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Into the Archives Column: The Beginning

in Campus Journal/Into the Archives by

If you’re researching Swat on the internet, the first sentence on the “about” page of its website reads:

“Since its founding in 1864, Swarthmore College has given students the knowledge, insight, skills, and experience to become leaders for the common good.”

As students on campus, descriptions like this of the college can seem largely rhetorical. Swarthmore has a long, long history of progressivism and social justice, but with our large workloads and busy schedules, it’s easy to feel detached from our place within the institution as a whole. I stumbled upon random facts about the college’s history last year — Albert Einstein spoke here; Nirvana played here; the FBI investigated students and faculty here — and thought it’d be interesting to look further into the narrative that the school’s history itself creates. I’m hoping to raise my own (and potentially our collective) consciousness, to help us appreciate our place in historical time and be better equipped to hold the college accountable to its promises of the past. With that in mind, I’m going into the archives: this week, to the beginning.

Swarthmore was officially authorized to become a college on April 1, 1864. In its authorization, the Pennsylvania Senate and House of Representatives approved Swarthmore College “to establish and maintain a school and college for the purpose of importing to persons of both sexes knowledge in the various branches of science, literature, and the arts.”

However, the process of founding Swarthmore was begun even earlier, around 1860, by a group of Hicksite Quakers in the Philadelphia area, who placed great emphasis on community building and were ‘liberal’ even for Quakers. (They split from more Orthodox quakers as the other group moved away from women leading services and focused more on material possessions than “common people.”) The Hicksites met in Philadelphia, New York, and Baltimore to discuss the starting of a Hicksite college; one of their main goals was coeducation, highly uncommon for the time. (For comparison, Yale didn’t become co-ed until 1969.)

Apart from the general Hicksite Quaker goals, the main proponents of the school themselves were visionaries of the time. One such person was Benjamin Hallowell (sound familiar?), the man who wrote the first pamphlet advocating the creation of the college. He was a conscientious objector in the War of 1812, and eventually became the president of the University of Maryland — only on the condition that he serve without a salary and the school’s farm not use slave labor. There were initially conversations about what kind of school Swarthmore should be; some Quakers wanted a grammar school, another a school to train other Quakers, but Hallowell wanted more out of the proposed school. He wrote in a letter to future president Edward Parrish “The Institution must, from its commencement, possess faculties for pursuing a liberal and extensive course of study … equal to that of the best Institutions of learning of our Country” (Swarthmore Bulletin).

Along with Hallowell was Lucretia Coffin Mott, a Hicksite Minister — Hicksites encouraged women leading religious services — as well as a leading abolitionist and suffragist of the 19th century. Mott devoted her life not only to these causes, but also “to the abolition of slavery, women’s rights, school and prison reforms, temperance, peace, and religious tolerance” (Swarthmore College, A Brief History). Her home was a stop on the Underground Railroad, and she even received a nomination for United States Vice President in 1848, long before the 19th amendment was even on the horizon.

Hallowell and Mott were a few noteworthy proponents, but the creation of the college included a vast variety of people who adhered to Quaker values: from wealthy businessmen, to abolitionists, to former professors at West Point.

The name “Swarthmore” was actually coined in 1863 by Hallowell’s wife Margaret, who wanted to name the school after a historical house in England called “Swarth moor” the home of another Margaret, Margaret Fell, who dedicated her life to the Quaker movement and was a strong proponent of the right of women to speak freely and be leaders, even in religious contexts. As early as the mid 1660s, Fell wrote in her book Women’s Speaking” that the ministry of women was “Justified, Proved, and Allowed of by the Scriptures” (Swarthmore: A Brief History).

From the land for which it was named, to the people who decided on its inception, to the very sect of Quakerism from which the College was conceived, Swat’s beginnings are permeated with progress. The founders had a vision of a school that transcended the societal expectations of the time; one can only wonder how that vision has evolved. How have we translated this original outlook into our present?

