Quaker Universalist Conversations

Shaking off the soot

Michael Elkin, our guest author for this post, says he writes from “the perspective of a non-Quaker who finds the Quaker educational system incredible.” We welcome his encouraging commentary.

Michael Elkin is a features and op-ed columnist writing for papers nationwide.

To paraphrase Robert Fulghum, all I ever needed to really know I learned in kindergarten.

Which is why I’m going back there.

But as a father of a toddler, I’m not doing it for my daughter; I’m doing it for me.
For as I attend parent-teacher conferences and meet and greet fellow new dads and moms at Abington Friends School, I’ve come to realize there is something about childhood surroundings that brings out the child in adults—not the obnoxious, me-me-me kick-in-in-the-knee kind of kid, but the innocent niceness that one associates with newbies to the world.

And it all shows up in their parents.

As the dad of a pre-K about-to-enter-K kid, I mix and match with grown-ups of all walks of life at AFS, nodding and smiling “good days” to strangers I would normally grump at if I saw them on the street. Not that they deserve the grumps; far from it. But the mean streets of Real Life really can turn the expression “let a smile be your umbrella” inside out faster than a gale wind.

Here, I hold open doors—and have them held open for me—when a person is not even close to walking through it; yet, hold it open I do. In Real Life, I would probably slam the door in that person’s face when they were within inches of grabbing it, my uttering an “I’m sorry” expiating me from sin.

And I’m not a bad person. Really. I’m actually, I’ve been told, a pleasant, nice man.

At school, hustling my daughter to class, I find that time stands still. Even if I’m late, I stop to chat with this father, that mother—people I would barely acknowledge in Real Life out of fear of being trampled over by time.

But here we unwind; we shake off the soot of urban urges and allow each other seats in a crowded classroom where we are finding out about our children’s progress. Bonfires of the vanities do die down into ashes when children are concerned and there is a veritable niceness that comes out when laughing and gloating over our kids’ accomplishments.

Kid on slide

Is it because we’re serving as role models so that our children won’t be corrupted early on by the evil influences of the cold harsh truth that is the world? Or is it that our children are actually the role models, allowing us to dig down deep into souls that have been steel traps for years, allowing their innocent perspectives to spring those traps open and let the sun shine in?

Whatever it is, it feels good. And nice—fostered by the Quaker ethos. And as I prepare to leave a concert put on by the pre-Ks one day, I see in the distance someone I know from the Real World, a curmudgeon if ever there was one. This is my chance to get even after all these years, which I decide to do.

And as I am about to pass him in the hall, he turns and says, “Good Morning.”

And what can I do but say, “The same to you.”

See, I think, what happens when you mix with kindergarteners?

They’ve ruined me for good, I smile, holding open one more door for a mother maybe two miles away from the entrance.


Michael Elkin makes a nice point about Quaker niceness at Abington Friends School, but he misses the point that the niceness, enriching or cloying in the eye of the beholder, is a conscious, practical Quaker effort to manage a social system of increasing diversity. The diversity of students and their traditions are the test case at Abington Friends School. The niceness is the Quaker strategy for bridging those traditions. Listening, deference, firmness, clarity and encouragement are key elements in the niceness, rightly exercised. This same strategy in our intimate social environments, like a school, can be applied universally to conducting conflicts and building agreements on difficult issues of public policy and cultural conflict at larger national and international levels. That is what I learned as well from kindergarten. See Chenoweth and Stephan, Why Civil Resistance Works: The Strategic Logic of Nonviolent Conflict. (2011)
When we begin to feel the same with the Real World, as I tell my students, then the Real World seems a better place to be.
When we feel our Real World, the place it is felt, may influence the better or worse place to be. Increased concern for our world may exist, upon learning of wars, environmental degradation, materialistic goals, reductionist pedagogy, and disregard for mankind currently present. Helping each pupil become the best member of Our Real World, possible, with genuine concern for life on earth, will create a better place to be. Lecturing about certain subjects to a class of certain age, grade, and culture may make the Real World seem a better place to be, than it actually is.
Living in the Light is a Friends striving. It is something that is very difficult to achieve in the real world.But try we must. The Inclusive nature of our faith brings together many people of divergent cultures and interpretations of the ,“Light”. In order to work through and understand this diversity (as was stated above)and come to unity is through niceness. I found it interesting that the concept of “Pass it Forward” is at play here. One thing that gives me pause is how few Quaker children have the opportunity of being surrounded by this niceness. The tuition of many Friends schools put it out of the reach of Quaker families unless they are very well off monetary. While I feel that every child should have the opportunity of a Friends education it seems to me we have left our children out in the cold. In many small Meetings there is no First day School and out side of States that have communities with high concentrations of Friends there is very little support for children and Young Adult Friends. Before I go on I understand, the rationale of not seeking to educate our youth separately. Children being brought up in a Friend community are ingrained with this philosophy: Equality lack of pride-fulness, being a” Light” to the children around them, among other reasons led to this trend. Sadly, things have changed over the years. The reality is that the geographic distances between Meeting as well as the ideological distance from our roots make it more important to look into making a Quaker education more accessible to Young Friends as well as all children. How can a child grow up to have a strong sense of their Quaker identity? How can children fully integrate our core values without reinforcement? What about seekers ? I just wish our children as well as their parents could have the same experience as Micheal Elkin had.
This message is to give thanks for Friend Bonnie’s comment on education of the Friend Children. As a retired teacher, Quaker Education’s concern for the ‘Inner Light’ of each student, is a need in most educational systems, today. Some authors like, Ron Miller in ‘What are Schools For’ are promoting Holistic Education. Yet, Ron states the core principles of Holistic and Quaker Education are nearly identical, in the book. Industrial Education school systems are no longer appropriate for our children, both Young Friends and others. Friends’ schools need to be available to more students or pupils need more Quaker-like Schools. Again, Thank You, for mentioning this need.
Bonnie Hall has placed a valid calling among us. In my studies as a retired teacher, Holistic Education, very similar to Quaker Education, is being expressed as a need for our post-industrial economic period in the United States. However, many states are using standardized tests, (definitely New York & Pennsylvania), to judge the stance of their pupils. This encourages school systems and colleges to standardize educational methods in preparation for the exams. A Stanford University professor, Elliot W. Eisner, saw the fallacy of this approach in ‘The Educational Imagination’ about three decades back. He presented “Standardized teaching……..is an oxymoron.” Bonnie Hall is correct, not only for the children of Friends, but also for students across the nation. Children of America need education appropriate for them, not the government oriented systems for mass production. I pray God will let more see, the way for our children of all faiths.
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