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Quaker Perspectives in Higher Education – Review

Jennifer Summit
On Beginning (March 2016)

Quaker Perspectives in Higher Education

edited by Donn Weinholtz, Jeffrey Dudiak, and Donald A. Smith

reviewed by Jennifer Summit

This collection of thirty-eight articles from the journal Quaker Higher Education makes a timely appearance, offering Quaker perspectives on faculty roles, university governance, and liberal arts education at a time of crisis for all three.

The American institution of higher education bears a distinctly Quaker stamp: as well as campuses that were established with explicitly Quaker missions (such as Haverford, Swarthmore, Earlham, and Whittier), numerous others were founded by Quakers (such as Bryn Mawr, Cornell, Brown, and Johns Hopkins) and shared the Quaker goal to “promote the general improvement of society” (p. 58). Today’s landscape of higher education differs wildly from the nineteenth century, when only a miniscule slice of the population was expected to achieve a college degree. But as American campuses expand and democratize their reach, the practices of education equality that had their start on Quaker campuses – which educated females as well as males, African Americans as well as whites – are more relevant and necessary than ever.

Yet, as the editors and authors observe, the challenge of applying religious principles to secular institutions is even greater today than it was in the past. The academic ideal of faculty participation in institutional governance may echo – and even explicitly invoke – Quaker practices of seeking unity. But where university practices of consensus building emphasize consultation and “buy-in,” Quaker practices pursue “a higher understanding of truth and proper action – not the lowest common denominator of our individual wills, nor a bland synthesis of proffered ideas” (p. 154). Where Quaker unity aspires to the eradication of selfishness (p. 269), academic governance insists that “anyone potentially affected by a decision should be involved in making the decision,” which “flies in the face of the admonition that Quaker process may not work well where self-interest is involved” (p. 169).

According to several authors in this volume, unity is an elusive ideal on American campuses, given “the pressures that the Academy plants upon us to . . . preserve our comforts at the expense of others” (p. 116), academic subcultures in which “highly trained intellects [use] their well-honed skills as weapons” (p. 112), and “the compartmentalization we have created, . . . [which has] undermined any consensus about . . . how to engage the most significant questions of life” (p. 267). But several articles make the case that it is both necessary and possible to transcend such fragmentation, “by the considered and humble pursuit of . . . what will best ennoble and best empower the student” (p. 154).

If the structures of higher education have changed very little, our students have changed a great deal. In our present information economy – in which most new jobs require education beyond a high school diploma and where individuals without degrees find it harder (and in some regions impossible) to enter the middle class – the value of educational equity outweighs the elitism of the traditional university; and inclusivity rather than exclusivity will mark higher education’s value in the years ahead. Even so, although many campuses – Quaker or not – proclaim missions of social justice, the principle can be just another branding effort for tuition-driven institutions, even those started by Quakers. The diminished resources of all but a few campuses strain their ideals, and the temptation to withdraw can be a matter of self-preservation. Despite these pressures, Quaker Perspectives in Higher Education makes that case that colleges and universities can rededicate themselves to pressing questions of equity and justice. By understanding the needs of our students, and by putting those needs first, we stand to create a new academy for the crises of inequality and injustice in our own age.  ~~~

Jennifer Summit is Dean of Undergraduate Education and Academic Planning at San Francisco State University. She is a member of Palo Alto Friends Meeting (PYM).

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