afford.

Well. So I can spend my time in these remaining years being all huffy and resentful about this. Or I can say, “So freaking what?” and get on with my own stuff, work things out the best I can, and be happy with what I’ve got.

After all, I’ve lately begun to notice that in even the fanciest upper-class cemeteries, the rich folks there are just as dead as the nameless paupers in the county graveyard.

Now THERE is some serious equality for you. Wonder who thought that one up?


12 thoughts on “Rant: Complaining About Fancy-Schmancy Quaker Schools”

  1. Spoken like a rich man. Enjoy your privilege. As you say, it has never been an equitable world, but I’m sure you deserved every piece of good luck you’ve had. I must learn from your practicality and faith for I admit that when I find that I can’t afford even decent housing and medical care for my children, it bothers me that some can send their children to schools that cost more than my husband and I make in a year. Perhaps if I learned to chill, my children’s need would not cause my irrational belief that Friends should evolve into a conception of Equality that includes economic justice.

  2. Chuck,

    You write, in part: So my recommendation to those who wanna moan and groan about how terrible those awful expensive and elitist Quaker schools are, is to chill out and face the fact that the RSOF exists in a real world of class and wealth divisions. We didn’t make it, but we’re not free of it either. Again, maybe we can buff off some of the rougher edges; but remember the Shakers and the rest.

    It seems that whenever new Light is brought to a system that (unintentionally) oppresses or gives advantage to one group over another, those who have a fair amount of unearned power within that system will tell the Light-bearers to “chill,” “get over it,” or “this is the real world and it ain’t gonna change.”

    If we are called to a radical witness, I don’t think God will be satisfied if we stop at “buffing off some of the rougher edges.”

    Liz Opp, The Good Raised Up

  3. Dear Chuck,

    Leaving aside the fact that you are probably trying to be funny, I’m really a little mystified at the point you are trying to make. The RSOF should simply give up and conform to the world, and if we speak out we’re “whining?” Yes, the poor have always been with us and yes, the Friends have existed and sometimes been co-opted by socially stratified cultures and some have become rich, etc, but does that justify the elitism in (some of) today’s Quaker schools? Do we live down to our lowest or up to our highest selves? One definition of corruption is living down to your lower self–just giving in, selling out, keeping the slaves and buying the madeira, because “hey, everyone else does.” I have to say you seem a bit caught up in individualism–I’ll take care of myself–and perhaps forgetting the witness of early Friends, who at their best went to prison to stand in solidarity with those oppressed by social injustice and who were not afraid to take costly symbolic stands to confront an unjust world.

    Chuckfager responds: <> those are your words, not mine. Part of the point of my post, not fleshed out much there, was that there’s a big difference between doing something practical, prudent and useful (and maybe radical too) and whining. I’m still waiting to see the replacement for social stratification that meets even those minimal criteria. There will be more to say about this in future posts.

  4. Yes, there are still classes within Quakerism and that is a cold, hard fact. But when it comes to the schools, why is it that most students are not Friends and most teachers are not Friends. Many Quakers cannot afford to attend Quaker schools, and I think that is one of the largest outcries of all.

    There are horror stories of some Friends schools that hold scholarships over the heads of some Friends due to their personal views within Quakerism. If you doubt that, you too can find that story and many more within blogs and forums.

    And of course, as in our case, the dream of your children attending a Friends school will never happen because there is not one near us and if there was, even with with scholarships from those dead Quakes, it would not be attainable due to income guidelines…have you not heard of the working poor?

    And what ever happened to Quaker schools being a place where Friends can be set aside from worldly living? Wasn’t that the reason for them? Why would we now want to send our children, even if we could afford it, to be side by side with rich children being taken to and from school in a Lexus or BMW while a plain dressing mother shows up in her minivan and her children are in hand-me-downs?

    We are taking it into our own hands by homeschooling. At least my children will also have a Quaker teacher…two in fact.

