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Why Quakerism at Swarthmore is counterproductive

6 mins read

Here’s a true story: once when the guy in front of me forgot his ID card in the Science Center café, I bought his gum for him. It cost a dollar. Someone said sort of sarcastically, “Oh look, Quaker values in action.”

I didn’t think about that much since it happened last year, but having read Ben Goossen’s letter to the editor about reinstituting Quaker values on campus (“The State and Future of Quakerism at Swarthmore,” The Phoenix, October 27, 2011), I was inspired to write about why institutionalizing Quakerism in the way that he suggests is well-intentioned but counterproductive to the ethical life of this college. I’m grateful to Goossen for his letter about reinstituting Quaker values on campus. And while I disagree with him, I appreciate the unapologetic candor of his piece.

What is the difference between embracing “Quaker values” and individually recognizing peace, equality, simplicity and diversity? There must be a cultural bloodline of some sort, little patterns of thought and ways of life that are passed on.

Yet Swarthmore as an institution appears remarkably clean of culture. In general, students who don’t know each other are polite and wary of offending one another. Take Temple University as a contrast, where a guy fist-bumped me on the elevator for wearing the same shirt as him. Displays of unrestrained excitement are taboo here. I often hear the question, “Are you on crack or something?” And with a certain edge, “Why are you so happy?”

This reticence is a Quaker legacy. An innovation of Quakerism was to turn the “reverence for the inconspicuous” from Christianity into an aesthetic in its own right — steeple-less meeting houses instead of churches, patient acceptance instead of evangelism and silent prayers instead of sermons. As written on Quaker.org, “Simplicity persuades one to affirm, not to flatter or overplay words or emotions, and to avoid extravagance and paraphernalia.”

To transform restraint itself into an aesthetic is a Sisyphean task. When the ability to accept praise with humility becomes praiseworthy in its own right, receiving a compliment becomes a test. One’s performance on this test can lead to more praise, and then more tests in turn. The unbearable weight of perfect expectation is placed upon us. How did Quakerism, a peaceful and quiet religion, come to breed a Puritan perfectionism?

Without perfectionism, the culture of Quakerism (and by extension, Swarthmore) risked being swept away by cultural diversity. After all, there is a difference between Quakers living in a multicultural society and a multicultural Quaker society. Having moved from the fringe of white Christian society to the center of multiculturalism, Quakers have subtly redefined themselves as the border guards between the Christian and multicultural worlds. With an impeccable record of diversity, Quakerism is the most legitimate heir to this position.

Serving as a cultural customs check is a difficult identity for Quakerism. On one hand, elite Quaker institutions such as Swarthmore have become more insistent on their “values”, as their legitimacy depends on the continued support of the Protestant establishment. On the other hand, it cannot so openly endorse Christian ideas as to alienate the minority student population. It views itself as a negotiator who works on behalf of minority groups to lower the cost of cultural entry into mainstream Christian society.

The assumption that minority students want to assimilate is patronizing in its own right, let alone that we should be grateful for their assimilation. In fact, the institution may use the rhetoric of compassion, but ultimately it is a decision whose provenance is in the Admissions and Alumni Relations departments.

Ben’s letter confirms this sense that Quakerism has a fundamental public relations appeal. He writes, “A larger role of Quakerism is important at Swarthmore for two reasons. First, it will continue to set Swarthmore apart from other liberal arts schools in the country … Second, it will more consciously attract students whose values are aligned with this mission.”

The sociologist John Murray Cuddihy writes, “The cultural credit-rating system … works on the principle of impecuniousness. It helps, even if we are not ourselves victims, if we can ‘claim relationship with’ accredited victims.” In other words, Swarthmore buys cultural capital from “accredited victims” to fuel its identity as a compassionate institution with Quaker values.

This is incredibly bad for me as a minority at Swarthmore. What a Swarthmore degree confers about a white Protestant is self-sacrifice, integrity, and well, Quaker values.

But what a Swarthmore degree confers about a minority student is a desperation to trade in his or her most sacred voice — the voice of testimony — in exchange for temporary material and social comfort. In the spirit of Quakerism, I quote e.e. cummings: “I will not kiss your fucking flag.”

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

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