Not Just a Breakfast Cereal: Swat Needs More Quakerism

Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.

When I first visited Swarthmore as a perspective student, I was immediately drawn to the college’s Quaker past. I loved its progressive beginnings, emphasis on consensus, and the presence of the Friends Meeting House. However, I was amazed to learn how little these things meant to most Swarthmore students.

My surprise was perhaps best capsulated in a moment during my first campus tour, when our guide told the group the ludicrous fact that Swarthmore is a Quaker-oriented school because it has only one dining hall. “Quakers believe in community,” she said, “and so it’s really important for us to all to eat under one roof at Sharples.”

I couldn’t believe what I had just heard. First of all, having only one main dining hall has nothing to do with Quakerism; Swarthmore has one dining hall because it’s small. Try finding any other school this size and see how many cafeterias they’ve got. And if dinner-time conviviality is really so important, who wants to explain Essie Mae’s and the two snack bars?

But second and more importantly, if Sharples is the most noteworthy aspect of Quakerism at Swarthmore, something has gone seriously wrong. Quakerism is a living religion with a lot to say about peace, individualism, and the liberal arts—all things that Swarthmore should care about very much. Quaker values and traditions should play a larger role in campus life, as I argue in a recent Phoenix article.

To promote Quakerism at Swarthmore, I believe the college should commit to the following seven proposals.

Swarthmore College should:

1) Establish the position of Quaker Affairs Advisor or Quaker in Residence. Such a person would plan and coordinate conferences, speakers, and events related to Quakerism, as well as manage student interns, teach classes or workshops on Quakerism, and generally work to promote and clarify the role of Quakerism at Swarthmore.

2) Host major yearly conferences on Quakerism and peace. Among peace activists and historians, Swarthmore is internationally famous—both for its rich history and for the presence of the Friends Historical Library and the Peace Collection. Holding high profile conferences would make students more aware of these collections and also aid the important fields of Peace and Conflict Studies and Religion.

3) Reinstate Collection. A return to this tradition would help foster a closer sense of community at Swarthmore and tie the college’s present to its historic roots. It would also provide the student body with memorable collective experiences which, years later, would certainly stand out in their memories. While Collection does not need to be held on a weekly basis, it would be wonderful to have an all-campus Collection once or twice a semester, perhaps focused around an interesting panel discussion or dynamic speaker.

4) Give the Peace Collection a more appropriate space than McCabe basement. The Swarthmore College Peace Collection is an incredible and world-class resource. Scholars and activists from the world over make pilgrimages to Swarthmore just to work in the Peace Collection. However, almost no students even know that it even exists. It should be moved from its current location in a dark and remote corner of McCabe basement to a more prominent and celebrated place on campus, perhaps given its own building.

5) Form stronger ties with Pendle Hill. Located in Swarthmore’s backyard, the Pendle Hill Quaker Center for Study and Contemplation offers programs and courses in Quakerism and religious studies. As an extension of the Trico program, Swarthmore students should be able to enroll and receive credit for coursework done at Pendle Hill.

6) Promote the study of religion within the liberal arts as part of the Swarthmore Institute for the Liberal Arts. Many liberal arts programs around the country exist at religiously affiliated institutions, and I believe that religion, activism, and the liberal arts are interrelated and often inform one another. If Swarthmore establishes an institute for the study of the liberal arts, it would be an oversight not to include support for the research of religion and activism in the liberal arts context.

7) Make more explicit and prominent references to Quakerism in print literature and on the Swarthmore website. For prospective students and families who want to know about the role of Quakerism at Swarthmore, finding relevant information is often difficult. The college should produce pamphlets and brochures which explain Quakerism at Swarthmore, and should also provide an easily accessible link from the main page of the college website.

If Swarthmore adopts these recommendations, I believe that the college will be able to rekindle some of the Quaker fire that in recent years it has allowed to burn low. Such changes will help foster peace activism, raise awareness about Quakerism, and attract students and faculty who share important peace values.

When perspective students ask about Quakerism at Swarthmore, our tour guides should have more to talk about than Sharples. It is time that we look beyond the corporate face on the oatmeal canister.


  1. While I like several of your suggestions – such as the return of collection – I think it’s important to note that Swarthmore is not a Quaker school. We are not affiliated with the Society of Friends. I think peace values are important and worth supporting, but I don’t think Swarthmore needs to do so within the context of Quakerism – particularly given that so many students on this campus are not Christian.

  2. Thanks for this article, Ben. You’ve said a lot of really good things.

    Note: Most tour guides mention more than just Sharples on their tours and talk about Quakerism on campus as it relates to First Collection, the Lang Center for Civic and Social Responsibility (and student activism in general), the Quaker Meeting House, commitments to consensus, and Swarthmore’s history with abolitionism and involvement in the Underground Railroad.