Friends Library archives long history

in Arts by

Located immediately to the left of McCabe’s entrance, the Friends Historical Library Reading Room boasts artwork and rows of desks, looking like what one might expect in an almost 150-year-old academic library. The collection holds more than first meets the eye; amidst the stacks are thousands of books, photographs, pamphlets, and Quaker meeting records spanning from before Swarthmore College opened its doors, through the school’s history, to the modern day.

Established in 1871, the library has moved around, occupying areas throughout campus such as the location where Worth Health Center now stands.  It also survived the 1881 fire, which destroyed Parrish Hall and delayed instruction soon after the school opened. A New York Times article from September 27, 1881, explains that the 4,000 volumes in the college’s library were all destroyed, save for “a very valuable collection of old books, manuscripts, [and others] relating to the early history of Friends.” These, Curator Christopher Densmore explained, are still part of the Friends Historical Library’s collection.

“The collections, at least at that time, were in a fireproof room. Think of a large, walk-in vault for a bank,” he said.

The library retains 17th century documents today, as well as journals, correspondences, and papers of Quakers and individuals related to Swarthmore College throughout history. Papers from the Parrish and Magill families, among others, are also included in the collection.

Archivist Susanna Morikawa said, “I especially enjoy the family papers, which often span many generations.”

In addition to Quaker history in general, the library supervises archives of the college and the Swarthmore Borough Historical Society. Information regarding the school’s students, staff, faculty, administrators, and alumni is accessible and searchable online for those interested. Publications, architectural plans, and syllabi from a World War II-era relief and reconstruction training program remain in the Friends Historical Library’s collections.

Beyond paper records, the library houses a range of artwork, including several copies of Edward Hicks’s “The Peaceable Kingdom.” Variably depicting Quakers, Native American Indians, a child, and animals, the general framework for this painting is derived from Isaiah 11:6, which explains, “the wolf will dwell with the lamb, and the leopard will lie down with the young goat, […] and a little boy will lead them.”

“He could paint it over and over again, make many, many copies of it, and each one would be a little different,” Densmore said.

The collection includes other works by 18th and 19th century artist Benjamin West, who lived in the house now occupied by Public Safety. Some works relate to West’s personal life, such as a sketch of his father, John West. Many of his paintings involve historical and religious themes, such as his 1771 painting of William Penn’s treaty with Native Americans. An engraving of this is housed in the Friends Historical Library.

Also included are both positive and negative depictions of Quaker meetings. In some modifications on a theme seen in an engraving by Ernst von Hesse Wartegg, the devil is depicted whispering into a woman’s ear while she speaks during meeting time. This illustration reflects to the historical audience that the Friends allowed what was considered a sinful behavior: permitting women to speak.

On exhibit in the past have been documents that explore issues surrounding horticulture, slavery, and the LGBT community. Researchers have used the library for Quaker history in addition to their own research around these social topics.

“Because Quakers were involved in so many social concerns, their work in abolition, education, and prison reform are reflected in the collections,” Morikawa said.

Professors occasionally bring students to the library to showcase its resources. Gilbert Guerra ’19, a student in Professor Lee Smithey’s Introduction to Peace and Conflict Studies course, visited with the class and noted the breadth of materials available.

“Getting to see it in depth led me to appreciate it as a resource a lot more, and I think that if more students knew about its history, they would take advantage of having it on campus,” he said.

Besides being open 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. during the week, the library hosts a variety of events open to the public. On Monday, Oct. 31st, in honor of Halloween, they held an event entitled “Spirits and Rappings: Pageants of 19th Century Séances.” They also hold Underground Railroad tours and other educational events throughout the year.

Structure of Board raises some concerns that it is out of touch

in Around Campus/News by

On December 2 of 1862, the Board of Managers of what was to become Swarthmore College met in Philadelphia for the first time. The Friends’ Educational Association, a conglomeration of Quakers from the New York, Baltimore, and Philadelphia’s Yearly Meetings — the organizing bodies for Quaker communities in these respective areas — had recently elected 16 men and 16 women to create and run the college. Equal Board representation (a requirement set forth by the Friends’ Association) was unprecedented and somewhat illegal. Married women — who could only be represented by their husbands — began to serve in defiance of Pennsylvania law, which Swarthmore lobbied against and finally changed in 1870.

