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Spirituality in Action: Ethos and Ethic

I want to discuss ethos, the spiritual and moral context we create for Friends education to occur, and ethics, the skills, habits, and patterns of behavior that both grow from and help sustain that ethos. But I don’t want merely to repeat thinking I have already done. Getting away from old thinking is always risky; life comes flooding in, challenging and rearranging what we thought we knew.

I’ll begin with five assertions about a school’s ethos:

  1. A school’s ethos is the single most powerful and pervasive influence on what can be taught and learned there. Ethos is the Greek word for “habit.” George Kuh defines a school’s ethos as “an institution‐specific pattern of values and principles that invokes a sense of belonging and helps people distinguish between appropriate and inappropriate behavior.” For healthy people and institutions, ethics and ethos must reflect one another.
  2. An ethos is dynamic and changing around some central core of values that are both affirmed and challenged, preserved and modified, by the daily life of the institution. Kim Hays reminds us that for tradition to become accessible on a daily basis, a process of translation must occur, which depends on both “the practice of virtues and the acceptance of conflict.” Tradition is sustained and kept healthy by a sustained debate about what the tradition is and how it should be lived in each new generation.
  3. There is no single model of a Quaker teaching‐learning ethos. My thinking about ethos takes its start from a conversation with a student who was a “lifer,” having gone from kindergarten through 12th grade in a single Quaker school and then come to Earlham. As he saw it, the lower school had been most Quaker, the middle school a bit less, and the high school least Quaker. And, it would follow, the college would be least Quaker of all. It seems to me that as the demands of formal education increase in complexity and more outside forces legitimately impinge on student choices, it is appropriate that the Quaker nature of a school become more and more implicit over time. Day schools and boarding schools, lower schools, middle schools, upper schools, colleges, and graduate schools may share fundamental educational goals, but the ways in which these goals can be met will differ in response to the pressure of context—developmental stage of the student, expectations of parents and accrediting agencies, influence of standardized tests, and various impacts of the larger society. The Quaker school must offer its values in contention with other values the student experiences and give up more and more control in order to encourage self‐determination and independent judgment in its students. Douglas Heath cites as one hallmark of “schools of hope” that they “progressively reduce their expectations and structures to test students’ budding autonomy to set and carry out their own hopes in increasingly varied situations.”
  4. An ethos is as frail as it is powerful. It cannot be sustained by being taken for granted. Not only is it always under challenge in the debate about tradition that Kim Hays describes, but it is also subject to erosion from neglect or inadvertence. Every year large numbers of new students enter and new faculty and administrators take up their work. They breathe in the atmosphere but sometimes don’t recognize what it is, sometimes find it uncongenial. Maybe they ask questions about how we do things and why we do them this way, or maybe they just assume they know what is going on. Ethos, in any case, is hard to describe. A very frustrated colleague in my early days at Earlham said, as we were going into some crisis meeting, “This place runs on a hell of a lot of oral tradition.” He did not stay​.In my research, I came across a remarkable number of essays from the 19th century to the present by particular schools, yearly meetings, Friends Council on Education, and individuals addressing the question “What is Quaker education?” At first I thought that indicated a prolonged and unhealthy confusion about the subject, but as I read the documents I concluded it showed great strength to raise that fundamental question generation after generation, testing the old verities against new experience.
  5. If an ethos can be lost, it can also be recovered and reconceived. It will never be the same as it was in a previous time, though wishing to get back to a golden age in the past is a common, mistaken strategy for creating an ethos appropriate to the present.

