Meetings for Learning

When I think of writing about Quaker higher education in general, and the Resident Program at Pendle Hill in particular, I think of words and fingers. There is a story about a Zen master pointing at the moon; his students all look at the finger rather than where the finger is pointing. We fall into the same trap with words, forgetting that the truth does not lie in the words themselves but in where the words are pointing. Or, as George Fox put it, we pay attention to the words rather than to the Word. And the Word is what Quaker higher education is about. Education is a great word for Quakers—it comes from a Latin root meaning "to lead out." So, whether we think of the Word, or the Inner Light, or that of God in every person as that which is led out, education suggests something profoundly Quaker.

To get at what I mean by higher education, I could use metal as a metaphor. We all know that metal sinks in water according to certain laws. But we also know that metal will float if a higher law is brought to bear. If we shape that metal in a certain way, what sank before will float. Giving the metal a certain shape did not invalidate the law that made it sink; we simply introduced a new law that was primary.

When we turn to education, we see that, generally speaking, education in our culture is based on the law of knowledge. But there is a higher law—the law of love. As the Apostle Paul pointed out, knowledge will pass away, but faith, hope, and love will last forever. The importance of knowledge is not invalidated by the higher law of love, but it is put in a certain perspective—its importance is secondary to the primary importance of love. Similarly, the importance of intellectual rigor is secondary to the rigor of love. By the rigor of knowledge many students have been greatly enriched. By the rigor of love many have been transformed.

When I was a student at Pendle Hill, one of my fellow students suggested in class that Jesus really welcomed crucifixion as a way to escape this world. I sat there thinking, "How ridiculous—what about the scene in the Garden of Gethsemane in which Jesus prays to God to let the cup pass from him?" (Matt. 36:29). From my point of view at the time, the student’s interpretation, and he himself by association, did not even warrant a response. Now, as a Pendle Hill teacher looking back on that experience, it is clear to me that I broke both the law of knowledge and the law of love.

With my present perspective I would have been faithful to the law of knowledge by asking the student how he reconciled his point of view with Jesus’ prayer in the Garden. But more importantly, I would have made entirely different assumptions about him and would have addressed him respectfully in a spirit that gave him the benefit of the doubt, rather than trying to emphasize how ridiculous he and his point of view were. Although, even to this day, it seems very unlikely to me that this student would have had an enlightening answer, the truth is I will never really know. And even if I am right, his mistake at the time was of secondary importance. Mine was of primary importance. His lack of rigor had to do with knowledge. My lack of rigor had to do with love.

All of this happened in a class at Pendle Hill. More accurately, it happened in a "meeting for learning." The distinction between a class and a meeting for learning is important in the Religious Society of Friends. A meeting for worship for business is fundamentally different from a secular business meeting, where decisions are made by the majority. So also a meeting for learning is fundamentally different from a class in which the students are graded according to some external standard.

This external standard is usually determined by the teachers, whose authority is based on their knowledge and also on the power vested in them to grade their students. In a meeting for learning, on the other hand, the dynamic of power and the role of the teacher are very different. Just as in the Quaker business meeting it is the Spirit that guides the meeting, so it is the Spirit or Inner Teacher that is the true teacher in a meeting for learning. As Jesus taught: when two or three are gathered in his name, he will be with them (Matt. 18:20). In other words, when a group are gathered in the same Spirit that guided and sustained him, that very same Spirit will be present and active in the group.

What, then, will be the role of the teacher in a meeting for learning? First of all, as suggested earlier, the teacher’s knowledge and responsibility as leader have not been invalidated, but the acknowledged presence and activity of the Spirit mean that we are again dealing with higher laws and a changed perspective. The acknowledgment of this presence and activity and the desire to respond to it are essential to our identity as Friends.

"A friend," someone said in meeting for worship, "is one who knows the song in your heart and can sing it back to you when you have forgotten it." Surely this is true also of a Friend. George Fox spoke of answering that of God in another person. Teachers in a meeting for learning, then, seek to answer that of God in their students—to be their friend in the deepest sense. So the teachers in a meeting for learning must themselves be deeply committed and truly humble learners. And in this context their listening skills become as important as their speaking skills. As I say to my students, "Gifted speakers may be encouraged to work on their listening skills, and gifted listeners may be encouraged to work on their speaking skills."

Meetings for learning start and end with George Fox’s searching query: "What canst thou say?" Keeping this query in mind gives perspective to the importance of information. Again, it is not invalidated, but its importance is secondary to the importance of transformation. The process of transformation in a meeting for learning starts in part with each student seeking to answer that question from his or her own actual experience. The reading and sharing in class gain greater transforming power as they relate to the measure of faith and knowledge, or sometimes even doubt and ignorance, that are the wellspring of each student’s voice as he or she participates in the dialogue.

Part of the teacher’s task in this regard is to facilitate the development of a group environment in which students feel safe enough to be honest about their actual thoughts, feelings, and experiences. The presence and activity of the Spirit seem to require that all present speak and listen from the heart as well as from the head. The activity of the left brain is not invalidated, but it is balanced by an appreciation of what the right brain has to offer in the process of transformation. In the meeting for learning, George Fox’s query about what can be said from one’s own experience of the Light is both the alpha and the omega, for on the path of transformation one must, as George Fox also taught, stay within one’s measure.

Although the meeting for learning is usually associated with what happens in the classroom, clearly it is not confined to the classroom. Here at Pendle Hill, there are a daily meeting for worship, weekly meetings with one’s consultant, the meetings in various contexts for physical work, and the many ways, formal and informal, that folk gather in the resident program—all, when two or three (or more) are gathered consenting to the presence and activity of the Spirit, are meetings for learning.

Ultimately, though, the meeting for learning is not just the way we do things. It is the spirit in which we do things. I vividly remember one time when an eager but unassuming student came into Bill Taber’s course on George Fox’s Journal. She came in last, and although there was still an empty seat next to Bill in the circle in which all the rest of us were sitting, she chose to sit alone outside the circle. Now, to appreciate what happened, you have to remember how the mother of James and John wanted to be sure her sons would sit at the left hand and right hand of Jesus in his Kingdom (Matt. 20:21). As soon as Bill noticed that this student was sitting outside the circle, he invited her to sit next to him. Perhaps touched more than she wanted to let on, she exclaimed, "Ooh, you mean I get to sit at the left hand?" And in a spirit that continues to work in me, Bill replied, "Perhaps it is I who get to sit at the right hand."

Chris Ravndal

Chris Ravndal, a member of Stillwater Meeting in Barnesville, Ohio, is in his 14th year as a resident teacher at Pendle Hill in Wallingford, Pa.