Quakerism at Westtown
...we went to meeting for worship to the fire circle. We walked far. We walked past the lake and then we made a turn and were there. We found a seat. The fire felt good against my back. I looked at everyone sitting around me. It was easy to listen to God.
Westtown 4th grader
Quakers do not proselytize.
They do not seek to convert others to the religion of Friends. So how can Quaker values really be at the core of Westtown’s educational program in a way that speaks to all students and teachers without at the same time violating their own faith traditions?
“Silence is the medium that crosses many spiritual lines. It respects the diversity of faiths in the school community…” Dorothy Flanagan
Opportunity for Reflection
Quaker Meeting for Worship is a deceptively simple experience. Community members enter the meeting house – a building with no religious symbols or decoration - in silence. As people settle into the meeting they discover an oasis away from the noise and motion of life. Sometimes a person gains insight from the shared silence and is moved to communicate it with the group by rising and speaking. It is through this silence, even because of it, that those of any faith can worship in this setting.
Affirmation of Individual Gifts
Quakers believe there is that of God within every person. This is demonstrated in Westtown classrooms as teachers look to nurture the best in each child, and children accept and respect one another. Because of the basic premise that the inner light exists in us all, not only are everyone’s contributions valued, but also expectations for class participation are high.
Westtown graduates come away with the sense that their education has been a shared endeavor among themselves, their peers and their teachers. In discussion-based, seminar-style classes, Westtown students encounter an open-mindedness about curriculum and teaching coupled with an emphasis on critical thinking skills.
A Quaker education strives to be socially responsible. Peace and war, racism and brotherhood, injustice and law, violence and nonviolence: these are basic issues Westtown students consider not only in the Meeting House but also in their classrooms. As part of a unit on Africa, sixth graders learn about the history of the slave trade—and about modern-day slavery. Upper School students have many opportunities to actually live within the culture of diversity Westtown promotes, by taking part in guided travel and cultural exchange programs in places such as Spain, Ghana, Peru and Nepal, as well as through the boarding program that brings together students from around the world. Ninth and 10th graders become agents of change when they design a social action plan in a class entitled Peace & Justice.
When asked about Westtown’s greatest strengths, young alumni often talk about the quality of the academic program and a profound sense of community. Being a responsible and active member of one’s community is fostered even from the youngest grades. First graders learn about all the different kinds of people it takes to run Westtown School as well as studying the rainforest and how to protect it. 7th grade students have Pre-K reading partners. The 5th grade “Million Dollar Math Project” challenges them to propose a service or business which would benefit society. Upper School students participate in the Work Program, working here on campus and Service Network, volunteering with local charities. Each of these aspects of the curriculum fosters a sense of responsibility toward – and belonging to – the school community and the global community. The boarding program sets Westtown apart as it challenges students to live, learn and work together within a richly diverse residential setting.
Young alumni who spoke about the school’s spiritual dimension mentioned the power of a social education alongside the high academic expectations, an emphasis on personal responsibility, the treatment of each student as a unique and important individual, and the development of a strong moral center and a sense of social justice. One young man told about his feeling of liberation when he came to Westtown that he was allowed—and encouraged—to be his authentic self. And one simply said this: “Quakerism taught me a lot about how to be a good person.”