The great 18th‐century Quaker teacher and antislavery activist Anthony Benezet said that educating and training young people “both with regard to time and eternity” is “next to preaching the gospel … the greatest and most acceptable service we can offer to the great Father and Head of the family of the whole Earth.” Because we live in time and in eternity simultaneously, the demands of both must be addressed. Education with regard to time and eternity means learning how to behave as children of God, developing the ethical habits, the moral and spiritual skills, strengths, and virtues necessary for what Douglas Heath identifies as our six primary roles in the world: workers, citizens, marital partners, parents, lovers, and friends. We are called to seek for and be obedient to the truth, to listen for the Christ within to instruct us in what Fox calls the law of love and the law of life; and we are also to be instructed in all things civil and useful in the creation, to learn how to build houses, do navigation, raise crops, make medicines. The spiritual and concrete, practical goals of the earliest Quaker schools are not contradictory but complementary, and they have their analogs today.

A Quaker teaching‐learning ethos grows from a worldview rooted in a sense of the sacred, in awe, compassion, and fellow‐feeling with others and with Creation. Such a view is holistic and, in turn, generates a holistic form of education that values and addresses the mind, the body, the emotions, and the soul; that actively blurs the lines between in‐class and out‐of‐class learning; and that encourages the widest variety of learning contacts and collaborative work across and among disciplines. Both George Kuh and Alexander Astin stress that an ethos of learning communicates high performance expectations, provides a great deal of assessment and feedback, offers a climate of involvement, and encourages free expression. At its best, such an ethos helps individuals have a clear, substantiated sense of personal efficacy. It is a commitment to making connections, making contacts, encouraging risk and experimentation, becoming intimately involved together as companions in learning, integrating thought with action and ethical convictions with ethical behavior. Kuh says an ethos of learning is marked by an ethic of membership, participation, and engagement with a community, an ethic of collaboration, and an ethic of care for one another. “It transforms the basis for belonging from a mere happenchance into a sense of covenanting with an ongoing reality.” Kim Hays says one Quaker goal in education is to change society and make it a better place for nurturing the Inner Light. “This is why Quaker virtues—equality, community, simplicity, and peace—describe an environment, not a person.”

Something Wrong

Those of you who took literature courses in college may recall a very broad, usefully vague definition of the novel as a piece of prose fiction of a certain length. I like Peter DeVries’s version even better: “the novel is a piece of prose fiction of a certain length, with something wrong with it,” and I am going to borrow it to offer a working definition of a Quaker school as: a human institution, under Divine leading, created to educate its students with regard to time and to eternity and offer them a holistic view of the universe through a pedagogy emphasizing the whole individual and an ethos that stresses collaboration, community, and care for one another, with something wrong with it.
For DeVries, a novel’s vitality and power are directly related to what he calls the “something wrong with it.” Its imperfection is a consequence of its scope and ambition. Whatever the novelist gives space to is at the expense of something else she could have done. The better the novelist handles plot, the more trouble he has getting characters to do what he wants, perhaps. I suggest that something similar may be said about any Quaker school: its vitality and ambition, the complexity of its mission, the human community in which it operates, will contribute to whatever flaws it has. Because every school is also the enactment of a debate about tradition, the competing visions will each see something wrong in what their adversaries affirm. Moreover, the beautiful vision of a school’s mission statement is not only always in dispute, it is lived in gritty circumstances, unforeseen tests that pit one aspect of the vision against another. If we learn by trial and error, we will act in error some of the time. Sometimes there truly is something wrong that is not merely an expression of good‐faith disagreements.

The daily reality of muddling through, deciding case by case, is profoundly frustrating to purists who want our voice and our action to be always clear and unambiguous. “Do you have a rule or don’t you? If you have a rule, you ought to enforce it; otherwise you are hypocrites.”

Does that sound familiar to anyone? Whose voice do you hear saying those words? I hear the voices of current students, of old grads fed up with current students, of some Quakers who set very high standards for the rest of us. (A British Friend once said to me, “There is a Quaker way of saying ‘we’ that means ‘you.’ ” For example, “We must be totally consistent in enforcing rules, or we are hypocrites.”) I hear frustrated teachers and administrators, even parents’ voices. Think how many sentences we might hear, or say, that begin “Do you or don’t you?” The sentence that easily competes with “Do you have a rule or don’t you?” begins something like, “If you really valued the individual, you would… ‚” or “I thought a Quaker school put the individual before mere … rules, tradition, institutional integrity.” Whatever it is, it is mere.

