Leading in the Light: Celebrating 325 Years of Quaker Education in America

LeadingIntheLightEdited by Deborra Sines Pancoe, et al. Friends Council on Education, 2014. 129 pages. $15/paperback.

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Leading in the Light describes the history and principles of Quaker education, along with illustrative stories of Quaker education in practice today. The book also honors longtime leader of Friends Council on Education, Irene McHenry, on the occasion of her retirement. It offers thoughtful essays and poems by educators about the models and values of America’s Quaker schools.

Quaker education is almost as old as the Religious Society of Friends itself. George Fox established the first two Quaker schools in England in 1688, one for girls and one for boys, to teach “all things Civil and Useful in Creation.” Fox also included in his will a tract of land in Philadelphia for a schoolhouse with a playground.

At the same time, William Penn dreamed of a “Holy Experiment” in America where education would be offered more widely than solely to the gentrified sons of the wealthy. In 1682, Penn arrived from England to found Pennsylvania and set up a Friends’ Public School. His 1697 petition to the Philadelphia Monthly Meeting dictated that “All children and servants, male and female . . . be received or admitted, taught or instructed, the rich at reasonable rates, and the poor to be maintained and schooled for nothing.” William Penn Charter School and Friends Select School in Philadelphia now both claim Penn’s legacy.

Today, more than 80 Friends schools in the United States have over 20,000 students, 4,500 teachers, and 1,200 trustees. Although membership in the Society of Friends is declining, Friends education in the United States seems to be holding its own. Although at least five Friends schools have closed since 2007, largely as a result of the recession, many others are thriving.

What is it about Quaker education that is different and valuable? Paul Lacey, retired professor at Earlham College, asks, “Is there a peculiarly Quaker form of education?” Leading in the Light offers a variety of answers from our shared, collective experience.

For many, meeting for worship is the central metaphor in Quaker education. Two former students from Germantown Friends School note that the “Meetinghouse is the Quaker school’s greatest classroom.” Meeting for worship helps students be comfortable with silence, deep thought, and reflection.

The heart of Quaker education also includes the social testimonies. Together, they create an ethos for teaching and learning, challenging hierarchies, and confronting injustice. Its purposes include encouraging students to make the world better and to seek lives that are spiritually centered, fulfilled, and happy.

In one school, students were asked, “What’s Quakerly about this place?” The most common reply was “the testimonies.” The use of consensus, belief in service and equality, and that of God in everyone are central to Friends education.

My son, Kevin, attended Friends schools in junior and senior high school. When I asked him what were the most important parts of his experience, he answered: emphasis on student participation in “adult” things (like discipline council); meeting for worship and the bonds it created; trust both ways—teachers in students, students in teachers.

Another Friend reflects: “Quaker education gave me a values set that informs how I see, interpret, and interact with the world . . . critically identify, examine, and respond to social injustices, and confidence that I can make an impact.”

Can there be Quaker education without Quakers? Maybe. Friends schools offer a holistic philosophy of teaching and learning, including the mind and body, feelings and intellect, psyche and soul. These are not exclusively Quaker values. We characterize the Inner Light as “that of God in each of us,” not just in Quakers.

What should twenty-first-century Quaker education offer? Environmental educator David Orr, in his essay “What Is Education For?,” notes that “the worth of education must now be measured against the standards of decency and human survival.”

We need supportive relationships, nurturing community, a curriculum that teaches students how to learn, academic skills, emotional and moral development, and values of diversity and justice. Quakers hold there is goodness in each of us, and we can work toward a more just, peaceful, and sustainable society. These are essential parts of a global education.

Fox said, “Let your life speak.” Quaker educators will continue to play an important role in developing active, conscientious, and caring students. This collection of essays will help show them the way.

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