Q is for Quaker

I attended a liberal arts college affiliated with the Quakers, also known as the Society of Friends.

Often when I tell people I attended a Quaker school, they say, “Quaker? You mean like the oatmeal?”Or they say, “Is that like the Amish?”

Um, no, not like the oatmeal, though the logo on the Quaker Oats carton does feature a man  in “Quaker dress” possibly circa the time of William Penn. And no, not like the Amish, who shun modern technology and thus use horse and buggy as their means of transport and do not have electricity in their homes, etc.

If you’re not familiar with Quakerism, you might have heard of a “Friends” school near you. (President Obama’s daughters attend a Quaker-affiliated school in Washington, for example, Sidwell Friends. There’s a Friends school here in San Francisco, and, as you might expect, quite a few in the Philadelphia area.) Or you might know that Herbert Hoover and Richard Nixon were both Quaker. Without getting into too many details of the religion itself, Quakers, in general, believe that God exists in all of us, or at the very least can speak through all of us. Quaker services are called meetings, and traditionally, no priest or minister leads the group. Each member of the congregation sits in silence until moved to speak or sing, by God. Quakers value peace, simplicity, equality, and education. They tend to be involved in community service or social justice projects.

I was not raised Quaker, nor do I attend Quaker meeting now. But I came away from my college experience having internalized Quaker values. Everyone in my college referred to everyone else by his or her first name, whether that person was a student, professor, or the president of the college. I found some hierarchies I encountered after college foreign and hard to navigate, because I had spent four years in an institution essentially devoid of hierarchy. Problems there were solved by consensus, meaning that everyone involved in the decision making had a say, and that as a group we would reach an understanding. I found bosses, afterward, strangely dictatorial, and could not understand why my opinion was not always welcome – I had been taught that everyone’s opinion mattered, always.

Quakers have been known for being conscientious objectors in wartime. Several of my college classmates’ fathers had been jailed during the Vietnam War for their refusal to fight. Some universities offer degrees in military history, or memberships in ROTC. The school I graduated from offered a major in Peace, and courses such as “Nonviolent Responses to Conflict.” It’s hard to be surrounded by that kind of thinking for four years and come away unaffected. I was reminded, recently, of my school’s commitment to these values when I read this speech, written by my former English professor, in response to 9/11. I was flooded with relief when I read it on the 10th anniversary of the attacks. I did not realize how much I had been looking for a response that made sense to me, after all of the bellicose rhetoric and actions by our country over the past decade. That, “if someone else has decided we are at war, we nonetheless have a choice of the weapons we will use.”

I did not fully comprehend at the time how much Quakerism impacted every aspect of my college life: My studies, my friendships, my extracurricular activities.

I played field hockey during college.  Our team would gather in a close circle before games and cheer, raising our sticks into the air, as if ready to attack. I did not see a disconnect between Quakerism and sports and I suppose there is not, if sports are merely games or exercise and not metaphors for conflict and aggression. We embraced the irony of the cheer we chanted before our games; we screamed it until our voices cracked, almost with a kind of Quakerly pride.

Fight! Fight!
Inner light!
Kill, Quakers kill!

One coach made us cheer a more peaceful version, but it did not fill us with the same glee.

It came to my attention recently that my college has acquired a mascot, which does, indeed, look like the guy on the oatmeal, which I suppose I find endearing. It’s perhaps more endearing to me that the college has not had a mascot until now, some 150+ years after its founding. There’s a contest to name the mascot — the choices are Big Earl, Barnabus, Quincy, and, wait for it …  Oatis.

My experience was not that of the typical American undergraduate, obviously.

Our campus did not support fraternities or sororities, since membership in exclusive clubs creates inequality. Ours was a dry campus — Quakers were, historically, against the use of alcohol. Of course, like college students everywhere, we drank, we smoked and we debated. We grew up. But we called our professors Bob, Jun, and Chuck, because those were their names. We joined the college’s president at his home for dinner. We studied world religions, not just Quakerism. We learned how to serve others, and a great many of us went on to become teachers, aid workers, and counselors. A disproportionate number of us studied abroad, because the world is small and only through communication and understanding can there be peace. We lived and studied together in a small, respectful community that I miss. My nostalgia reaches beyond the place, however, and beyond the people who inhabited that place those four years I spent there; it infuses my thinking and my actions in ways I am still, nearly two decades later, noticing.

I’m joining Christine at 80,000 words and other bloggers in working through the alphabet with short, memoir-like pieces. It’s called Alphabet: A History. (I’m doing the letters out of order.)

Some previous posts:

N is for neighborhood

T is for Taro, and tsunami

J is for Jeremiah Townley Chase

F is for Fort Wayne



3 thoughts on “Q is for Quaker

  1. Enjoyed this new alphabet entry, as always.

    How does “Oatis” not win the mascot naming contest? Though if I were voting I think I could be swayed to the “Quincy” camp.

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