Since then, the Board has evolved in more ways than one. Consequently, there have at times been concerns about the Board’s capacity to represent the college at large. In recent months, there have been accusations of the Board’s inability to represent the best interest of current students by refusing to divest. Students who have worked alongside Board members on committees have expressed some discontent too.

The Board’s transformation since that first meeting in 1862 may account for some of the discontent, though many of the original traditions live on. Though there continues to be an almost even split between men and women, few of its members are still affiliated and involved with the Quaker community. For almost 50 years, the Board could not elect non-Quaker members. Though this rule was changed in 1910 in order to receive a grant for non-sectarian schools, most managers continued to be affiliated with the Religious Society of Friends until the 1930s.

It was also in 1910 that the Board assumed fiduciary responsibilities. Until then, the members of the Friends’ Educational Association — who had contributed to amass the initial necessary capital — were stockholders, and therefore oversaw the finances of the college. Today, the Board of Managers stands as the most powerful decision-making entity at Swarthmore, controlling everything from large-scale finances, to presidential appointments, to admissions and financial aid policies.

Though it has been more than one hundred years since the college dropped its official religious affiliation, influences remain. According to Board Chair Gil Kemp ’72, the body prides itself on preserving the Quaker values and traditions of its founding. In particular, the Board honors the traditions of Friends in their decision-making processes.

“Decisions are made on the basis of consensus,” he said. “We don’t have formal votes.”

Still, there are very few remaining Friends on the Board. Though since its inception, new managers have been elected by the Board itself, Swarthmore’s expansion as a non-sectarian institution increased the number and diversity of choices.

“Now that we have 20,000 alums, it certainly is a bigger pool, and one that requires a lot of time and attention,” Kemp said.

Haverford College, also founded by Friends, has undergone a similar process of separation from the Quaker community on official matters. However, though Swarthmore’s Board of Managers is the highest governing body, Haverford’s Board is not. The Corporation, a body of 200 people with affiliations to the Religious Society of Friends or that “exemplify what it means to be grounded in the faith and practice of Friends,” holds legal title to the college’s assets and, importantly, elects members to the Board of Managers. The priority of the Corporation “is to assist the College in strengthening and enriching Haverford’s Quaker character” — exercising control over the Board is one way they assert this influence.

According to Kemp, Swarthmore’s Nominating and Governance committee, which is responsible for selecting new managers and developing the criteria for this selection, has worked hard to create a diverse pool of applicants and managers that represent Swarthmore’s values, whether they are affiliated with Societies of Friends or not.

The same committee also works alongside the Alumni Council to select two Alumni Managers each year. These members, who typically serve on the Board for four years, are different from the Term Managers, who are picked by the Committee and are expected to serve three terms of four years.

“The fundamental interest is to create a diverse board,” Kemp said. “And there are many different criteria.”

Among these, Kemp noted gender, age, geographic diversity, and occupational variance in particular. Though gender and age varies, of the 39 current managers, 14 are or have been involved in finance, and six in private law. Other industries, like education, medicine, journalism and consulting are each represented by three or four managers.

Though achieving a balance of backgrounds is important, Kemp also noted that a person’s giving history is significant — not in absolute dollars but in ways that show a commitment to the college.

“It would be my hope and expectation that you make Swarthmore your number one philanthropic priority and that you’re making a gift that is meaningful to you,” he said. “Everybody is going to define meaningful in terms of their own resources, income, and wealth. I’m on other boards where they will talk about amounts, but I’m not a huge fan of that.”

Once managers have been picked and approved, they are sorted into different committees, which do the bulk of the Board’s work.

“Substantive work is done in these smaller groups and it’s either reported to the Board, or brought to the Board in an endorsement,” Kemp said. “The key is that committees work very closely with the members of the administration that are responsible for a given area. For instance, Dean [of Students Liz] Braun forms an integral part of that [Student Affairs] committee and developing its agenda.”

All committees work alongside administrative staff in some capacity, though the staff are not official members. The only committee with student or faculty representation is the Social Responsibility Committee.

