Quaker Influences on American Education




Bryan S. Godfrey

EDU 300—Foundations of Education

Virginia Commonwealth University

March 2007




























Our goals in Quaker education are two-fold: to encourage people to make the world better, to become informed, skilled agents of positive social, political, and educational change, devoted to the fullest possible expression of the particular world image and style of fellowship represented by the Quaker testimonies; and to help our students learn to make their contributions from lives which are spiritually centered, fulfilled, and happy.



Paul Lacey in Growing into Goodness



Background of the Quakers and Their Beliefs


Ever since George Fox (ca. 1624-1691) founded the Society of Friends (Quakers) in England in the 1650s, this religious group has made distinctive contributions to education and furthered it beyond the traditional norm. Nowadays Quakers have largely adapted to mainstream society, yet many of mainstream society’s values, including public education, stem from the earlier efforts of Friends and their beliefs which were considered radical at the time. Often viewed as similar to other pacifistic faiths such as the Old Order Amish, but of a British rather than a Continental European origin, the Quakers, unlike the Amish, have not restricted education or expressed disdain for higher education. Rather, they have embraced or encouraged education as a means of furthering their faith and extending their goals of equality for all mankind.


Quakerism was a movement in which followers reacted against the turmoil of the English Civil War and the practices of the Established Church of England by emphasizing contemplative silence or meditation to gain spiritual harmony. The central aim of Friends was to experience the “Inner Light” of Christ, defined as the actual presence of the spiritual force which created all. Quakers were part of a significant transition in western religious consciousness from emphasis on exterior rituals and God’s transcendent (out of this world) nature to an emphasis on the divine nature of the human soul. In Up from Eden: A Transpersonal View of Human Evolution (Boulder, CO: Shambhala, 1983), Ken Wilber traces the evolution of religious consciousness from magical practices, then to archetypal mythologies, to intellectual models, to direct apprehension of transpersonal reality. Quaker emphasis on the unity and equality of all mankind seems to stem from Friends’ early rejection of traditional cultural identities that had polarized different cultures. The Inner Light was the spiritual source of human identity, and Quakers took to heart the biblical notion that there is “that of God in everyone.” Although the Friends were not the only Christian denomination to exert strong humanitarian impulses, they were among those who led the way for ideals such as peace and social justice, as well as the abolition of slavery and other reforms against exploitation (Miller and Nakagawa 2002). For better or worse, it can be argued that the social justice movements and the protests of the 1960s and 1970s in America stemmed from the social visions of the early Quakers. Such social activism originated with the Quakers, but by the latter part of the twentieth century, mainstream Americans had subconsciously embraced many of the principles of early Quakers.


Because George Fox struggled with formally trained clergy or theologians in comprehending spiritual matters, the first Quakers were suspicious of highly educated persons, mainly clergy, yet they argued for other types of schooling early in their movement (Russell 1979).  Quakers eschewed university training initially as promoting too much secularism, but due to their largely middle-class backgrounds, they believed a certain degree of intellectual attainment was essential for business or trade. Literacy and numeracy were necessary. As early as 1668, Fox promoted the establishment of Friends schools for both sexes for utilitarian purposes. When Quakers began immigrating to the American colonies in the late 1600s, they established meetings for worship (never referred to as churches) and schools. William Penn (1644-1718), Quaker founder of Pennsylvania, advocated liberal learning but also urged that learning should consist of “useful knowledge, such as is consistent with Truth and Godliness.” Latin and Greek were taught in early Quaker schools as these languages were viewed as necessary for a greater understanding of the Bible, but Quakers tended to place greater emphasis on the practical value of mathematics and natural sciences than non-Friends schools (Hamm 2003).


