When I first visited Swarthmore as a perspective student, I was immediately drawn to the college’s Quaker past. I loved its progressive beginnings, emphasis on consensus, and the presence of the Friends Meeting House. However, I was amazed to learn how little these things meant to most Swarthmore students.
My surprise was perhaps best capsulated in a moment during my first campus tour, when our guide told the group the ludicrous fact that Swarthmore is a Quaker-oriented school because it has only one dining hall. “Quakers believe in community,” she said, “and so it’s really important for us to all to eat under one roof at Sharples.”
I couldn’t believe what I had just heard. First of all, having only one main dining hall has nothing to do with Quakerism; Swarthmore has one dining hall because it’s small. Try finding any other school this size and see how many cafeterias they’ve got. And if dinner-time conviviality is really so important, who wants to explain Essie Mae’s and the two snack bars?
But second and more importantly, if Sharples is the most noteworthy aspect of Quakerism at Swarthmore, something has gone seriously wrong. Quakerism is a living religion with a lot to say about peace, individualism, and the liberal arts—all things that Swarthmore should care about very much. Quaker values and traditions should play a larger role in campus life, as I argue in a recent Phoenix article.
To promote Quakerism at Swarthmore, I believe the college should commit to the following seven proposals.
Swarthmore College should:
1) Establish the position of Quaker Affairs Advisor or Quaker in Residence. Such a person would plan and coordinate conferences, speakers, and events related to Quakerism, as well as manage student interns, teach classes or workshops on Quakerism, and generally work to promote and clarify the role of Quakerism at Swarthmore.
2) Host major yearly conferences on Quakerism and peace. Among peace activists and historians, Swarthmore is internationally famous—both for its rich history and for the presence of the Friends Historical Library and the Peace Collection. Holding high profile conferences would make students more aware of these collections and also aid the important fields of Peace and Conflict Studies and Religion.
3) Reinstate Collection. A return to this tradition would help foster a closer sense of community at Swarthmore and tie the college’s present to its historic roots. It would also provide the student body with memorable collective experiences which, years later, would certainly stand out in their memories. While Collection does not need to be held on a weekly basis, it would be wonderful to have an all-campus Collection once or twice a semester, perhaps focused around an interesting panel discussion or dynamic speaker.
4) Give the Peace Collection a more appropriate space than McCabe basement. The Swarthmore College Peace Collection is an incredible and world-class resource. Scholars and activists from the world over make pilgrimages to Swarthmore just to work in the Peace Collection. However, almost no students even know that it even exists. It should be moved from its current location in a dark and remote corner of McCabe basement to a more prominent and celebrated place on campus, perhaps given its own building.
5) Form stronger ties with Pendle Hill. Located in Swarthmore’s backyard, the Pendle Hill Quaker Center for Study and Contemplation offers programs and courses in Quakerism and religious studies. As an extension of the Trico program, Swarthmore students should be able to enroll and receive credit for coursework done at Pendle Hill.
6) Promote the study of religion within the liberal arts as part of the Swarthmore Institute for the Liberal Arts. Many liberal arts programs around the country exist at religiously affiliated institutions, and I believe that religion, activism, and the liberal arts are interrelated and often inform one another. If Swarthmore establishes an institute for the study of the liberal arts, it would be an oversight not to include support for the research of religion and activism in the liberal arts context.
7) Make more explicit and prominent references to Quakerism in print literature and on the Swarthmore website. For prospective students and families who want to know about the role of Quakerism at Swarthmore, finding relevant information is often difficult. The college should produce pamphlets and brochures which explain Quakerism at Swarthmore, and should also provide an easily accessible link from the main page of the college website.
If Swarthmore adopts these recommendations, I believe that the college will be able to rekindle some of the Quaker fire that in recent years it has allowed to burn low. Such changes will help foster peace activism, raise awareness about Quakerism, and attract students and faculty who share important peace values.
When perspective students ask about Quakerism at Swarthmore, our tour guides should have more to talk about than Sharples. It is time that we look beyond the corporate face on the oatmeal canister.
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