Laura Rigell ’16, who served for two years and ended her term in December, became involved through her role in Mountain Justice. Though she felt good about her work on the sub-committees that addressed issues of climate change, overall, her presence on the committee did not always feel valued.

“Student representatives could have more of a voice than they do on this committee,” she said.

She thinks that having agenda-setting power for students would be especially valuable, as there was never much room for negotiation and meetings were under big time constraints. The fact that all of the committee work was confidential also made it hard for Rigell to feel that she was actively representing the student body.

“[Confidentiality] wasn’t helpful at all when we were trying to build student support for our ideas,” Rigell said. “It was counterintuitive to me. I don’t understand the rationale for that confidentiality. I would rather that the SRC is a transparent, accountable committee.”

Though she knows that there is work to be done in the Social Responsibility Committee, Rigell is also concerned that there is only one committee with student representatives. At Haverford, for instance, student council and class representatives are a constant presence on the Board.

Like Rigell, committee member Benjamin Roebuck ’17 feels that there is a lot of room for improvement within the SRC.

“My experience so far is that the Board is mostly happy with its efforts and is not as eager to move forward with more challenging but rewarding work that we could be doing as a committee,” he said.

Moreover, Roebuck thinks the role of students on these committees could be expanded.

“Students have something of a voice, a minimal one,” he said. “I think that all of the students who are on the committee have done a very good job at representing the student body as best as they can in the capacity that this role allows them to. I think the role ideally would allow us to do it more.”

Divestment would prove Quaker tradition alive and well

in Letter to the Editor/Opinions by

To the Editor,

My wife, Gail Grossman ’65, and I have three granddaughters who will, with any luck, live to 2075 or later. We fear what the world they will inherit from our generation will be like. We are doing what we can to ensure that they live healthy and happy lives. We are also doing what we can to reduce global climate change.

Our 50th Swarthmore reunion is looming close. We look forward to seeing our classmates and to making the expected donation to the school that we so appreciate, which brought us together and kindled our love. However, we will not make a donation to any fund that is invested in fossil fuels.

I have read the op-ed written on 20 November by Gil Kemp ’72, Chair of the Board of Managers. I find several problems with what he has written. Divestment is not an empty gesture. I am delighted that Swarthmore is seeking other solutions, but I feel that divestment would tell the world that Swarthmore’s Quaker ethical tradition is alive and well. Not only do we Friends “speak truth to power,” but we also put our money where our mouths are. This Quaker Matchbox couple will not donate to the Swarthmore endowment until it divests.

Kemp’s primary concern is that, without investments in fossil fuels, Swarthmore’s magnificent endowment will not grow so well. A study by Standard & Poor’s belies that; a theoretical fund without carbon-based investments did slightly better over a ten-year span than their S&P 500. In the past, Swarthmore had the concern that it could not divest from one category of investments since all investments were managed in a huge panel of instruments. Since Kemp wrote his op-ed, the company managing the largest portion of Swarthmore’s endowment, Cambridge Associates, has made a significant announcement. Cambridge now has a panel that is free of fossil fuel investments.

My understanding of the status of coal and petroleum is that their exploiters vastly overstate reserves of these fossil fuels. Since, as time goes on, it will become more difficult to develop these resources, the cost of delivering carbon-based energy to end-users will rise rapidly in the future. This will make fossil fuel investments much less valuable. Indeed, in the rush to sell off carbon-based investments, they may become “stranded assets.”

Kemp is looking toward the past when he writes about the Board of Managers investment policy. I see a bright future for renewable energy and a dim one for investments in fossil fuels. I would much prefer that the Swarthmore College Board of Managers take the moral high ground now by announcing a policy of divestment. Other colleges such as Pitzer and Hampshire have already announced their intention to divest, as has the Rockefeller Brothers Fund. I am certain that Swarthmore’s Board will realize the importance of making this move sooner or later. Wouldn’t it be best to be a leader and divest now, rather than wait until fossil fuel stocks lose value?

Richard Grossman

Richard Grossman graduated from the college in 1965.