    (For the record, Amy Carter attended public school, Chelsea Clinton attended Sidwell Friends)

    I’ll be quite honest here. I am a convinced Friend. I was introduced to it by my husband who fell in love with Quakerism years ago and we found a great fit in Quakerism. What is personally happening to me is I am falling out of love with the bickering, the social and economic classes, the elitists. I actually thought that Quakerism wasn’t about money when I fell in love with it. Was I ever wrong. It’s all about the money those dead Quakes left and it’s all about those whose heart is still beating and how much they can give. It’s about attending conferences and retreats at Pendle Hill. It’s about whose published and who’s not. It’s about juried art exhibits where only the few selected Quaker artists can show their pride in their work, not the lowly grunt Quaker artist who would love to be included but didn’t “make the grade”. It’s about who has a Meetinghouse, who doesn’t, who wants to build one, and where, and it’s all about location, location, location and grants and no grants and who’s to blame. It’s about the divisiveness between birthright Quakers and convinced Friends. (Personally, I feel convinced Friends should be more appreciated since we WANT to be Quakers, we weren’t born into it.)

    I have been having second thoughts about my own Quakerism. I truly believe that I am a Quaker, heart and soul and always will be. This is where I belong, but I’m not sure I can continue within the structure of Quakerism with such divisions and economic prejudices. This is just not how it’s supposed to be. >>

    Chuckfager replies: Thanks for writing. I’m interested in your comment about juried Quaker art exhibits. I’m not saying they didn’t happen — but I served as Clerk of the Fellowship of Quakers in the Arts for six years, helped start the Lemonade Art Gallery at the FGC Gathering in 1989, which has continued since, and helped plan several other FQA exhibits, and none of that in my time was juried.

    As for economic stratifications, birthright/convinced gaps, doctrinal hassles — yeah, it’s NOT supposed to be that way. But it is. In orthodox theologies, this (and lots more) is considered the effect of The Fall; and Quakers are not free of them. So what do we do? Struggle with it is the best advice I have. But if you think it’s better in some other church, go ahead and look for one. I lived near a mostly Amish valley in PA for a few years, and learned that in their lovely green stronghold, they had split from one kind of Amish to no less than five, driving three different colors of buggies, and all of them shunning each other. (Thank goodness they don’t believe in war!) Before that, I grew up Catholic, fortunately evading the clutches of the pedophile priests, but . . . enough said.

    Two concluding quotes, both of which I wish I’d written:
    “Christianity is not the all-embracing faith that it is said to be. You must find the church that suits you, that you can stand and that can stand you, and stick with it.”

    –Robertson Davies, a Canadian novelist; Anglican

    “Much of what we tend to regard as the achievement of Friends as a whole was, in fact, the work of individual Friends, or small groups of Friends, often in the face of opposition or neglect of their monthly meetings. (One of the most positive – if often tedious – aspects of Quaker culture may be its capacity to produce or attract individuals who are willing to stand up to it)”

    -– Bowen Alpern, a very insightful non-theist Friend

    Oh, and BTW , you’re right, Amy Carter did attend public schools in Dc during her father’s presidency. It was tough for her tho. This is from Wikipedia:
    << However, Carter struggled to make friends at the schools she attended, and she was not allowed outside for recess because the school's playground was too near the street. >> and later, after her father was out of office, she attended the Holton-Arms School in suburban DC, a definitely fancy-schmancy elitist private school; but not a Quaker one.

  5. Hey,
    I am a small (small) business owner and have noticed a lack of —— care for those of us who make our living this way. The ironies of course, given our history are enough for a good laugh once in a while, but occasionally I feel less then supported. Not sure I need support tho. Sadly I wonder if we are all going to have to have little businesses now for the corporate subversion of the minimum wage and labor laws. I sure would like to make minimum wage and have some labor protections.
    Love Ben

  6. What Liz said…

    But also, less seriously, do you not know that the Shakers have not “all died out”–that, in fact, the Shakers at Sabbathday Lake have admitted new members in recent years, and are growing again (if slowly)?

    I take it you were making a rhetorical flourish, and not reporting an absolute. But, in case you thought otherwise, it is the case that there are still Shakers, out there doing the “very very hard” work of levelling and communalism.


