A Kind of Holy Experiment
Dulany Ogden Bennett '66
As the head of a large independent school in the Pacific Northwest, one of my greatest goals is to nurture in the students and teachers in my care the values and perspectives that I developed at Swarthmore. William Penn called Pennsylvania his "Holy Experiment." I have always thought of Swarthmore as a kind of holy experiment in intellectual and moral community. It is that concept that I have most wanted to develop in the communities that I have served during the past 35 years, including the Oregon Episcopal School, which I now lead.
When I arrived at Swarthmore, I began to develop fearlessness about asking and answering startling questions. The courage to challenge for the sake of more closely approaching the truth was developed in me from all sides. The quality of fearless questioning marked my classes in the early years, as well as seminars in the upper-level classes. In large part, it infected me through the delightful but persistent questioning of all things philosophical and personal in my life by my roommate of four years, Janet Nordgren Stavnezer '66, who moved me to think and rethink many things in my life, as her professors and friends led her to rethink her own.
I found, at the College, not only professors but also fellow students with startling talents. A freshman math student, for instance, took over my Theoretical Calculus class when the professor was snowed in and taught the material I was struggling with as if he were a professor himself. I was so overcome with interest and curiosity, and amazed by the combination of brilliance and humility he displayed, that I found myself forgetting to feel awe and insecurity and instead fearlessly questioning him in the interest of academic passion. By the middle of freshman year, I had come to see all around me-in my fellow varsity hockey halfbacks, my dinner companions, my Saturday night dates, my fellow students, and all my professors-personal tutors and advisers, intellectual sparring partners, and potential fonts of wisdom. For me, it was like arriving on the Big Rock Candy Mountain and never getting too full.
I came to intellectual and moral maturity at Swarthmore when the Vietnam War was raging. It was a time of powerful debate that engaged us all at the intellectual and emotional levels. My male friends struggled with their decisions about graduate school, their draft registration status, and their philosophical positions about the war. Watching my friends divide along ideological lines and struggle to determine whether College friendships could survive philosophical differences made me ponder the nature of community. Over my Swarthmore career, I came to understand the power of the values of the Swarthmore community to transcend the particular differences that divided us. Even then, I could see that the kind of discourse in which class discussion-and, more powerfully, the seminar format-taught us to excel, and could teach us the civility and respect to admire each other for the integrity of our beliefs. We also developed the courage to support each other in very different life choices without having to renounce each other for our differences in values. The willingness to be fearless in our honesty yet respectful of each other's integrity and intelligence created a complex and powerful sense of community: elastic, expandable, and extremely strong.
It was at Swarthmore that I first began my involvement with the American Friends Service Committee, as a member of its College Committee, helping to develop programs for male college students who were facing choices regarding the draft, and organizing peaceful protests against the war in Vietnam. I had honed my analytical skills in seminars and greatly benefited from the quality of the dialogue on campus regarding the philosophical issues surrounding the students who were facing choices about the draft. It was on this AFSC Committee that I first realized that I could be fearless in giving my opinions in the presence of strangers who were older, more experienced, and more authoritative, even when they were attempting in some subtle-and not so subtle-ways to be intimidating to younger, more inexperienced members. My Swarthmore experience had taught me to go for the truth, value my thoughts and opinions, allow myself to endure the critical feedback when I was wrong, and learn and grow from the experience. It was much more rewarding than holding back, never knowing how my views would fare in the common discourse, what they might add, or how they might further the light of truth.
As I moved on in my AFSC work to leadership roles, I realized that I benefited from lessons learned at Swarthmore that have taken longer for me to understand and acknowledge. As clerk of the AFSC board, in particular, I had to find the courage and strength within myself to silence my own opinions and preferences, and to listen for the wisdom and truth forthcoming from those gathered on the board. Deliberating in Quaker fashion, we had to discover, through the gathered wisdom, how best to deploy our human and financial resources on behalf of peace and justice in programs around the world. The stakes were high, passions were high, and the clerk needed to ensure that she could listen well in order to create a space for the authentic voices of all present to be heard. In the Quaker context, one may listen for God's leadings, but if fear, emotion, or insecurity is allowed to block the Inner Voice, or external authority or pressure to silence the authentic voice, Truth will not be heard. Thus, clear thinking, fearless speaking, and the authentic voices of all who are in possession of truth must be heard for decisions to be made that further the causes of peace and justice. I now was in a position in which I had to nurture and promote the fearlessness in the AFSC board setting that had been nurtured in me at Swarthmore.
What I have carried with me since my college days is the profound importance of linking the moral and the intellectual. Growing up as a Quaker, I was steeped in the moral values that underlie the principles on which the College rests, but too often as a child the values were presented to me in emotional and ideological terms that made them difficult for me to question or accept. Since college, I have often encountered intellectuals who have not put their academic achievements in the service of ethical pursuits. At Swarthmore, I learned that a life that marries the intellectual and the moral is a productive and satisfying one. All around me were role models of such lives, in my professors and the alumni that I knew. In my classes and seminars, and the opportunities for community service that I had, I learned how to pursue such a life.
For me, this marriage has led to a life in education and leadership. I find I have a strong preference for helping others find their paths, for maintaining balance in institutions, for leading schools that help children learn to think clearly and develop communities dedicated to service as well as learning. I am committed to schools that emphasize spiritual development and education of the whole child-spirit, mind, and body. Self-awareness, balance, and seeking the truth are themes, developed for me at Swarthmore, that thread throughout my life, both professional and personal.
For 25 years, I worked in Friends education in the greater Philadelphia area, as teacher, coach, division head, and head of school. During these years, I faced several challenges in which I had to stand alone, using the reservoir of fearlessness I had developed since my Swarthmore days. Although it was painful, to be sure, it was not difficult. There is no turning back from a conviction that becomes one's own. Moreover, the world can see both the power of that conviction and the price one is willing to pay. If you are lucky, as I ultimately was, you can bring reason to your cause, and prevail.
After taking a break to earn a doctorate in clinical psychology, in 1998 I became the head of Oregon Episcopal School. Now, I feel most successful when that sense of fearlessness or the startling truth comes bravely from a kindergarten child or a new middle school teacher, unafraid to challenge the received wisdom or the popular cause. The more frequently discourse involves engaged disagreement, close listening, and thoughtful debate, the deeper and more connected our community becomes. If our community naturally gives rise to the authentic voices of all our constituents, even those in the positions of least institutional power or those voicing the least popular positions, we will have begun to succeed. I learned to be fearless at Swarthmore. It is my hope that our students can learn fearlessness along with the kindergarten curriculum. If they do, I will chalk my contribution up to what I was so generously given by so many at Swarthmore.
Dulany Bennett, former clerk of the American Friends Service Committee, is the head of the Oregon Episcopal School in Portland