Referendum Against Sorority Gains Prominence

in Around Campus/News by

As is now common knowledge across campus, the student group, Not Yet Sisters (NYS), worked with the college’s administration last semester to establish a sorority at Swarthmore that will open it doors to the community in Spring 2013.

As students returned to campus over the past week, negative sentiments regarding Greek life and the creation of this sorority have been voiced through a petition calling to further reconsider its creation. Titled, “Call for Referendum on Sorority at Swarthmore College,” it states that “The motivation behind this petition is that sorority presence on college campuses affects each and every one of us at Swarthmore College.”

The reasons for petitioning a referendum and for opposing the sorority and Greek life in general have been expressed in many forums, most prominently in the comment section of the online petition.

Hope Brinn ’15 echoes the petition’s reason for needing a referendum. “I believe that Greek life runs counter to the Quaker values that Swarthmore holds. Other Quaker schools like Guilford have banned Greek life for the same reason,” she said.

In 1933, Swarthmore abolished sororities on campus following a vigorous campaign led by students and two referendums held a year apart from one another. In 1931, sororities enjoyed great popularity amongst the student body. In fact, three-quarters of the women at Swarthmore belonged to one. Julia Melin ’13, a member of NYS, said “If Quaker values did conflict with the principles of Greek life then fraternities wouldn’t have existed at Swat when it was still a Quaker institution in the 1800s.”

The main issue that weighs against the sorority is the perceived inherent nature of a sorority and its members. “Sororities are inherently exclusive institutions with problematic histories that include hazing, sexual abuse and emotional abuse,” Brinn said. Kappa Alpha Theta’s rejection of a Jewish student in the 1930s was one of the reasons that prompted student Molly Yard to rally against the sororities, eventually causing them to be banned from Swarthmore.

The college’s efforts to dispel the negative “exclusionary” perception of Greek life are being met with skepticism.

“Both fraternities and sororities are exclusionary by nature, neither should be allowed on campus,” Aaron Kroeber ’16 said. The preconceived notions of the kind of people who become members of fraternities and sororities are also proving harmful for the sorority’s image.

An agitated Melin responded to such comments by saying that the prejudiced perception of students who are members of fraternities and sororities is unfounded and that some research would prove to doubters that many great students, including class presidents, have belonged to the fraternities at Swarthmore.

The idea that Swarthmore’s two fraternities ought to be balanced out with at least one sorority is countered by many, like Alexander Ahn ’14 who commented on the petition, “The solution to male-dominated Greek culture on campus is not the institution of a female parallel. It is better to abolish the tradition altogether.” The sentiment that Greek life should be abolished entirely is repeated throughout the comments for the petition, with some current students stating that they chose Swarthmore because it had minimal Greek influence on campus.

Speaking on behalf of NYS, Melin explained, “We knew that the decision to have a sorority would be a revolutionary one for Swarthmore and expected all the attention that the issue has been receiving.” She highlighted the social contributions that the sorority would bring to campus, such as “social events, networking opportunities, tutoring, mentorship for new students, more opportunities for service,” and also explained that the national nature of a sorority makes it a more desirable group to form than just another Women’s Society or Union.

While NYS has consistently maintained that they welcome discussion and conversation about the sorority and never practiced a closed door policy, the student body remains ambivalent about such a decision being made without their direct approval. Dissuading fears that an expansion of Greek life would change the social culture at Swarthmore, Melin stated, “The sorority is not trying to change Swarthmore’s culture, only trying to enhance it.”

As a final statement on the issue of holding a referendum, Melin said, “If the entire student body were to make decisions for a small sub-set of the school’s population, it would equal oppression. The term to use would be ‘tyranny of the majority’.”  As the number of signatories for a referendum grows (more anonymous than known) the previous statement clearly outlines NYS’ stance on having a referendum.

Aaron Kroeber is an Opinions columnist for The Phoenix. He had no role in the production of this article.