Here is an example of what I am describing: a Quaker school had to deal with an alcohol offense on campus involving a group of seniors. The long‐established rule was clear: expulsion; but no one believed that was the right answer in this case. So the school suspended the students for two weeks. Here are some of the parents’ comments. “We take the infraction seriously and will handle it very firmly at home, but the consequences are out of proportion to the violation. Missing so much school will jeopardize their grades and possibly affect college acceptances.” “Suspension is merely punitive. The school needs to find a way to make this a positive learning experience for the students.” And my all‐time favorite, when a parent could not persuade the school of that position: “I am very disappointed in your lack of imagination.”

We might laugh at the story, but the event could not have been fun to live through, not just because the combination of special pleading and self‐righteousness that this kind of event produces is so irritating, but because the clash between two values—“Do you or don’t you have a rule?” versus “I thought you valued the individual?”—is truly and rightly there. Does a holistic approach to education mean nailing the kid, or letting him off the hook? Does an ethic of care and a commitment to community require making everything a warm, happy learning experience? Does suspending a group of seniors mean letting them suffer the full consequences of being absent, or will the faculty show their caring by doing extra work, preparing homework assignments so the suspended students don’t lose out? The educational vision may be crystal clear, but how to implement it is not. Behind the decision was the tension between being a school where “moral socialization is the acknowledged goal” (Hays) and being a school with high academic standards that prepares its graduates for entry into prestigious colleges. George Kuh says, “How an institution responds to conflicts between individualism and conformity is a key indication of whether an ethos of learning exists.” From the standpoint of the absolutists, the school failed, just as from the standpoint of the individualists, the school failed. For both, it just muddled through and compromised. There is something wrong with that school.

Here is a similar case. A first‐year advisee asked me where and when the local AA chapters met. He was, he told me, a recovering alcohol and drug abuser who had begun his recovery after his Quaker high school told him he must leave and could only return when he could show evidence of working on his problem seriously. “They saved my life,” he told me. I later told the story to the head of his school. The head said, “If only you could have seen how hard he, his parents, and others fought that decision.” We can imagine the arguments. The decision was depriving him of the only community and support system he had, when he needed it most. There is something wrong with a school that is so unforgiving. We can also imagine people arguing that there is something wrong with accepting such a student in a Quaker college, and that there is something wrong in the very fact that a Quaker college would, at this student’s initiative, found a chapter of Alcoholics Anonymous.

Earlham, you may have heard, is a dry campus. You may also have heard that empty beer cans and bottles occasionally appear in the rubbish containers late on Sunday nights. It is a great mystery to all of us how this happens. In this past year, Earlham College reexamined and rewrote its community code. More accurately, a large committee of faculty, administrators, students, hourly staff, and board members labored long to shape our vision of ourselves as a community nearer to both our hearts’ desires and daily realities, and those of us who were not on the committee second‐guessed them at considerable length. In our discussions some people used the words “hypocrites” and “hypocrisy” fairly freely. Some people who used those words were diametrically opposed to each other on how the college should deal with alcohol policy. All that the drinkers and the purists could agree on was that somebody, that mythical we who is actually you, was hypocritical. Do you have a rule or don’t you? If you do, any drinking on campus must be sought out and extirpated root and branch, or the institution is practicing hypocrisy. Therefore, get rid of the rule. Therefore, make the elimination of alcohol on campus the number one educational priority. There is something wrong with a college so in conflict over an ethical problem.