  7. Incidentally, while I do agree with Liz that Quakers may well be called to a more radical witness around class and economic issues than may be consistent with at least some Quaker schools, I’ll also acknowledge that, as a teacher, I realize that I am complicit in the class stratification of American education already. It was important to me, when I became a teacher in middle age, that I not work in a school that required metal detectors and a constant police presence for basic safety. I could have sought work in an inner city school, and I chose not to, because I was quite clear that such work would demand from me gifts that I do not possess. Indeed, I often find that teaching in the small rural district where I teach–which has its share of poverty and social problems, but not to the degree of the nearby urban schools–takes everything I have to give as it is.

    It would be hard to allow myself to hear and respond to a leading to teach in some of the battleground schools in my area. I’m very grateful that has not been required of me, and I hope it never will be.

    But I realize that that is also a kind of cooperation with the inequities around me.

    Is teaching or sending a child to a Quaker school being complicit in economic injustice? Well, it probably is, yeah. But as a parent, I would not have registered my child in a troubled public school in the name of economic justice. That I paid my classist tuition in the higher rent, mortgage, and property taxes it took to live in an area with better public schools is maybe not so different from sending a child to a private Quaker school.

    Both as a teacher and as a parent, I don’t see this as an easy call. And while I have serious reservations about many Quaker schools, I also think that they may have some significant advantages. It’s just not an open-and-shut case in my mind… which was maybe the point you were driving at, Chuck.

  8. We shouldn’t be arguing over whether it’s proper to help some people get an actual education vs being incarcerated in the public schools. That’s a given.

    But maybe it could be done less expensively, if we didn’t (as a group) share the monetary/status values of The World so completely & unquestioningly.

    Back before G Fox there was this Jewish guy who said, “Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.” As I read it, you seem to be saying: “Our heart has always leaned toward Mammon; but we’ve been good enough to skim off some of our treasure for the care of the Poor, so that’s okay. This is just the way we are; get used to it!”

    It reminds me of a movie line Anne Curo liked: “Honey, Jesus loves you just the way you are. He loves you too much to let you stay that way.” We do love the Friends, just the way we are– but if we could stay this way, the world would certainly rot and take us with it.

    Money is addictive and causes brain damage; it doesn’t even take much of it to have that effect. It can work that way even with an unselfish desire like wanting to make sure one’s Meeting won’t run out of funds. It isn’t just a question of wanting security; it’s a question of “Where does security come from?” We’ve rejected, overall, the notion that security comes from having more, bigger guns than other people… but have we caught on, yet, that the only true security lies in Whom we know?

  9. Golly. Thanks. I am fatigued by those who use Quaker schools and Friends Education as a bullseye to take shots at the social and class system, which although completely unfair, is not the result of any Quaker school system, but rather the result of a huge human-condition problem of fear of deprivation. This leads to the establishment of economic systems that create privilege for a few at the expense of the many. Economic survival of the fittest. This has always been the case, as you point out. Quakers did not invent it, and though many have prospered from it, many more have and are working to change it. Many of those were schooled in how and why to do this in the “elitist” Quaker schools.
    Let’s imagine another scenario: let’s say that NO Quaker independent schools existed. Where would the children of privilege (and the majority of the rest of us) go then? They would go to other independent schools, which are devoid of the explicit Quaker ethos at Friends schools. And where would those spiritually hungry folks end up 30 years later? Not at a Friends Meeting, that’s for sure.
    It’s easy to point fingers and blame. It’s easy to feel victimized. It’s easy to believe that rich folks are happy and satisfied with their lives, and oblivious to the needs of others. I think we all know that’s largely a myth.
    Quaker schools are not the problem, and they are not perpetuating the problem. They are actually trying to change some things, and I know plenty of “poor” kids who attend Friends schools. I know even more middle class families like yours whose kids are at expensive Quaker schools (mine is one of them).
    My experience with these complaints is that they usually come from people who have no experience with Friends schools. If they actually knew how hard most administrators, boards and parents are working to increase socioeconomic diversity — a very expensive proposition — they might be surprised. But they are not interested in understanding that. They are looking for a scapegoat for their frustration at the larger system of wealth & privilege which exists.
    Hey, I’m so liberal I’m practically a socialist. I think ur curent econmic system is totally efed-up and unfair. But I do not take others’ wealth as a pesonal affront to me. I’m more offended by how welath is made and spent. And while certain Quaker schools are more spiritually alive and dyamic than others, I value all of them. I’d hate to live in a world without any, that’s for sure.