Swarthmore’s ongoing struggle with its Quakerism

in Op-Eds/Opinions by

Op-Ed by Erik Heaney

Since I arrived on Swarthmore’s campus barely a year ago, I have noticed that this institution is undergoing a struggle with its identity and heritage. Much like that of an individual who struggles to reconcile conflicting cultural identities, it appears that Swarthmore has trouble reconciling its Quaker heritage and its adherence to multiculturalism.

On the one hand, Swarthmore has its grounding in Quakerism. It was, in fact, a school where young Quakers could receive a “guarded” education. On the other hand, Swarthmore is in the twenty-first century. It must (for good reason), be open to a multi-cultural student body and be careful not to step on the toes of students who self-identify as non-Quaker.

Since 1906, when Swarthmore first allowed non-Quakers to be allowed onto the board of managers (and probably even before then), Swarthmore has struggled to maintain this balance between its unique Quaker heritage and its commitment to multiculturalism. By no means is this balance easy to maintain, and there is bound to be plenty of give and take.

However, throughout the past couple of decades, the Quaker heritage that has undeniably defined Swarthmore as an institution has been eroded. Both the student body and the administration have failed to maintain its Quaker identity. If you ask anyone on campus about the Quaker roots of Swarthmore, they will oftentimes recognize it sheepishly, if not begrudgingly.

I believe that this is a shame. We should be proud of our Quaker roots, and the Quaker values that have definitively shaped this school. Just as much as I would respect and honor an individual who struggles to defend their cultural identity against the powerful assimilative force of American culture, I would respect and honor Swarthmore so much more if it tried to defend its Quaker identity. If Swarthmore does not defend its Quaker identity, then it will simply slip into the colorless mush of modern American culture. Swarthmore would be indistinct from any other college campus.

Perhaps what amazes me the most is the rich, powerful Quaker history that is embedded in this school, but too often is ignored. Swarthmore was founded by a group of Hicksite Quakers to offer co-ed higher education to Quaker students. While clearly this is no longer the case, these founding principles have had long-lasting effects on the campus culture.

If you just do a little research into the names behind each of the buildings on campus, you will find that many are named after social crusaders: abolitionists, suffragists, civil rights proponents. John Woolman, John Whittier, Elias Hicks, Samuel Willets and Edward Parrish were all prominent 18th and 19th century abolitionists (also, both Willets and Parrish were founders of Swarthmore College). Another founder of Swarthmore was Lucretia Mott, who also initiated the Seneca Falls convention in 1848. Alice Paul, a Swarthmore alumni, selflessly devoted her life to instate women’s suffrage. Paul was far ahead of her time; she had originally authored the Equal Rights Amendment in 1923, which was not passed in Congress until 1972.

There should be little reason to be ashamed of this history. In fact, Swarthmore should be celebrating this history more. Quaker history, and the values that underpin it, make Swarthmore the beautifully unique institution it is today.

With this heritage in mind, the main challenge for us today is how we recognize our Quaker identity without compromising the individual identities that comprise the student body.

With this balance in mind, I strongly recommend the reintroduction of a weekly, campus-wide collection. This was a mandatory practice at Swarthmore all the way up until the 1960’s (I’m not quite sure when the practice actually ended; I will have to look into this more). Weekly collection made students sit in silence for a given period of time every Friday. You may notice that there are no assigned classes or office hours or meetings during early Friday afternoon — this originates from the weekly collection practice.

Obviously, I do not want this practice to be mandatory; that would be intrusive and impractical on many levels. However, I do believe that having a space that is open to the whole campus to come to every Friday to collect in silence, if they feel compelled to, would be beneficial in a lot of ways. First, it would strengthen the sense of community on campus. It would serve as a space specifically designed for the campus to gather as a singular community. Secondly, it would allow a healthy time for students to simply relax, reflect and/or separate themselves from the relentless cycle of work. I know that I need to do that from time to time. Finally, it would maintain a wonderful Quaker practice that has fallen by the wayside.