Quaker Education in Pennsylvania


Although Pennsylvania is generally associated with Quakers after William Penn founded the colony in 1683, the earliest settlers were actually the Swedes who began arriving in 1638. Swedes established the first schools, taught by clergy for the express purposes of Bible reading and learning the alphabet (Case 1983). Once Penn arrived, he questioned whether excessive knowledge was worthwhile, but in his 1682-83 Two Frames of Government, he gave the governor the authority to erect public schools to teach writing, reading, arithmetic, and religion (Case 1983). Shortly thereafter, other religious sects feared the Quakers were using the schools to propagate their faith, so a compromise was passed by the Quaker-dominated Pennsylvania Assembly in which all Protestant congregations were empowered to erect schools, resulting in parochial education dominating the colony (Case 1983). The earliest schools were Quaker ones however, as Darby Friends Meeting established one in 1692, but progress was slow until after 1778 when several Quaker meetings formed education committees which decided that subscription schools were necessary in all townships. Subscription schools were common throughout the late 1700s and early 1800s and were established by having one person donate land for the schoolhouse and other subscribers contribute funds. These were regarded as public schools, but enrollment was limited to those who could pay the subscription fee. The first subscription school in present-day Delaware County and Chester County, Pennsylvania, was established in 1715 in Thornbury Township, and there were about 4000 subscription schools in Pennsylvania by 1834 (Case 1983). Like most areas in America, education in Pennsylvania was beset by a lack of trained instructors, low esteem for the teaching profession, and low quality throughout the Colonial period, except for those who could afford tutoring or classical education.


An example of Quaker education in Colonial Pennsylvania is that of the eminent Quaker botanists, John Bartram (1699-1777) and his son William Bartram (1739-1823) of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Lacking the status of a gentleman who would have had classical training in Greek and Latin at a college, John Bartram’s Quaker education at the Darby School in Philadelphia was the equivalent of a modern high school education. At that time the Darby School was noted for its curriculum of practicality that included reading, writing, accounting, arithmetic, geometry, religious instruction, and even botany. Students typically attended classes five days per week, twelve months of the year. George Fox’s Primer and speller were generally utilized in Friends schools. In contrast to his contemporaries such as Benjamin Franklin who also achieved distinction without benefits of family prominence or educational background, Bartram was probably sensitive to and cognizant of his background in the company of other scientists who were university-trained gentlemen. John’s son William, on the other hand, received both a classical and a practical education when he enrolled at age fifteen at the Philadelphia Academy, which later became the University of Pennsylvania (Slaughter 1996). This was a nonsectarian, non-Quaker school however, established by Benjamin Franklin which was an innovation for its time in its incorporation of both liberal arts and practical skills in its curriculum to educate citizens for public service, in contrast to the general focus of universities at that time as training for the clergy. Nevertheless, the Quaker culture of Franklin’s adopted city of Philadelphia, and the Quaker influence of his mother’s Nantucket upbringing, may have influenced his emphasis on simplicity and practicality.


North Carolina Friends


Although Pennsylvania is regarded as the main Quaker state after William Penn’s settlement in 1683, Quakers began arriving in North Carolina as early as 1665, and its contributions to education are many. The Quaker settlement at Symon’s Creek in Pasquotank County, North Carolina, established the colony’s first public school in 1705. School houses and meeting houses often stood side by side in these Quaker communities. North Carolina Quaker schoolchildren suffered from a scarcity of books and teachers. Even so, Quaker schools were often regarded as superior to other schools in Carolina, and although the North Carolina Constitution, adopted after the Revolutionary War, contained a provision for public schools, there were few for years to come. In fact, it has been said that the majority of Carolina schoolchildren before 1835 never received instruction from a school teacher (Hinshaw 1984).


The North Carolina Quakers led the way in promoting coeducation after they established New Garden Boarding School at Greensboro, North Carolina, in 1837, which became Guilford College in 1888. The early 1800s witnessed renewed enthusiasm for education throughout the South as it tried to catch up with the North. Other denominations paralleled the Friends in establishing similar educational institutions. For example, the Moravians founded Salem Academy in 1802, and the Presbyterians founded Davidson College in 1837. However, New Garden was the first coeducational institution of higher learning in the South (Hinshaw 1984). While praised for its wholesome nature and for inculcating students in the Quaker values of simplicity, humility, compassion, and integrity, early Quaker education could be criticized for its drabness and its omission of music or fine arts in its curricula. In the years leading up to the Civil War, the survival of Quaker institutions in North Carolina and throughout the South was threatened by the increasing numbers of Quakers migrating to the Midwest to escape the sins of slavery and oppression that had become ways of life in the South. While many schools in the South were closed during the war, New Garden miraculously survived both the war and the subsequent Reconstruction period.


