Sidwell’s Quaker Values

May 11, 2020 § 3 Comments

Where there is hypocrisy, there is hope.  ~ Kenneth Boulding

Sidwell Friends School in Washington, DC, where the Clinton and Obama kids went, has received $5 million as a loan earmarked for small businesses under one of the recent COVID-19 recovery bills. (See this article in the Atlantic, which Martin Kelley passed on in his blog Quaker Ranter.) Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, normally one of the One-Percent’s staunchest allies, has suggested that Sidwell and other wealthy prep schools who received this money should return it. Sidwell has declined, citing its “Quaker values.”

Specifically, they invoked the wretched SPICES. Not simplicity, apparently, or equality, or integrity, or community, but stewardship. By this they seem to mean, not the recent Quaker “testimonial” sense of care for the earth, but the traditional ecclesiastical sense of faithfully taking care of the church’s resources, in general, and in specific, managing income through offerings. They kept the money because they are $64.4 million in debt, $11 million more than their $53.4 million endowment. They think they need the money.

We could look at this decision in the terms invoked by Sidwell’s own rationalization, by applying the SPICES to it as a set of outward guidelines for behavior. I started to do this for this post and realized what a distraction it would be. For one thing, it seems pretty obvious to me, anyway, that this decision violates all of them, except maybe peace, though it certainly has riled up many in their own community and in the wider Quaker community, myself included. The testimony of integrity suffers the most, except perhaps for stewardship itself, which the decision twists and then turns on its head.

But the real problem for me is the approach, not the application—looking to SPICES as a way to define Quaker values. I’ve railed against this before. Using SPICES this way objectifies the testimonies as outward forms, instead of turning toward the Light as the source of all decisions, from whence our “testimonies” come.

Quaker schools seem to love the SPICES. They make a nice short bullet list that you can put on a poster and hang on the wall in the hall. They are easy for kids to understand, and for teachers to teach. And they are, in fact, good principles to live by. Schools tend to put them all in a capsule called “Quaker values”. The Quaker schools in the Philadelphia area use this capsule all the time in their ads on the local NPR station, as do our retirement homes. I suppose coopting “Quaker values” as a marketing tool makes good “stewardship” sense. But do these schools also teach their students that they have a light in their consciences to which they can turn for guidance, healing, forgiveness, renewal, solace, inspiration, and creativity? 

The SPICES reinforce the decades-long trend in liberal Quakerism of defining Quakerism increasingly in terms of our “values” and our outward practices, rather than by the content of our tradition and our spirituality. Our “spirituality” is to look to the Light within us for guidance and to make our corporate decisions in a meeting for worship held under the leadership of the Holy Spirit, not by looking to a checklist of behavioral guidelines and then remolding them to fit our desires.

I suspect that Sidwell Friends School has some Quakers on its board, in its staff and faculty, and among its students. But does that mean that it makes important “stewardship” decisions in a Spirit-led meeting for worship? Would the Spirit of Love and Truth have encouraged them in such a gathered meeting for worship to overextend themselves in millions of dollars of debt, or to accept millions more that could have kept several small restaurants and day care centers afloat during this crisis?

§ 3 Responses to Sidwell’s Quaker Values

  • Paul Landskroener says:

    Please help me understand why Sidwell needs to justify accepting the loan offered by the government. If it qualifies as a small business — which it apparently does — and otherwise meets the legal criteria for a loan, why should it not apply and accept it? I share your concern with the misuse of “SPICES” as a summary of Quaker “values”, and perhaps its overextension of debt, but I fail to see why Sidwell needs to resort to them to support its decision to apply for and accept the loan, and then to not voluntarily give it back. Why is it any less entitled to the assistance than any other small business? I suspect your real concern is that there was not enough money offered to go to every business we deem worthy, which I share, but if some get it and others do not, why should Sidwell be disqualified?

    • Good point, Paul. I think I let my worries about the state of Quaker education and the direction of liberal Quakerism take over my compassion and common sense. Especially if Sidwell needs the money to survive, then hey.

  • […] The SPICES rein­force the decades-long trend in lib­er­al Quak­erism of defin­ing Quak­erism increas­ing­ly in terms of our “val­ues” and our out­ward prac­tices, rather than by the con­tent of our tra­di­tion and our spir­i­tu­al­i­ty. Our “spir­i­tu­al­i­ty” is to look to the Light with­in us for guid­ance and to make our cor­po­rate deci­sions in a meet­ing for wor­ship held under the lead­er­ship of the Holy Spir­it, not by look­ing to a check­list of behav­ioral guide­lines and then remold­ing them to fit our desires. I sus­pect that Sid­well Friends School has some Quak­ers on its board, in its staff and fac­ul­ty, and among its stu­dents. But does that mean that it makes impor­tant “stew­ard­ship” deci­sions in a Spirit-led meet­ing for wor­ship? Sidwell’s Quak­er Val­ues […]

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