A School for the Obama Girls

By Miryam Ehrlich Williamson

Although I was born to Jewish parents, my first religious education was about Quakerism. Philadelphia, where I grew up, was founded by William Penn, a Quaker, and the faith’s influence was still palpable in the city 300 years later, so much so that Quaker belief and practice was part of the third grade social studies curriculum in 1944, when I was eight.

The horrors of religion in the schools had not yet been discovered. Although my elementary school was probably 90% Jewish (the Catholic school a block away scooped up most of the rest of the neighborhood children), the teachers who chose the morning’s Bible readings picked verses from New Testament most of the time. We sang the same hymns about Jesus and the Holy Trinity during the week that our teachers sang in church on Sundays.  Our parents would have preferred otherwise, but thought it unwise to complain.

The message — that while we Jewish kids were in the majority in the school, we were a tiny minority as far as the city and the rest of the world were concerned — wasn’t lost on us. But looking back, I see real value in having learned about the beliefs of the dominant American culture. Today I am Bible-literate. I can belt out hymns and Christmas carols with the best of ‘em.  Especially at this time of the year, I do so without discomfort and with a feeling of solidarity with people of whatever religion who value sprituality in themselves and in others.

When I was 11, my parents sent me to Hebrew School, where I learned the Hebrew language (a life-changing revelation to me and the source of my enduring love affair with language) and religious practice. But three years before that, I learned about Quakerism. Miss Weinstein, my third grade teacher, presented the religion as somewhat quaint and exotic, but benign. There is no Quaker doctrine, so what we learned was that Quakers worship in silence; that they believe there is a spark of the divine in every person, even those who don’t behave the way they should; and that their religion requires them to live according to their values every day, not just on the Sabbath.  Eventually, as an adult, I became a Quaker.

The article below, from Time Magazine, is a good representation of what a real Quaker education is about. I share it with you not to persuade you of anything, but to expand your knowledge of a quiet but potent influence in education, and as an added insight into the spiritual values and ethics of our incoming First Family.

Why Sasha and Malia Will Go to Sidwell Friends

Saturday, Nov. 22, 2008

There were obvious reasons for the Obamas to pick Sidwell Friends for their daughters Sasha and Malia. As the school that educated Chelsea Clinton, Al Gore III and the Nixon girls, it understands the unique personal and security needs of prominent children. It provides a first-rate education on two well-equipped campuses. Nearly 4 in 10 students are children of color. But the choice makes sense at a philosophical level as well, because of how Quakers view the challenge of shaping children into socially responsible and spiritually aware adults.

Quakers established some of the earliest independent schools in America: Philadelphia’s William Penn Charter School was founded in 1689, New York’s Friends Seminary in 1786, Sidwell in 1883 (when it was called the Friends’ Select School). From the start, Quaker schools aimed to instill the distinct values of the faith, particularly that the “inner light” inside each person can guide them to divine truth. The early Quakers had no creed to teach or sacrament to unite and distinguish the congregation. Instead they taught a way of life, deeply democratic, severe and simple, that could be sustained only through a faithful home and what they called a “guarded education.” The goal was both to instruct and protect. (See pictures of Barack Obama’s family tree.)

This was especially necessary because the lessons of the faith were often at odds with the mood of the times. “A Simple Faith. A Radical Witness” serves as a kind of Quaker slogan. Back in the days when clergy were princes, Quakers believed in a “priesthood of all believers.” In an economy that relied on slavery, Quakers preached mercy, to the point of using schools as command posts for the Underground Railroad. In a Puritan culture that viewed children as evil miniatures corrupted by original sin, Quakers treated them with respect, as Children of Light: no whips, no paddles, no coerced belief. Long before the days of women’s suffrage and equal rights crusades, Quakers were unique in integrating women fully into the ministry; the schools were not only coeducational, but they focused on equipping girls with all of the same spiritual and intellectual apparatuses that boys had. It’s no accident that Susan B. Anthony and Lucretia Mott and any number of leading suffragists were raised in Quaker homes. As one Friends school catalog put it in 1864: “Girls, do not believe that you were created for nothing but to play, dance, sing, read novels and flirt … You need not study medicine or law or become female ministers, or ever expect to become President of the United States; but be something more than mere dolls … Cultivate your intellect and your heart, and prove to the world that ‘all men and women are created equal.’ ” When Sidwell Friends founder Thomas Sidwell married teacher Frances Haldeman in 1887, he made her co-principal, and they shared the leadership of the school for the rest of their lives.

The Sidwell mission statement argues, “The Quaker belief that there is ‘that of God’ in each of us shapes everything we do at Sidwell Friends School.” Unlike many Quaker schools, Sidwell is not attached to a particular Friends meeting, but many of its trustees are Quakers and the emphasis on open-minded pursuit of excellence and understanding is enforced by weekly worship meetings. Community service is integrated into the school day.

The Obamas looked at a number of excellent Washington schools before deciding on Sidwell. From what we know of the family’s faith journey, it has not passed through a Quaker Meeting House — but it’s easy to imagine that the girls and their parents will feel right at home.

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4 Responses to “A School for the Obama Girls”

  1. When the Obamas chose Sidwell they found a place that lived up to its reputation of encouraging excellence in academics and understanding of the world while providing extra security for their children’s safety and well being.

  2. [...] A School for the Obama Girls From the start, Quaker schools aimed to instill the distinct values of the faith, particularly that the “inner light” inside each person can guide them to divine truth. The early Quakers had no creed to teach or sacrament to unite and … [...]

  3. [...] Sidwell Friends: Where the Obama Girls will spend the next 4 years. [...]

  4. DOVER, Del. — Citizens can comment this week on a proposal to include a Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad Byway in the state’s Scenic and Historic Highway Program. The Underground Railroad Coalition of Delaware

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