  10. It seems the discussion keeps running off into the weeds. A question i would ask you is “Would thee prefer to be right or happy”?

  11. Chuck Fager has forgotten more about Quakerism than I will never know.

    He has been a hero of mine since I first began attending.

    His book Without Apology was a guide to me from that time onwards, and remains so.

    On this issue, however, I do not agree with the very weighty Friend.

    I have no illusions of being able to change his mind on this as he obviously finds the whole question irritating.

    I feel, however, that the discussion has strayed somewhat beyond the parameters of my initial post, so, with Friend
    Fager’s consent, I offer my post here in entirety, with one omission: I have deleted my name.

    I have received enough hate mail as a result of my post, and I have no wish to receive any more.

    In Friendship
    The Complainer

    Why does the RSOF support education for the affluent?

    I ask this question here because it is one that has been nagging me for
    some time.

    I live in New York City and send my child to public school, which I
    mention by way of context. Those of you who do not live in New York City
    may not be aware of the cultural and, often, economic divisions that
    often occur between public and private school parents in NYC.

    As a public school parent, a lapsed Quaker and a member of NYYM, I have
    made the following observations:

    1)Most of the Quaker parents I know send their children to public

    2) Most of the parents I know who send their children to
    Quaker schools in the city have never been to a Quaker meeting and
    probably could not explain, even in the most rudimentary terms, what
    Quaker means, aside from being a brand name.

    By themselves, neither of these observations is particularly disturbing.

    What is disturbing to me, as a lapsed Friend and militant public school
    parent, is the official connection between the Society and Quaker
    private schools.

    For example, a line item in the NYYM budget shows roughly $12 ,000
    budgeted and $ 6,000 paid to the Oakwood Friends School, a private
    boarding school with tuitions approaching $37,000.


    I realize that this amount is small enough to be symbolic, but what is
    the message being conveyed.

    I realize, also, that certain libertarian Friends find the idea of
    public education offensive. That is a separate debate, and an
    interesting one.

    My questions remain:

    Below is a description of the Oakwood Friends School from their website,
    mentioning Quaker belief: is it really a Quaker School?

    Why does the Society (in New York at least) maintain official ties to
    expensive institutions in which many, if not most, of the students and
    teachers are not Quaker?

    Is it not divisive for monthly meetings to maintain ties, however
    symbolic, to a nominally Quaker schools which many of the parents in the
    meeting cannot afford?
    (Brooklyn Friends and Friends Seminary for example.)

    To put it bluntly, are Quaker schools really Quaker in word and deed?

    About Oakwood Friends School:

    Founded in 1796, Oakwood Friends School is New York State’s oldest
    co-educational boarding and day school.
    It is an independent, college preparatory school serving grades 6-12.
    Devoted since its inception to the fundamental Quaker belief that “there
    is that of God in every person,”

    Oakwood Friends puts this belief into practice by focusing on the
    individual learner,
    and cultivating a diversified community of students and staff in an
    of mutual respect and enrichment.

    Mission Statement:
    Oakwood Friends School, guided by Quaker principles, educates and
    strengthens young people for lives
    of conscience, compassion and accomplishment. Students experience a
    challenging curriculum within
    a diverse community, dedicated to nurturing the spirit, the scholar, the
    artist and the athlete in each person.

    Oakwood Friends School:
    Provides rigorous academic preparation based on primary texts and
    hands-on learning.
    Respects the mind and imagination of students and focuses on
    intellectual skills and habits.
    Encourages powerful thinkers whose abilities are nurtured through artful
    teaching, thoughtful assessment, and individual attention.
    Fosters an accepting environment based upon the Quaker principle that
    each individual is worthy and capable of meaningful insight and truth.
    Provides an array of opportunities in the arts, athletics, and learning
    experiences beyond the campus to encourage creativity,
    self-expression, cooperation, and team-work.
    Guides students toward the responsibilities of community life and
    community involvement, through leadership and service both on the campus
    and beyond.
    Creates and sustains a vibrant residential and educational community
    that embraces students in grades six
    through twelve as well as faculty and families representing every stage
    of life and a diverse range of experiences, backgrounds.


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