Here is a test case completely removed from rules and infractions. A new administrator getting acquainted with the college asked current students, “What is the best thing about being at Earlham?” The majority replied, “Going on off‐campus study.” He wondered whether there wasn’t some problem, something wrong with our curriculum or residential life that led so many students to conclude that the best part of an Earlham education was being far away from campus. Certainly the greater freedom students enjoy on foreign study can make for difficulties when they return, and it is not uncommon for returning students to have culture‐shock when they are back on this small, inward‐turning campus. Students’ experience is a lot like that of faculty returning from a leave or sabbatical—did we always work at this intense pace? But if we ask why off‐campus study feels like being part of Earlham, we get another impression. In a college meeting for worship last year, two students spoke out of the silence about important spiritual experiences they had had, one on foreign study, the other in a Ford Seminar that had traveled off‐campus. What struck me as I listened was that each person took it for granted that such spiritual experiences could happen, that they were not anomalies but integral to the educational experience, and that bringing these experiences back to share with us in worship was completely natural. They didn’t talk about a coherence between off‐ and on‐campus education, of spiritual learning and course‐work, but they illustrated its possibility.

Last year, at an alumni gathering in Seattle, I asked people to describe an important learning experience they remembered from Earlham. One man spoke of being a supporter of the Vietnam War in 1966. In 1967 he went to England with Earlham. There he had arranged an independent study interviewing members of parliament about attitudes toward the Vietnam War. That study, he said, persuaded him that the war was a mistake. I remember hearing him speak in college worship the following spring, telling us why he had decided he had to become a conscientious objector. The best thing that happened to him at Earlham, I believe, happened off‐campus; he took our questions, this ethos, to England with him, testing it in a new setting, and found in his academic study in a new culture an answer to a spiritual and personal question. That the best Earlham experience occurs off campus may be a paradox, or even a sign that something is wrong with our curriculum or residential life, but it seems to be of great value to the health of the college.

Here is a test case from the classroom. We had an extraordinarily able student who wrote wonderful papers under the greatest difficulty. She and I worked on her writing block for most of her four years. In the final term of her senior year, she was taking a required seminar with me on a topic that was close to the bone for all of us. The course mattered because it was required for graduation, because the topic was so important, because our friendship had become very deep over the four years, and because this was the last time we could have a course together.

Early in the term, my friend came to tell me that over her college years she had become dependent on alcohol to write papers, and she was worried about con‐troling her drinking. She may still have been under the legal drinking age; certainly she was breaking the rules by drinking in college housing, but neither of those issues seemed important. We were faced with a greater problem—she wanted to break free of alcohol dependence at the same time she had to get papers done, hit deadlines, meet standards it was my responsibility to uphold. How was I to work responsibly with her situation with my commitment to high academic standards?

I invite you to reflect on how you would have dealt with our situation, or offer your own test cases, but here’s what I did. I proposed that we agree that the highest priority for our work together was for my student to complete her long three‐part paper without resorting to alcohol. Everything else—deadlines, the form of the paper, grades—would be subservient to that goal, and we would use whatever means, tape‐recording drafts, dictating it to me while I typed, composing it as a letter, whatever would get us to that goal. I made this proposal knowing that it invited a lot of ambiguity about the academic standards implicit in the course. My syllabus was built around due dates for papers intended to insure that everybody would be prepared to pursue discussions at increasingly sophisticated levels. Could I hold to these expectations for everyone but this student, or did I have to accept that others would want more flexible deadlines, would reasonably expect that their struggles to write also called for special consideration? Would I have to give up my beautiful, clear plan for the course and be prepared to improvise, muddle through, perhaps have far less substantial discussions than I had hoped and graduating seniors would want?

And what about grading? An ethos of learning calls for high performance expectations, a lot of assessment and feedback, Kuh says. The topic I had chosen was already volatile, and the capstone paper was to have a “personal text” as its concluding section. That assignment seems ideal for a holistic approach to learning. It is an invitation to move from analysis to creative interaction with material. It asks students to bring whatever of themselves they choose into personal engagement with a topic or with other texts. The student chooses the form of the text; it may be an essay, a memoir, a collection of poems or stories, a mixture of forms. Frequently it has strong autobiographical, even confessional, aspects. The assignment has a strong democratizing and community‐building effect.

