Symbolic space: Quakerism is good for Swarthmore

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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