Positively Quaker

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My smartphone bristles with news every day. I mostly ignore it, knowing the news items trend toward the sensational and quirky, not balanced reporting. But recently, the words “Toxic Positivity” appeared as a headline, and that got me to thinking.

I’ve long held a firmly positive outlook on life, anchored in my Quaker belief in the perfectibility of humans and society, based on the “goodness inherent in all individuals.” That principle, although often questioned, has survived through long periods of persecution and attacks on many practicing Quakers – from the 1650s until our own times.

I fully understand that an extreme case of “positivity” can actually serve as a mask for a lack of real compassion. Such an attitude – even if carried unconsciously – causes real hurt and harm in other people.

However, even though I am aware of some difficulties with “positivity” – the hostility it sometimes raises in others, the lack of self-awareness it sometimes encourages – I remain firmly committed to Quaker Positivity. It motivates my current efforts to plan and support a new independent school in Arizona – Phoenix Friends School.

Educators today are beset by challenges. Some experience attacks on the school’s curriculum, assigned readings, and school policies. Some face controversies around individual faculty, staff members, and even students. At some school board meetings, public deliberations descend into shouting matches, with personal attacks thrown by both sides, venomous and dehumanizing.

As an educator, I am convinced that schools can navigate the hard realities of European and American history, and the lingering legacies of sexism, classism, and racism. Without taking sides in the political divides of our day, I believe that Phoenix Friends School can promote the values and principles of the Quaker movement, which are as relevant today as ever – and more urgently needed today than ever. These are our founding principles:

We believe in parallel systems of public and independent schools, and we offer parents an option for values-based education, one that promotes skills development in an open, inclusive, and non-threatening environment.

We believe in classroom learning, not teaching. The Socratic method – leading with questions for discussion that engage both students and teachers – is the school’s dominant mode of learning.

We believe in pluralism in education. We do not exclude competing interpretations of history, philosophy, literature, and science. Rather, we present, question, and discuss them.

We believe opposing ideas are signs of healthy curiosity and are not a failing.

We believe most students are able to listen respectfully to ideas other than their own and to accept these different points of view without emotional distress or harm.

I freely admit that no school can maintain perfect harmony every day. Conflicts arise, sometimes through unexamined biases, sometimes through individuals’ refusal to listen. We are fortunate to have our Quaker decision-making process to turn to in times of conflict, be it with students, parents, or members of the larger community.

Quaker-led education reflects the values and practices of a peace-loving people who face challenges and angry voices calmly, always striving to be our better selves in public life. This is a positive vision for everyone, everywhere, and for all times.

Willard E. White is the founder of Phoenix Friends School. He is a former high school and college teacher, a university administrator, and a consultant in non-profit management.  He is a proud descendent of one of the oldest Quaker families in America and attends Phoenix Friends Meeting (IMYM).

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