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Swarthmore’s ongoing struggle with its Quakerism

8 mins read

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.

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