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Should the College Revive its Quaker Roots? Yes, Students Say, but Via Grassroots

By Carol Brévart-Demm

In a shining example of civil discourse on campus, two students engaged last fall  in a four-week exchange of op-eds in The Phoenix, producing a series of reflective articles on Quakerism that began in disagreement and ended in consensus—or close to it.

Junior Ben Goossen enrolled at Swarthmore in large part because of the College’s Quaker heritage. “I was interested in attending a school with an affiliation to a historic peace church,” he says, “and I loved the combination of academic rigor and the College’s ties to the Society of Friends with its connection to both religious and secular activism.” Goossen was further drawn by current manifestations of Quakerism on campus such as the Friends Historical Library, the Peace Collection, and the Quaker Meetinghouse. Since his arrival on campus, although still excited about the potential for growth of Quakerism on campus, he is disappointed by what he believes is a waning role for the religion.

In late October, Goossen—who identifies with the Mennonite peace faith—published an op-ed in The Phoenix, in the form of a letter to President Rebecca Chopp, proposing that, despite some positive steps, such as visiting speakers on Quaker activism; the Global Nonviolent Action Database; and the founding of a Young Quakers Group (of which he is a cofounder)—campus Quakerism should be more actively promoted. For example, he would welcome increased faculty and student activism and stronger commitment to Quakerism by the College administration; a full-time Quaker-in-residence position, similar to one that already exists at Haverford College; closer ties between the College and the Quaker Center at Pendle Hill; the reinstatement of Collection; moving the Peace Collection from its “undignified location in McCabe basement” to a more prominent location; and print and electronic publications clarifying the College’s relationship to Quakerism.

A week after releasing Goossen’s column, The Phoenix published a response by sophomore Sam Zhang, who wrote of his own discomfort at the state of Quakerism on campus. In the article “Why Quakerism at Swarthmore is Counterproductive,” Zhang described situations in which he had experienced the phrase “Quaker values” being applied cynically and inappropriately to describe simple acts of generosity or used in a “culture-cleansing” capacity, wherein fear to offend eliminates passion or excitement. Zhang cited the problems inherent in an enhanced role for Quakerism in a multicultural campus society: “Having moved from the fringe of white Christian society to the center of multiculturalism, Quakers have subtly redefined themselves as the border guards between the Christian and multicultural worlds. With an impeccable record of diversity, Quakerism is the most legitimate heir to this position…. It views itself as a negotiator who works on behalf of minority groups to lower the cost of cultural entry into mainstream Christian society.

“The assumption that minority students want to assimilate is patronizing in its own right, let alone that we should be grateful for their assimilation….”

Goossen responded by highlighting the vibrancy of the Swarthmore culture, suggesting that any “lack of spontaneity and excitement” is due to students being engrossed in their schoolwork and further that Quakerism’s origins do not prevent its being compatible with non-Quakers. “It is no accident that contemporary Quakerism is a global religion, represented on every continent in any number of culture groups,” he wrote.

In a later conversation with the Bulletin, Zhang described a Tri-College diversity workshop he’d attended as a freshman. “It was sterile,” he said. “We were all very politically correct, as if we were afraid of our own potential to offend. The workshop ended in a gathering, which, we were assured, was not a Quaker Collection, but it really was…. We had to stand in silence until someone was moved to speak. That even the ceremony of Quakerism would be used for a political agenda takes away from what Quakerism is all about and makes me apprehensive about what Ben is endorsing without certain checks to ensure that this doesn’t happen.”

At the end of the four-week exchange, Zhang conceded that it was his Tri-Co experience—“more like the initiation of a political ideology of inoffensiveness rather than an exploration of spirit”—that had impacted his feelings toward Quakerism. By ultimately acknowledging that the Tri-Co experience was not a truly Quaker one, he was able to find common ground with Goossen, saying that the faith should be encouraged on campus—albeit through grassroots rather than institutional methods. He suggested the creation of publications that clarify and challenge the College’s relationship to Quakerism.

Goossen and Zhang are not in complete agreement on how the creation of a Quaker movement on campus should proceed, but they are, for sure, in favor of exchanging ideas and working on them—together.

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