I hope that both the student body and the administration recognize that it is necessary to reflect on how to best balance Quaker identity and non-Quaker identity on this campus. Moreover, both students and administration should recognize that this balancing act is not an easy task. It takes time and energy. It takes dialogue and openness. And mistakes will be made; the scale will lose equilibrium from time to time. That is inevitable.However, it would be a far greater mistake to sweep our Quaker identity beneath the rug than to over-celebrate Swarthmore’s Quaker heritage. In doing that, we would be sacrificing much of Swarthmore’s history, culture and values for the sake of accommodation. The sad irony of this possibility is that Quaker identity and multi-cultural accommodation need not be mutually exclusive. Quakerism, in fact, places a high value on openness, cooperation and cultural awareness. My greatest hope is that in the coming years, we can maintain an open dialogue about the role of Quaker identity, and to continually work to maintain this Quaker identity.

Encouraging community before Quakerism at Swat

in Columns/Opinions/Sticks and Stones by

The last two weeks for me have been what I can only describe as an “academic hangover,” where I woke up every day and thought, “What the hell did I just write?”

My last column, “Why Quakerism at Swarthmore is Unproductive,” pointed out that the culture of Quakerism is sometimes inaccessible to minority students, but the conclusion that therefore we should reject the proposals of Ben Goosen (who wrote several letters to both The Phoenix and The Daily Gazette advocating an increased institutionalization of Quakerism) was not sound. In fact, the logical conclusion from the premise of “Quakerism is inaccessible” is that we should increase education about Quakerism so as to make it more accessible. I hope I can make some amends by explaining where my frustration came from and by articulating my platform more coherently.

The problem is that my writing on religious Quakerism was emotionally colored by a distasteful experience I had with a specific political appropriation of Quaker practice, namely, the ritual at the end of the Tri-College Summer Multicultural Institute, a three-day diversity workshop orientation. The collection-style ceremony was Quaker in everything but name. We were given candles and told that they symbolized our inner light, we were asked to pause for a moment of silence and we were asked to stand forth and speak if we felt compelled.

It felt like the initiation of a political ideology of inoffensiveness rather than an exploration of spirit.
Were we being polite because the Quaker spirit is dignified, or because we were told not to offend one another? It was a gross conflation of the spiritual and the political, but perhaps that was the purpose to make our politics inseparable from our religion.

Only by acknowledging that that experience was actually not genuinely Quaker could I come to agree with my own relationship with Quakerism. Now I hope to provide a more nuanced critique to Ben’s proposals. First and foremost though, I agree wholeheartedly with his proposal to make education of Quakerism a greater aspect of campus culture. The question is, how?

Quakerism appeals to me insofar as it celebrates reinvention. Or rather, it is reinvention. Quaker ritual and tradition are meaningless without constant rediscovery. Therefore I suggest we be cautious of any movement toward using Quakerism instrumentally, no matter how good the ends.

An important element of spontaneity and curiosity is lost when the outcome (a specific identity of “peace, progressive social action and the liberal arts,” for example) is accepted from the start.
We need spontaneity, curiosity and authenticity in meetings, and this becomes harder under institutional pressures to achieve social justice “results.” Spontaneity and Quaker values are put at odds when they don’t need to be. The cost of institutionalization is taken from the religion’s potential for exploration and creativity.

At the current state of our campus, I am wholeheartedly on the side of encouraging more community first. If there is to be a Quaker movement, it must be grassroots. What sparks communal love is not more institutional abstractions, but the collective defiance of those abstractions.

As a professor said, saying the pledge of allegiance all one’s life does not make one more patriotic. It is the moments when we intelligently defy our standards that we pay them the most respect.
I am worried that establishing a Quaker-in-residence as Ben suggested would be too hierarchical. I have faith that every member of our Friends community is good enough to be Quakers-in-residence in their own right.

After all, there is a saying that Quakerism does not abolish the clergy, but rather the laymen.
With that said, the history and culture of Swarthmore is intricately tied to Quakerism. The relationship is complicated, and we have a lot to gain by reflecting on Swarthmore as an institution. It is a big lesson in itself.

Maybe it is the right time to start a student publication that specifically focuses on reflections of Swarthmore and Quakerism.

The most important thing we can do at this point is to just continue the conversation.

Sam is a sophomore. You can reach him at szhang1@swarthmore.edu.