Between 1833 and 1901, over nine schools were founded in America by the Society of Friends that later became colleges and/or universities: Haverford in Haverford, Pennsylvania (1833), Earlham in Richmond, Indiana (1847), Swarthmore in Swarthmore, Pennsylvania (1864), Wilmington in Wilmington, Delaware (1870), William Penn at Oskaloosa, Iowa (1873), George Fox at Newberg, Oregon (1891), Malone in Canton, Ohio (1892), Friends University at Wichita, Kansas (1898), and Whittier College in Whittier, California (1901) (Hinshaw 1984).


Quaker Contributions to the Education of African-Americans and Reconstruction


Many North Carolina Quakers were instrumental in providing education for African-Americans both before and after the Civil War. Because there were few Negro children in Quaker communities due to Quaker distaste for slavery, and total integration in schools was a concept not even embraced by Friends until much later, there were few instances of Negroes attending monthly meeting schools. However, Friends became interested in assisting slaves in any way possible, but North Carolina, like other southern states, opposed educating slaves for fear it might incite rebellion, and its legislature passed laws making it a crime to teach them. Carolina Quakers failed in their attempts to lobby for a repeal of this harsh measure (Hinshaw 1984). One of the noted Quaker philanthropists and abolitionists who educated Negro children in North Carolina was Levi Coffin (1798-1877), a native of present-day Greensboro. He and his cousin Vestal Coffin established a Sunday school for African-Americans in the Guilford County Quaker community of New Garden (now part of the City of Greensboro) in 1821, using the Bible to teach slaves how to read and write. This was short-lived, however, as fearful slaveholders forced the school to close. In 1826, Coffin settled in Newport, Indiana, becoming a leader in the Underground Railroad movement that assisted slaves escaping into free territory and later acquiring the reputation as the Founder or President of the Underground Railroad (Coffin 1876). After the Civil War, Carolina Friends had limited impact on the education of African-American youth, partly due to economic devastation, and partly due to the fact that so many Friends had migrated west, but the Baltimore Association of Friends provided some educational assistance to former slaves (Hinshaw 1984).


North Carolina is one example of a southern state so devastated by the Civil War that its public school system ceased to function, but Quakers were instrumental in restoring education and many other governmental functions to the state. E.W. Knight commented, “the Quakers are doing more to reconstruct the state than all the Legislators” (Hinshaw 1983). Three normal schools, institutes for training teachers which were an innovation in America at this time, were established by Quaker Meetings in the counties bordering Greensboro between 1865 and 1871. The Baltimore Association of Friends, a missionary organization that assisted North Carolinians recovering from the war between 1865 and 1872, established numerous academies in North Carolina that became forerunners of modern-day high schools, which were a continuation of monthly meeting schools that were the equivalent of modern elementary schools (Hinshaw 1983).


The Lancastrian Model


A major contribution to education worldwide was that of the English Quaker convert, Joseph Lancaster (1778-1838), a native of London from an impoverished background. He converted to the faith after becoming fascinated by Friends’ interest in education and being deprived of schooling as were most poor children in the area where he was reared. Lancaster opened a school at age 21 on an ability-to-pay basis. To solve the problem of unaffordable teaching assistants, he utilized students as monitors to help tutor younger students. His model became known as the Lancastrian school, which involved not only monitors, but also a system of honors and merits, use of slate and chalk in classrooms to save paper, field trips for students, and classroom learning aids or manipulatives, all of which are basic features of education today. Lancastrian schools spread to England, Ireland, Canada, and America. Several were operating in Virginia by the time Lancaster and his wife settled in the United States in 1818. Although many Lancastrian schools became notorious for harsh, old-fashioned disciplinary practices and Lancaster’s efforts resulted in his own financial ruin, his model nonetheless became successful in educating many youth before public schools became commonplace in America (Worrall 1994). Lancastrian advocates such as the New York Free School Society established charity schools which enabled the poor to receive education at little or no cost to themselves and were innovative for their emphasis on moral and character development (Spring 2005).


