The state and future of Quakerism at Swarthmore

Op-Ed by Ben Goossen

I would like to copy the campus community to the following letter, sent to President Rebecca Chopp, regarding the state and future of Quakerism at the college. I invite comments, discussion and debate:

I am a founding member of Quakers on Campus, the new Young Friends group at Swarthmore. I actually do not self-identify as Quaker—I am Mennonite, another historic peace faith—but Swarthmore’s Quaker past played a significant role in my college decision. For someone who cares about peace witness, progressive social values and historic religious roots, Swarthmore’s Quaker affiliation set it apart from other top tier liberal arts schools. The teachings and beliefs of our Hicksite founders are the direct roots of Swarthmore’s wonderful blend of individualism, liberal arts and social activism.

However, as much as I like the vestiges of Quakerism still floating around the campus, I believe that in recent years, Swarthmore has far undersold its ties to the Society of Friends. Whether because of external pressures to conform to rising secularism in the collegiate world or because of internal needs to diversify the student body, Swarthmore has reduced much of its rich past to token references on campus tours.

Administrators and teachers often pay little more than lip service—if mentioned at all—to Quaker values and traditions. I believe that this must change. Understanding and even embracing Quakerism is neither at odds with maintaining Swarthmore’s academic prestige, nor a threat to the diversity of Swarthmore’s student body. Recognizing overlaps between the vision of Swarthmore’s founders and the compassionate world-outlook of many current students and faculty should be a cause for celebration, not separation.

Swarthmore College should be unabashed in its Quaker values. It should oppose violence in all forms, whether from international conflict or structural oppression. It should take a strong vocal stance on issues of immigration, the environment and war. The college commands influence and respect in the national academic sphere, and it should throw its weight behind peace witness. Change will never occur if traditionally activist colleges like Swarthmore remain silent.

Recent speakers on Quaker activism and the newly launched Global Nonviolent Action Database are certainly steps in the right direction. The establishment of the Young Friends Group also plays an important role in raising awareness about Quakerism at Swarthmore and deepening the link between Swarthmore’s early years and the present. But more needs to be done. Future action should of course include student and faculty activism, but the college administration should also make a bold public commitment.

The college should begin holding campus-wide debates and forums on issues of peace and conflict, as well as times of silent worship and reflection. The Swarthmore College Peace Collection, internationally renowned among scholars and activists, should be moved from its undignified location in McCabe basement.

Further, I would suggest the establishment of a Quaker Affairs Advisor at Swarthmore, modeled on a similar existing position at Haverford. Such a person could be in charge of developing, sponsoring and promoting events at Swarthmore relating to peace activism and Quakerism. The Quaker Advisor could also be in charge of several student workers who would deal with literature production, event coordination and alumni and public relations.

A larger role for Quakerism at Swarthmore is important for two reasons. First, it will continue to set Swarthmore apart from other liberal arts schools around the country, giving it a strong ethical mission grounded in historic Quaker values. Second, it will more consciously attract students whose values are aligned with this mission.

Swarthmore can build a community of students from all backgrounds who strongly identify with peace, individual activism and the liberal arts. I believe that to a large degree, the student body already reflects these values. However, I also believe that the administration and most students consider the role of the college to be primarily academic, while values and activism are only secondarily important. This dynamic should be reversed.

Finally, I would like to thank you for your interest and role in supporting Quaker events and community at Swarthmore. I personally appreciate your presence and sentiments at the 9/11 service in the Friends Meeting House as well as your introduction of the speakers at the recent panel on Quaker Activism. I believe that you have a compassion for and understanding of Quaker tradition and practice, and that you also have a unique ability to re-privilege Swarthmore’s Quaker past and ongoing peace values. May you use your talents to these ends.

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