Symbolic space: Quakerism is good for Swarthmore

in Op-Eds/Opinions by

Op-Ed by Ben Goossen

Over the past few days I have heard many student and faculty conversations generated by Sam Zhang’s column “Why Quakerism at Swarthmore is counterproductive” in the 11/03/11 issue of The Phoenix. While I would like to thank Sam for engaging this topic and for getting so many people talking, I will have to firmly and respectfully disagree with his assessment.

Quakerism at Swarthmore is an unequivocal force for good. It is a vital tool for building community, fostering compassionate values and celebrating diversity. A more Quaker Swarthmore is a better Swarthmore.

While Sam’s criticism is well intentioned, it demonstrates exactly why Swarthmore should be more explicit about its Quakerism. “What is the difference,” he asks, “between embracing ‘Quaker values’ and individually recognizing peace, equality, simplicity and diversity?” He wonders why Quakerism is important, given that we could all come to similar conclusions on our own.

Quakerism is relevant at Swarthmore precisely because it transcends the individual. It is a rich source for community engagement and shared values. It is a platform for supporting peace, progressive social action and the liberal arts. In the midst of today’s global capitalist monoculture and its ideology of radical individualism, institutions like Swarthmore have a fundamental countercultural responsibility. Only community- and value-based systems like Quakerism hold the potential to offer a meaningful second way.

That said, I would like to respond to Sam’s two specific points in detail. His first argument is that Quakerism has transformed Swarthmore into a reticent haven of “Puritan perfectionism,” where students are always polite and restrained. Like the simplicity of Quaker meeting houses, he suggests, Swarthmore is woefully “clean of culture.”

In answer, I would like to highlight the true vibrancy of campus life. Swarthmore has an incredibly diverse student body, as well as over one hundred active student groups. If you decide to stop any Swarthmore student on the sidewalk and ask about his or her passions, good luck getting away any time soon! And try talking about restraint after sitting through an honors seminar or attending a Paces party.

But if Sam does sense a lack of spontaneity and excitement at Swarthmore, I would suggest it is not the byproduct of our Quaker legacy, but rather that students are too wrapped up in their schoolwork. From my perspective, re-privileging Quakerism at Swarthmore would actually make the college a more lively and interesting place. I continue to believe that Swarthmore’s primary mission should be oriented toward ethics and activism, and only secondarily toward academics. In such an environment, campus would come alive to a degree even greater than it already is.

Sam’s second point is that as a religion founded by white Protestants, Quakerism excludes minority voices. This is simply untrue. The cultural specificity of Quakerism’s origin does not preclude its relevance to minority groups nor demand the assimilation of non-believers. Most Quakers do not proselytize. Instead, the religion’s emphasis on individual efficacy and its adaptability to new environments have allowed Quakerism to focus on building coalitions between unlikely partners. It is no accident that contemporary Quakerism is a global religion, represented on every continent by any number of culture groups.

At Swarthmore, Quakerism provides a wonderful framework for promoting diversity. During conversations generated by Sam’s article, several international students told me that they came to Swarthmore specifically because of its Quaker heritage and attendant peace values. That the Quaker model has enough power to draw students from all over the world and bring them together around commonly held beliefs speaks to its ability to build community without compromising diversity.

This admirable trait is built into the very structure of Quakerism. The traditional practice of consensus, for example, fosters engaged decision-making without silencing dissent. Consensus incorporates diverse opinions better than any other form of politics, including democracy. Another tradition, Collection, is a time when all people come together to celebrate commonalities and learn about difference.

I propose that Swarthmore College make its historic and ongoing relationship to Quakerism more explicit. Increasing education and awareness of Quakerism will help erase misconceptions about the Society of Friends and move activism and peace witness at Swarthmore in more productive directions.

Quakerism offers a symbolic space for dialogue across seemingly irreconcilable boundaries. I find the Swarthmore Meeting House, where student groups of widely divergent persuasions and backgrounds often prepare and share large dinners, to be an appropriate physical manifestation of this symbolic space. Quakerism is a catalyst, a metaphor, an opening. It is the future of Swarthmore.

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