How does one grade a “personal text”? A recent article in College English, called “Death Gets a B,” cites a teacher for whom that was the solution whenever students wrote about traumatic personal subjects. Don’t try to evaluate the writing, but don’t reward them for not fulfilling the requirement: just give them a B. Though that is a genuine attempt to resolve the conflict between high performance expectations and acknowledging students’ personal needs, I despise the solution. But knowing what I don’t approve of doesn’t show me what I should do.

I’ve outlined the professional and ethical problems I faced, but I didn’t resolve any of them. I dodged or tried with limited success to ignore most of them. I concentrated on the single goal, to help my student write and revise her senior seminar papers without taking a drink. That meant a messier course, lots of late papers, more improvising. My student never hit a deadline, sometimes her drafts appeared impossible to pull together, but we accomplished the primary goal, and at the end of the term she produced a splendid work, each part suffused by her personal text.

I am moved by the writing of the poet William Stafford. In an interview, he is asked, what do you do when the poems you create don’t meet your highest standards? He says, “I lower my standards.” That sounds like heresy, yet it speaks to me. My student and I shared a joyful triumph, at the cost of a great number of compromises with standards and consistent institutional practices. I regret none of our choices, yet I know some people of good will and high principle would be unhappy with most of them. I have to consider that there was something wrong in my decisions and actions.

A Holistic Vision

One way to understand the something wrong in these cases is that each revealed inescapable conflicts between important values. The ambiguities did not result from bad faith or hypocrisy but from the complications of trying to be a particular kind of learning community. Sometimes the “something wrong” is a sign that an important change is occurring. British psychologist Anthony Storr explains humans’ capacity to be life‐long learners as a product of our lifelong immaturity. Our incompleteness allows us to “regress in the service of the ego,” and fuels what he calls a “divine discontent.” From this perspective, something wrong is a way of describing our perception of a gap between ideal and actual, between our vision of the best and our daily lives.

Douglas Heath tells us that “from junior high school through college, students respond to moral problems with increasingly principled judgments.” The principles they act from, or the conclusions they draw, may not accord with ours, however. “Principled” is not a synonym for “well‐informed,” “wise,” or “effective.” People do mistaken or even terrible things on principle. A clash of principles does not indicate that an institution is unhealthy. To feel disquieted is not evidence that something is wrong, nor is it proof that what is bothering us is what is actually wrong; but our disquiet is a sign that we are ethically engaged and that some new, painful growth may be exacted of us. New information tests principle, and principle can clarify or obscure information.

I believe our goals in Quaker education are to encourage our students to become skilled agents of positive social, political, and economic change to make the world better; to fulfill their human roles as workers, citizens, marital partners, parents, lovers, and friends; and to help our students learn to make their contributions from lives that are spiritually centered, hopeful, fulfilled, and happy. To achieve these goals we must create an atmosphere or ethos that sustains them. The school’s ethos is the single most powerful and pervasive influence on what we can accomplish, dynamic and changing, a central core of values constantly tested by the daily life of the institution; it is as frail as it is powerful. It can be lost, recovered, or reconceived. It must be rebuilt every year, perhaps even every day. Perhaps the something wrong is simply that the material from which we build our holistic vision will always be inadequate. We have only ourselves, not whole, but seeking wholeness. All we are is human beings seeking God’s will; it is all we have to work with. Our Quaker faith tells us that it is enough.


Paul A. Lacey is a member of Clear Creek Meeting in Richmond, Indiana. He teaches English literature, humanities, and a number of cross-disciplinary courses at Earlham College. This article was originally presented as a speech to a conference sponsored by Earlham, Friends Association for Higher Education, and Friends Council on Education.

Posted in: Features, January 2001

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