Quaker Pedagogy and Holistic Education in Friends Schools


Quakers have been distinguished for far-reaching accomplishments not only in the inclusiveness of their education, but also in their educational methods and objectives, sometimes referred to collectively as the Quaker Learning Process. Like other religious denominations, the Friends established many schools for ulterior motives in maintaining the unity of the Quaker faith and guarding their youth from the supposed corruptions of the mainstream world. However, religious indoctrination was not a primary aim of Quaker education. Rather, Quaker education strives for the betterment of society and nourishment of the divine “seed” of human souls to enable students to achieve their maximum social, intellectual, moral, and spiritual potentials. While diversity has been embraced by groups of people in recent times due to the popularity of political correctness or political pressures, the Quakers were inclusive all along as part of their spiritual goals (Miller and Nakagawa 2002). Quaker educators have placed greater value on individualism and the autonomy and integrity of youth as opposed to the rigid, authoritarian educational systems of mainstream society in earlier times. Reason, not the authority of tradition, is the guiding force in Quaker instruction, in accordance with William Penn’s belief in the liberty of conscience as necessary for improvement in human nature (Miller and Nakagawa 2002).


The Quaker obsession with seeking the truth has reduced the conflicts between religion and science that have beset civilization. Quakers emphasize science and rationality as part of the quest for universal truth, even embracing the teaching of evolution in contrast to mainline Christian denominations which view evolution as contrary to the Bible (McKinstry 2004).


The Quaker tradition of compassionate knowledge differs from the aims of modern science which seeks to control the world for mankind’s benefit. In To Know as We Are Known, Parker Palmer described the Quaker pursuit of knowledge motivated by compassion instead of training for careers. Collaboration, partnership, ecological wisdom, peace, and celebration of diversity are the aims of education as stated by Palmer, who served as dean of studies at Pendle Hill, a Friends retreat. He also implied that education had deviated from its original aims by becoming more of a status symbol in which competition is important and achievement is measured by social status or personal success (Miller and Nakagawa 2002).


In a 1958 Pendle Hill brochure, Quaker theologian and educator Howard Brinton stated, “Quaker education should be devoted not so much to analysis as to synthesis, not so much to specialization as to integration; not so much to absorbing many facts as to sensing the meaning and goal of life, not so much to thought and research as to insight and meditation” (McKenzie 2002).  It has been suggested that the extraordinary successes of Quakers in academia and science, in comparison to the relatively small size of the denomination, is due to the unique thought processes and discoveries Quakers engage in when they meditate. Dogmatic instruction is much less effective and a lot more passive than first-hand, student-centered, experiential knowledge in enabling a student to discern deeper truths (Miller and Nakagawa 2002). Parker Palmer identified the following three components of Quaker pedagogy:


            a. Openness—a prepared physical and mental space in which there are no learning

                        obstacles and simplicity is stressed.

            b. Boundedness—the notion that learners of all ages need firm boundaries to be

                        contained and protected. They are cared for within these limits.

            c. Hospitality—the notion that all learners are received with care and an open

                        mind. Divergent ideas and self-expression are welcomed. (McKenzie 2002).


