Peter D. Jones. The Friends’ School, Hobart
Quaker attitudes to education have obviously evolved over time, so a quick look at how these have changed is a good start. Initially in England and Ireland, the first schools reflected the period they were set up in. For a start, Quakers could not attend university, whereas today the emphasis for most Friends’ schools is for students to go on to tertiary education, requiring adherence to the set curriculum. Many of the early schools were boarding schools so the issue of cost is not a new one.
Although there was a uniform, the emphasis was on “plain dress” and low cost in keeping with Quaker principles, posing a challenge to our expensive school uniforms today. The idea of uniform seems more to reflect the culture of a country nowadays, with the tradition predominating in schools where the British tradition of “school uniform” still rules, despite the cost involved not being exactly in line with the testimony on simplicity.
Corporal punishment went out by around 1850 in England but seems to have survived much later in Hobart, although there is endless debate on how to “chastise” errant students in a “Quakerly” fashion.
While non-Quaker students were sometimes accepted in the early Quaker schools in England, we have not really settled on what a “Friends’ School” stands for when over 95% of students come from a non-Quaker background. The Bible was central to early Friends’ schools and a religious atmosphere persists in some Friends’ schools, but in Hobart the current compromise is emphasis on what we call Gathering where the stress is on reflection and the need for silence in our noisy world. While some students may value and understand this, others probably have no idea why, although students coming from other faith-based schools are usually the ones who appreciate it most today.
Another issue facing early Friends was teacher training. There was a marked shortage of skilled Quaker teachers, while today the compromise is having highly skilled professional teachers but with no Quaker background. Some teachers with a strong Christian faith are privately horrified by some of our beliefs or non-beliefs (for example on the concept of Original Sin or the Doctrine of the Atonement) while others resent any reference to religion at all. As for the teaching of Religion, it simply remains an option in Years 10–12 plus a little bit here and there about Quakerism in the Junior school and Year 7. New students who come to Year 11–12, especially international students, rarely know anything about Quakerism.
The curriculum has obviously evolved since the 17th century, but while Friends did pioneer an emphasis on teaching science and natural history, are we today any different from other schools? Friends also pioneered the idea of co-education, but while some independent schools remain single sex, even some of them are merging, usually for economic reasons. Hang ups over teaching music seem to have evaporated and Art is no longer just “drawing” which it was in the early days when colour was avoided as out of keeping with “plainness.” Despite the current obesity epidemic, the early Quaker emphasis on keeping physically fit continues in our schools, and efforts are made to offer students more healthy food in the canteen when many prefer junk. No easy answers there either.
Where Quaker values do make us different is in the Statement of Purposes and Concerns, although how much of this rubs off on our students is hard to tell. The testimony on Equality manifests itself in use of first names but it is hard to make Service to others compulsory without negating the whole concept. The Peace Testimony certainly does not rub off on students seeking a military career after school, although the ADF are not invited to recruit as in other schools. On questioning why they sign up, students will invariably say that they want to learn to fly or get a free tertiary education.
Simplicity is the hardest testimony for teenagers in our consumer society, although there is more stress today on caring for the Environment, except when it comes to the attraction of having a car to drive to school in. Do we have a responsibility to suggest to parents that, if possible, they do not drive their offspring to school, especially when they are not Quakers anyway?
The emphasis on internationalism and learning foreign languages remains strong, despite the culture of litigation that has made school trips overseas either impossible or disgracefully expensive, but many of our students do maintain the Quaker tradition of travelling after they leave school, open to different cultures and new experiences.
As always, the questions remain, but Friends as Seekers never sought certainty, despite the endless polemic that this creates. As for the author, the contradictions of teaching as a Quaker in an expensive independent school never cease to keep him awake at night, but having all the answers laid out in canon law would be a far worse experience.