    However, I do agree with you that having one dining hall isn’t really a Quaker thing. It has never made much sense to me and I am going to stop saying it on the way to Sharples.

    Would you mind coming to a tour guide meeting at some point and sharing with us your thoughts on what could be said about the presence/absence of Quakerism on campus during our tours? It would be really helpful to hear your perspective, because I know you aren’t the only Quaker prospective student who has toured and been confused/offended by what tour guides say about Swarthmore and Quakerism. Please come to a meeting and share with us your thoughts on what is appropriate/inappropriate to say! Any other Quakers on campus you know who would want to join in would be welcome as well.

  3. I think you’ve brought up some great points and made some great suggestions here. I hope that any dialogue on these proposals does not stop here, as your recommendations, if at least some of them are carried out, would strengthen Swarthmore’s community even while prominently reasserting the school’s Quaker values.

  4. I think this article has some great points, however I’d like point out some things.
    As mentioned in comments above, Swarthmore has quaker values, and is not a quaker institution. I would also prefer it to remain that way. Traditions are great, but I know that if our school was actually “quaker”, I definitely would have considered attending this school less.
    Undoubtedly, we maintain many quaker values and traditions, but many of these values such as “peace” are not just quaker.
    Bring in a historical perspective? sure.
    Bring in sine values, and not super religious traditions? Why not.
    Have Swarthmore actually associate with a religion? I hope not.

  5. Take out all mentions of religion in here and I think you’ve got a great idea.

    The principles of Quakerism may have been based in religion once, but I think we can all agree that ideas of peace and equality need not be tied to religion. To impose Quaker religious beliefs or any religious beliefs on the campus will make Swarthmore a far less liberal place and will likely alienate many students who we would otherwise wish to come here (and many who are already here). And I’m pretty sure it is not Quaker to proselytize one’s faith.

    Should Swarthmore promote peace, equality, and community? Absolutely. Should they do so by promoting the Quaker religion? No.

  6. Here’s a question for anyone who knows about Swarthmore history, then: Our school began as a Quaker school, right? So when and why did we abandon the Quaker affiliation and replace with a Quaker “heritage”… and how did this idea of a Quaker heritage become so vague and neglected?

    • Hi Andrew (& Others that might be interested in Swarthmore’s Quaker history/heritage),

      I (co-clerk of Quakers on Campus) am working on ways to get this information published for the campus. Swarthmore’s relationship with Quakerism is complex, and the simple answer about our original official split for Quakerism is that it had to do with professors’ pension plans. If you can get your hands on a booklet called, “Thoughts on Swarthmore: A New Student’s Guide to the College’s History,” there is an essay called “Mind the Light” which would be a good place to start learning about Quakerism at Swat. Chris Densmore of the Friends Historical Collection has also given lectures on Swarthmore’s history Quakerism and if you email me I can share that as well.


      Also, I encourage anyone interested in Swarthmore’s Quaker past to just ask around. Many at the Meetinghouse have interesting stories. As well as alumni and professors who have been here a long time. The Meetinghouse was PACKED during Alumni Weekend.

  7. To respond to posts along the lines of “Good ideas as long as Swat stays secular”:

    I’m with you all on this one! Swarthmore is definitely no longer affiliated with the Society of Friends, and it should stay that way. Students and faculty should be able to practice their own beliefs without the college pushing something else.

    If it makes a difference, I’m not Quaker, and I don’t plan to convert. But I do think that Quakerism has a lot to offer, and I can certainly live in harmony with it.

    Rather than becoming a religious school, I think Swarthmore should make its relationship to Quaker traditions and values more explicit. This is important for three reasons.

    1) Quakerism is already built into the structure of the school. Swarthmore’s history, the Meeting House, and practices like consensus are all already here. For a lot of prospective students, these are confusing elements. Swarthmore should make a more conscious effort to explain them. Better education and dialogue about Quakerism will only bring clarity and make more students want to come.

    2) Quakerism is a great platform for the peace agenda. Pushing things like activism, Collection, and more space for the Peace Library seem pretty disparate without Quakerism as a guiding structure. It is a benchmark and a community building device.

    3) Quakerism is just really cool. More emphasis on collection, consensus, activism, and the Peace Library would make Swarthmore a more vibrant and unique place to live and study.

    Spencer: I’m glad to hear that tour guides have all that to say! And I’m definitely happy to come to a meeting sometime.

  8. i dont get it
    why do we need more cereal!!
    we have lots of cereal alreddy: grapenuts and capn crunch and etc and etc

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