Getting Honest About Quaker Values

For the love of God, or the Inner Light, or Lucretia Mott, or even William Penn, can Swatties please stop spouting off about “Quaker Values?” 

Last week, SGO treated our inboxes to yet another pious proclamation of these values, informing us all that it was very, very concerned about something called the Chamberlain Project, which seems to involve retired military officers guest-teaching courses at Swarthmore, and would in their view contradict the College’s mission statement commitment to “peace, equity, and social justice.”

I personally do not care about whether the Chamberlain Project will become yet another campus-protest controversy; I will have graduated by the time it comes to the college, and anyways, I have full confidence in the long-term ability of Swarthmore’s progressive wing to basically get whatever it wants, as long as it doesn’t touch our sacred endowment. 

(The amount of time some of its members spend in the Facebook comments section might slow them down a bit.)

But I do find the rhetorical deployment of Quaker Values in almost every on-campus debate to be disingenuous, to say the least. Call me cynical, but I seriously doubt that most Swatties care much at all about the almost 400-year-old denomination. Outside of having a slightly higher percentage of students from elite Quaker prep schools like Sidwell Friends, it’s a safe bet to say that the vast majority of Swatties have gone their entire lives blissfully untroubled by the Inner Light. How many even know why Quakers are called Quakers?

This isn’t, of course, the students’ fault. Meeting a Quaker isn’t a particularly common experience; like many traditionally progressive religious denominations, their numbers have dwindled in the 20th and 21st centuries. And Quakers hardly play the prominent public role they did 100 or so years ago, participating in social reform movements like abolitionism, Prohibition, and women’s suffrage. 

 As an institution, Swarthmore hardly seems to pay much heed to its Quaker roots other than through lip service in its admissions brochures. There is only one course explicitly related to Quakerism in the entire catalogue: “Quakers Past and Present,” (taught by the excellent Professor Ross) offered every other semester. Some students may come across the Society of Friends in other classes. For my own part, I read some of Lucretia Mott’s work in my Religion first-year seminar, encountering a radicalism far more, well, radical than the generic progressivism that dominates our campus: Mott opposed the Civil War on Quaker grounds, and was so committed to personal pacifism that she refused to defend herself from rocks hurled by proslavery mobs in Philadelphia. Her pacifism was more than vague “anti-war” or “anti-militarism” sentiments — it came from far deeper and stranger places than those slogans.  

It would be entirely possible, even easy, however, for a Swarthmore student to spend all four of their years at the college having essentially no engagement with anything approaching Quakerism, aside from first and last Collections and vague administration sloganeering. The SGO email is a perfect example of this, approvingly quoting the college’s Mission Statement commitment to “peace, equity, and social responsibility” as if those words were handed down from God, or perhaps George Fox (the founder of Quakerism, whose existence, I am sure, would be news to 99 percent of Swatties). 

This hasn’t always been true. My grandmother, who went to Swarthmore in the early 1960s, loves telling me about how Swatties would ostentatiously read The New York Times instead of participating at mandatory weekly Collections. I doubt many modern American Quakers would endorse weekly Collections, or similar mandates, but the point is that Quakerism used to lend a texture to the Swarthmore experience that it simply does not today. A more deliberate commitment to having students engage with the tradition might make the College a more interesting place, genuinely giving it an outlook that most other colleges lack. For example, we might have to seriously engage with arguments for and against pacifism, rather than assuming with dogmatic fervor that pacifism is always correct, as SGO seems to do. Instead, we get a few platitudes in a mission statement that no one reads.

This is why arguments using “Quaker Values” always ring so hollow, with students and administrators invoking traditions that they don’t really understand and don’t care much about, except when it allows them to score easy political points. One would think that a college committed to Quaker values might have different political views and priorities than essentially every other elite liberal arts college; in reality, while Swatties do seem to be more activism-oriented than average, opinions here hardly differ from Middlebury or Pomona or Carleton. And Quakerism is more than its history of activism: students at a school “shaped by our Quaker legacy” might, at least, go to more than two Collections. 

Editor’s Note: The opinions expressed in this article are solely the author’s and do not reflect the views of The Phoenix Editorial Board. 

6 thoughts on “Getting Honest About Quaker Values

  • April 2, 2021 at 9:54 pm
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    Thank you for writing this. I also thought that (for the vast majority of students for whom Swarthmore’s religious affiliation had no impact on their decision to come here,) the ‘quaker values’ argument was a shallow attempt to find moral leverage in the discussion. I look forward to having them on campus.

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  • April 3, 2021 at 2:47 pm
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    This is great and echoes some conversations taking place this week on Quaker Twitter. What does it mean to be a Quaker institution. I just blogged about that and your article. The website won’t let me share it saying I must be a spammer but hopefully you can find it near the top of the website link I give.

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  • April 3, 2021 at 3:52 pm
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    “ I personally do not care about whether the Chamberlain Project will become yet another campus-protest controversy; I will have graduated by the time it comes to the college, and anyways, I have full confidence in the long-term ability of Swarthmore’s progressive wing to basically get whatever it wants, as long as it doesn’t touch our sacred endowment.”

    Way to disregard the concerns of your Middle East and North African peers and show that you don’t care about anybody but yourself. “Swarthmore’s progressive wing” are just people tired of this school treating them like shit. Have a little empathy.

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  • April 4, 2021 at 11:35 am
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    A Swarthmore student who is interested or curious about Quakers has opportunities on campus. They can turn left entering the library and explore the Friends Historical Library or attend meeting for worship at the Swarthmore Meetinghouse (yes, in know, Sunday morning!).

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  • April 4, 2021 at 1:06 pm
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    The reason students criticizing the College often cite “Quaker values” is to reveal the College’s hypocrisy when the College itself professes that it cares about Quaker values, not because there is some innate truth to the idea of Quaker values. The intellectual laziness of this article combined with James’s blatant superiority complex is predictable and boring — and almost not worth a reply. Maybe instead of thinking you’re smarter and better than all of your more “progressive” peers simply because you’re more conservative, you should try to listen to them for once. You might learn something.

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  • April 5, 2021 at 2:58 pm
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    But that’s the point… The hypocrisy. Swarthmore has become so out of touch with its Quaker values as to make a partnership with the Chamberlain project. In addition, they are in direct contradiction with Quaker values by keeping students in the dark on this decision, where it is tradition to always reach consensus and to include all parties in the decision-making process. I am in fact someone who attended a traditional, Quaker high school (required collection 5 times a week and meeting for worship twice a week, so I am not sure what is leading you to believe modern American Quakers oppose this?) and I was attracted to Swarthmore for its supposed Quaker values. I don’t believe the solution is for Swarthmore to abandon Quaker values altogether just because these values have become hollow, but to hold Swarthmore accountable when they are out of line with these values.

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