Wee Question: So What’s the Deal With a “Quaker Education?”

We talked to one of the city’s beloved Quaker schools — Germantown Friends School — to get the scoop on the meaning and benefits of the Friends tradition in education. Read more

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When Germantown Friends School opened its NEW, Center City-based early education center last fall, people (including us!) were psyched: First, there’s no saturation point for preschools and Pre-Ks in this city; second, GFS has a really great reputation as one of the area’s premiere Quaker schools–one of the region’s premier schools in general, actually.

Nevertheless, we’ll admit that we’re not as well-versed in what a Quaker education entails as we could be, considering Philly’s deep Quaker roots. So we asked Hannah Caldwell Henderson, GFS’s Chief Advancement Officer (and a GFS graduate), to clue us into the GFS mission and how its Quaker philosophy lives within the educational experience, beginning in its early childhood program and continuing through high school.

Wee: So can you give us a little overview as to what we mean when we talk about Quaker education?
Hannah: Quaker education is a philosophy that’s built on the spiritual practice of the Religious Society of Friends. There is one fundamental belief that drives everything that Quakers do, and that is this: Each person has a measure of what we call the “inner light,” meaning that every single person has the divine within. That’s really the most important principle from which everything we do radiates. For instance, our educational philosophy is built on a high degree of trust in the fundamental goodness of people. This, of course, doesn’t mean that we are all able to act in that spirit all the time — but it is a powerful premise, and one that guides us. So, we are always working to build on that trust with one another.

It also translates into a testimony of equality, which is emphasized all over our campus and curriculum. You’ll find a remarkable sense of equality in the classroom; the teacher is a co-learner, learning catalyst, and guide, rather acting in the more conventional role of being simply a disseminator of knowledge. We also interpret the testimony to mean that each individual is special and important in their own way. Students are encouraged to listen to and consider all voices – those of their peers, staff, neighbors, and those they may not agree with.

Community is important — it’s another “testimony” of Quaker education. At both our Center City and main campus, our kids learn to interact with different people from different backgrounds, and we do a lot of projects around being part of the community around them. We emphasize that the process of education is this search for truth, and that truth isn’t necessarily a finite thing, but a moving target that the community comes together to try to uncover — and so learning is a communal effort, as is decision-making. This collaborative approach also helps our students think critically about how their decisions and actions impact others. There are other “testimonies” we focus on as well: simplicity, peace, integrity, the equality aspect that I mentioned, and stewardship.

I will also add that in keeping with honoring the light in every person, there’s an individual element that works to foster agency and voice. Quakers have a history of questioning and inquiry, and so we focus a lot on learning to ask wonderful, thoughtful, deep questions that challenge norms. And of course that’s a process that starts with our youngest students. Quakers also have a long history of social action, pacifism, and nonviolence, which continues to be an important part of our school culture.

What about the religious aspect? I assume not every student at GFS is a Quaker?
Our school is open to all students — In fact, the population of students who are actually Quaker is typically less than 10 percent. We have students of all faiths, as well as students who are agnostic or atheists. We believe that diversity in all aspects — race, religion, sexual orientation, socioeconomic status — is fundamental to education. Again, it gets back to the idea of learning being the act of collectively “seeking truth”– something that requires varied experiences and perspectives, and can’t be done in isolation.

Do the kids attend a traditional Quaker Meeting?
Yes, all of our students attend Meeting for Worship by division once a week. There they sit in silence for an age-appropriate amount of time, open to the messages of any participant who is moved to share. For early childhood, we allot 30 minutes — and once we have arrived and introduced a theme or focus, we settle into about 15 minutes of silent reflection, often punctuated by messages from the smallest members of our community and the faculty in the room. It’s very impressive: The children really do sit in silence, and they practice focusing and settling their thoughts.

The practice has a lot in common with mindfulness, but the fact that it is, by design, done in community is one important part of that makes it unique. In addition to learning to listen inwardly, students learn from a very early age to listen for the messages of others, and that the voices of every member of our community–even the youngest ones–have great value.

It’s tradition, I know, but this practice also feels very modern … and timely.
It does! And silence is underrated in this noisy world. Our students of all faiths and experiences draw on their experience throughout their lives, well beyond their time at GFS. It is also used frequently as a tool in classrooms. So, for instance, there might be a serious head-scratcher in the classroom and a teacher can say, “Let’s sit for a moment in silence and give ourselves space to think about this” — and that can come in handy in all sorts of situations. It’s an invaluable tool.

Interested in learning more about Germantown Friends School? You can read more about the main campus and school here, or the NEW early education program located in the Curtis building on Washington Square here.