2019 Conference

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What can Quakers contribute to a vision of education?

After a very thought provoking day, Anne Watson, Oxford and Swindon Area Meeting gave these closing thoughts…

Since the formation of the Quaker Values in Education Group (QVinE) we have grappled with the question of whether there is anything the group feels about educational values that is specifically Quaker. During the 20th century Quaker thinking about education in this country was mainly in line with other so-called ‘progressive’ ideals and, while there were Quakers among the leading thinkers, only the use of silent worship in schools could be labelled as specifically Quaker-inspired. More recently several movements and campaigns have grown that focus on values, restorative justice, peer mentoring, use of silence, and other aspects with which Quakers might agree. These are of broad foundation, appeal and effect and many Quaker teachers have been involved in the growth of these movements. They are not specifically Quaker, largely sharing a humanist perspective, and Quakers can attach themselves to these developments with integrity. In this personal contribution to the debates about Quakers and education, I try to identify some themes that are specifically Quaker and that live first in the hearts and actions of individual teachers.

What can Quakers contribute to a vision of education?
After a very thought provoking day, Anne Watson, Oxford and Swindon Area Meeting gave these closing thoughts…

Since the formation of the Quaker Values in Education Group (QVinE) we have grappled with the question of whether there is anything the group feels about educational values that is specifically Quaker. During the 20th century Quaker thinking about education in this country was mainly in line with other so-called ‘progressive’ ideals and, while there were Quakers among the leading thinkers, only the use of silent worship in schools could be labelled as specifically Quaker-inspired. More recently several movements and campaigns have grown that focus on values, restorative justice, peer mentoring, use of silence, and other aspects with which Quakers might agree. These are of broad foundation, appeal and effect and many Quaker teachers have been involved in the growth of these movements. They are not specifically Quaker, largely sharing a humanist perspective, and Quakers can attach themselves to these developments with integrity. In this personal contribution to the debates about Quakers and education, I try to identify some themes that are specifically Quaker and that live first in the hearts and actions of individual teachers.

Firstly, our testimonies come as an indivisible package. They are not separate values from which schools and teachers might pick and choose, either institutionally or individually. Each aspect depends on all the others. There cannot be peace without justice, nor justice without equality, nor equality without love, nor love without integrity, nor integrity without truth, nor truth without sustainability, nor sustainability without simplicity. For example, being values-led in a Quaker way would not be achieved by having ‘honesty’ as a theme for a week while not acting with love towards ‘deviant’ behaviour. Nor, more obviously, could a Quaker-values based school promote peacefulness for moving around the school while taking army recruitment initiatives for granted. 

Next, we have a special way of thinking about truth. Truth is not only honesty, it is a search for coherent, experiential meaning. In our seeking we reflect on experience, and more than that we join with others in order to contact truth. We can live with uncertainty. In the current educational climate of a ‘knowledge rich’ curriculum, knowledge refers largely to western/white/male sanctioned knowledge that is testable and tested and provides a national cultural norm. A Quaker view of knowledge would focus on methods of inquiry, which might be subject-specific. The shared culture becomes one of questioning, seeking and being prepared to change our minds and actions.

Finally, we have a special view of childhood. Children are not born in original sin as unshaped beings into whom knowledge, culture and morals have to be inserted, but are born in grace as people of equal value, deserving equal respect. This has educational implications. It means that equality goes hand in hand with active inclusion, listening with integrity, and genuine respect. Childhood is not an opportunity to push children into conforming to some norms of behaviour and received mindsets, but times for adults to learn to listen, to interact, to explore, and to offer those skills, along with their own wisdom, to young people. We hold these views not as educational fads but as the sacred duties of older people who themselves have to be flexible, recognise when they need to change, and provide the means for change.

Could these principles provide a foundation for a legitimate and unique vision of education that could be called ‘Quaker’?