Quakers have adopted some holistic practices in their educational approach. The holistic approach means that people discover identity, meaning, and purpose for life by connecting to the natural world, one’s community, and to spiritual values, emphasizing a passion for learning and a reverence for the sanctity of life (Wikipedia). Holism is defined as the philosophy of the whole system determining how its components behave rather than a system’s properties being explained by the sum of its components (Wikipedia). Instead of merely emphasizing rote learning, holistic education encompasses intellectual, spiritual, emotional, social, physical, creative, and artistic development. Friends schools are among alternative schools cited as having holistic practices, other examples being Montessori schools, open schools, and free schools (Wikipedia). Cooperative learning, project-based instruction, an emphasis on teachers as facilitators, and multiage groupings are common holistic emphases that are often found in Quaker schools (Miller and Nakagawa 2002). Among the well-known  holistic education pioneers in the early nineteenth century was the New England Transcendentalist Amos Bronson Alcott, who received Quaker inspiration while studying Platonic and romantic philosophy in Philadelphia and later referred to his educational methods as Pestalozzian, which in turn became the model for Waldorf education in the late twentieth century (Miller and Nakagawa 2002).


Scattergood Friends School, a coeducational college preparatory boarding school in West Branch, Iowa, practices a Quaker educational philosophy known as the ecology of learning. Like most early Friends schools, Scattergood was founded to provide Quaker children with a “guarded education” where they could be protected from “early knowledge, or contact with, the evils of the world” (Scattergood Friends School website). It attempted to integrate with mainstream society in the 1960s while maintaining its close-knit community spirit. In the section of the Scattergood website entitled “Practices at Scattergood,” the school states its philosophy of encouraging students to perform their best and strive for mutual respect while downplaying competition because “a focus on comparisons between people diminishes individual accomplishments and stains the community”. Two unique practices of Scattergood are conflict resolution through peer mediation and collection, a time in the morning when the entire school meditates together to reflect on the upcoming day. Niebuhr (1998) delineates the five features of Scattergood that comprise its ecology of learning: it is a community, it is a faith community, it has a peer group culture, it nurtures family-type relationships between students and faculty, and it implements a college preparatory curriculum. Education historian Lawrence Cremin described the American “ecology of learning” as the contribution of the multiple learning environments of not only school, but also the home, the community, one’s peer group, the church, the library, the media, and the workplace. The 1983 A Nation at Risk report criticized American education, yet Niebuhr continues to criticize it fifteen years later for not placing enough emphasis on the roles of non-school settings in learning because one only spends about nineteen percent of their waking hours in school. Scattergood embraces these non-school environments as intentional learning settings that each have curricula which require objective evaluation (Niebuhr 1998).



Conclusion: Personal Reflections


Several personal observations and items of personal knowledge concerning Quaker higher education, as well as Quaker attitudes toward education, are in order. First and foremost, the writer commends his Quaker ancestors for highly valuing higher education in a time when it was rare among agrarian families in the South, as shown by the disproportionate number of them who sent their youth to boarding schools or college compared to his non-Quaker southern forebears. Guilford College and its predecessor, New Garden Boarding School, have been the leading alma maters of many of his Quaker relations, and in the hard times following the Civil War and Reconstruction, his Quaker relatives made extraordinary sacrifices to ensure the education of their children. Secondly, Quaker concern that mainline education has strayed away from its original objectives towards education as a status symbol has resulted in Quaker universities embracing individuality, communal learning, knowledge for its own sake, and compassion more than the average college. In this regard, Quaker colleges such as Guilford and Earlham have reputations for less rigor, less stress, and more satisfaction among students in contrast with the reputations of many universities in which students have high rates of depression, suicide, or substance abuse due to the pressures of conforming and succeeding. Collaboration seems to produce cooperation, respect for authority, and learning for its own sake. Because Quakers are traditionally opposed to honorifics and rigid authoritarian structures so typical of mainstream society, there is a greater sense of equality between social divisions, such as faculty versus students or parent versus child, among Quakers. For example, at Guilford and Earlham, students are often on a first-name basis with professors. Older alumni of Guilford and older Quakers in the Greensboro area often complain that Guilford has lost its Quaker flavor by having a mostly non-Quaker student majority and by becoming notorious for its large gay and hippie student population. Whether these are positive attributes or not depends on one’s own perspective, but this stems from the Quaker tendency to resist or question mainstream values, to oppose violence, and to embrace the value of the individual, “that of God in everyone”.













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