Quaker Education

First published in the Summer 2011 issue of Earlhamite magazine, this essay by Tom Farquhar '77 identifies eight distinctions of Quaker Education.

Today we are witnessing seismic shifts in the modes and methods of knowledge creation and distribution. The image of the academy as a place where knowledge is housed, in the minds of the teachers and in the books in the library, is fading. While information and knowledge have become cheap, transformative experiences and conversations have become expensive, and colleges and schools are seeking to better understand the processes that lead to critical thought, creative imagination, and responsible action in a changing world that calls desperately for the fullest cultivation of our collective human potential.

In the midst of this transition, Quaker education is poised to make a distinctive contribution. Schools and colleges associated with the Society of Friends have always understood education to be a plural verb, made up of processes and practices that encourage learning and living in community and that cultivate collective wondering, reflecting, inquiring, valuing, trusting, risking, listening, and sharing. Education is about becoming a more deeply effective searcher-for knowledge, for wisdom, for truth, for beauty, for the paths to peace and fulfillment for which everyone yearns. Perhaps most importantly, education today must empower the search for ways of living that preserve the health of the Earth and its people.

How does Quaker religious practice inform Quaker education? Here are eight examples.

1. Among religiously-affiliated institutions, the unfettered search for truth distinguishes Friends schools, for there is little chance that religious dogma could become a barrier to the wide-ranging and rigorous explorations pursued by teachers and students where their interest and curiosity lead them.

2. Perhaps even more importantly, a deep respect for individuals becomes a practice on campus, even for teachers and students who may not fully embrace the religious conviction that individuals are vessels of the spirit and the agents of God's will on Earth.

3. In Quaker institutions there is a pervasive optimism about human beings and their capacity to grow and change. George Fox wrote,

            "I saw that there was an ocean of darkness and death, but an infinite ocean of light and of love, which flowed over the ocean of darkness: And in that also I saw the infinite love of God."

And from Rufus Jones,

            "I do not believe that I was born an optimist. It is the slowly fructifying product of a deep lying faith in a loving and victorious God… I could live confident that Love works, and works triumphantly, at the Heart of Things."

Educators know that the expectations of teachers are a powerful influence in the educational outcomes experienced by students. A practice of optimism about students' motives and capacities is a characteristic of Quaker institutions.

4. Quaker institutions express an unusual measure of trust in the wisdom that students bring to the educational encounter.  At any moment we can never know who among us has the clearest vision of the truth. We need to be open to the possibility-the likelihood, perhaps-that some student has a thought that is fresher, more vital and worthy, than the formulas the teacher has brought. We aspire to create a climate in the classroom, and in the community, that will grant admission to new truths.

5. In a Quaker school, there is a thirst for maximizing potential and high standards for performance and accomplishment, experienced as a wish for perfection. Friends believe in the quest for perfection-the fullest outward expression of the divine within-while simultaneously knowing that our search for what is best is never done and that balance is needed too. We cannot be our best without time for renewal, reflection, and recreation.   

6. A Quaker school nurtures its commitments to the historic testimonies of Friends: the concerns for equality, simplicity, community responsibility, and peaceful resolution of conflict will be evident in the program, and sincere efforts to advance the cause of environmental sustainability will be manifest across the campus.

7. The practice of decision-making at Friends institutions is informed by sense-of-the-meeting decision-making as practiced in Quaker business meetings. There are certainly ways in which the work of a college or school differs from that of a Quaker meeting, and it would be impractical to expect that all decisions would be made by groups, but the power of consensual decision-making is a resource for creative institutional change, and students who experience this will go forth with a rare but valuable leadership skill.

8. Our Quaker institutions value students deeply-all of them-in the face of shallow, soul-destroying metrics of value that proliferate in the form of standardized, multiple-choice tests. It is a tragedy of our times that students may come to believe that their chances of making a future contribution are limited by their score on a test or by their grade-point average.  The research on this question refutes any such conclusion, and colleges and schools guided by the mystical conviction that every person is fundamentally of infinite worth are cultivating the qualities that will really matter: the capacity for wonder, the habit of reflection, the inclination to trust, the willingness to listen, the impulse to collaborate and share, and the creativity to imagine a better, more sustainable world.

We aspire to offer educational experiences that shift the focus from answers to questions, from doctrines to discovery, from theory to practice.  Above all, we hope to teach the centrality of the search for truth and to engage in practices that open ourselves, our students, and our schools to truth-seeking. 


Tom Farquhar
Tom Farquhar 1977, Head of School, Sidwell Friends School, Washington, D.C.

M.S. in Education, University of Pennsylvania

Hometown: Washington, D.C.

Major at Earlham: History

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