I'm here at the beach, thinking about Quaker education and John Woolman.
In "Some Considerations on the Keeping of Negroes," written in 1746 and published in 1754, Woolman argued that one of the drivers of slavery was parents' overblown affection for their children. The natural desire to give one's children good things--including a comfortable inheritance--helped people rationalize the slave trade.The economics of slavery allowed people to amass fortunes from the profits of the cheap labor of slaves, and people justified this ownership by contending they had to take care of their families.
"If we do not consider these things aright, but ... conceive views of interest separate from the general
good of the great brotherhood, and, in pursuance thereof, treat our
inferiors with rigour, to increase our wealth and gain riches for
our children; What then shall we do when God riseth up?
and when he visiteth, what shall we answer him ? did not he that
made us, make them? and did not one fashion us?"
Earlier in the essay, he writes:
" It appears by experience, that where children are educated in
fulness, ease, and idleness, evil habits are more prevalent than
is common amongst such who are prudently employed in the
necessary affairs of life. If children are not only educated in
the way of so great temptation, but have also the opportunity of
lording it over their fellow-creatures ... how can we expect otherwise than that their
tender minds will be possessed with thoughts too high for them ;
which gaining strength by continuance, will prove like a slow
current, gradually separating them from or keeping from acquaint-
ance with that humility and meekness in which alone lasting hap-
piness can be enjoyed.
Man is born to labour, and experience abundantly showeth,
that it is for our good : but where the powerful lay the burden
on the inferior, without affording a Christian education, and suit-
able opportunity of improving the mind, and a treatment which
we, in their case, should approve, in order that themselves may
live at ease, and fare sumptuously, and lay up riches for their
posterity; this seems to contradict the design of Providence, and,
I doubt not, is sometimes the effect of a perverted mind ; for wdiile
the life of one is made grievous by the rigour of another, it entails
misery on both."
Do we also make idols of our families?
And does this get to the heart of Quaker education?
I have read in the newspaper quotes from administrators at elite Quaker schools distressed about helicopter parents who want their teenage children protected from facing any of life's rigors. Of course, we don't want our children abused by teachers or classmates, but graduating entitled nincompoops who think life will give them special protection might not be the best idea either.
I was an education reporter for a few years, covering a county with a large minority population. That meant witnessing white flight from that school system to nearby school systems with "higher test scores" and "safer schools" and white flight to "independent" schools. Of course, the question frequently arose: shouldn't families support the public schools instead of fleeing? Yes, but having covered public education, I would say that individual families simply can't take on the school system. I've seen many families try valiantly, with mothers (it's usually mothers) heading PTAs, safe school programs, working on academic committees and fundraising drives, and ultimately having to throw up their hands and yank their children from the schools. The schools' problems are a symptom of a deeper social and spiritual malaise that must be addressed first.
I would also say that entering elite public or private schools isn't totally the answer either. What we need, for starters, I would argue, is an "independent" school option that's less elitist than much of the private (and elite) public school strata. Many Catholic schools, I believe, do this well. Some are elite schools, but many are modest schools serving average people. Of course, it could be argued that Catholics--here I speak of Roman Catholics--who comprise a quarter of all Christians in the United States, have vastly greater resources than Quakers. At the same time, Quakers have a history of achievements disproportionate to their numbers.
Another thing we possibly need to rethink is pitting public versus private (they're now called "independent") schools. There are elite public and independent schools and down-to-earth public and independent schools. Public is not necessarily more virtuous than private and vice versa. If we have our children in public schools in an affluent county (as our family did for years) or in a top magnet program in a less affluent county, we could be more elitist than a family sending its children to a modest independent school. I have heard parents say things to their magnet school children such as "You are in a school where the kids really want to learn." What does this teach but that "you are more deserving and kids who don't achieve don't want to." Is either true?
Quaker schools can excel, I believe, by practicing the Quaker testimonies, putting Christ at their center and emphasizing education--and life-- not as a way to get "a competitive advantage" over others, but as training to serve. They could change the world. I dream, but enough independent schools practicing Woolman-like principles could at least gradually change the education system in this country. But how many do? Olney does, yet does that fact mean many parents will reject it for its simplicity?
Conversely, to the extent that Quaker schools appeal to the social or economic elite, does that mean they are not in full compliance with Quaker values? Would Quaker schools that really practiced the Quaker values espoused, say, by John Woolman, appeal to elites? Or would they flee from such schools as too austere? Not taking good enough care of their children?