The High Cost of Simplicty, Angry Quakers, and the Fallacy of Neutral Money

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The Friends Seminary at 222 East 16th Street in Manhattan

Every once in a while I turn on my adult brain and consider the future. This hypothetical future often involves wondering where I would send my kid to school if I decide to buy a kid from the kid store. Naturally, I’ve looked into Quaker schools as a way of circumventing criminally underfunded and scapegoated public “schools.” But then I saw the cost! Bummer.

The NY Times is reporting that a group of Quakers are making a fuss about the fact that the Friends Seminary in the Gramercy section of Manhattan costs nearly $33,000 a year. George Fox must be rolling in his barely-marked grave!

Apparently, there are a number of Quakers rolling as well. Concerned that the Friends Seminary has become a “rich kids school” promoting “unfriendliness,” some Quakers are calling for a separation between the Friends meeting and from the school itself.

Of course, there are apologists claiming that living the cushy life somehow corresponds with living the simple life. Irene McHenry, executive director of the Friends Council on Education erects the quintessential straw man argument to derail the debate stating that “simplicity is about how we live. It doesn’t say whether we can have indoor plumbing or not.” I suppose it doesn’t, but doesn’t it seem slightly disingenuous to promote simplicity and openness while at the same time making children’s education a privilege and not a right?

These days, spiritual understandings of “simple living” go to great lengths to evade discussions of finance, thus perpetuating an environment where “living simply” requires “spending amply.” It is this environment that makes buying local seasonal foods cost twice as much as buying foods from overseas.

But, this conundrum is part of a greater social condition.

One of the many scourges of contemporary North American spirituality, and especially of anything claiming to be “green,” is what I call the “cake and eat it too” syndrome. While a person could easily make the argument that having a Quaker school in Manhattan requires an inflated tuition, the obvious retort is rarely stated. If having a Quaker school in Manhattan compromises the tenets of your tradition, don’t have a Quaker school in Manhattan. No one is forcing you to have a Quaker school in Manhattan, the same way no one is forcing yoga studios to rent space in one of the most expensive cities in the world, and thus having to charge inordinate amounts of money to take an hour-long “flow” class.

But this is where the American materialist mindset runs rampant, inventing traditional ethics that were never there to begin with. So while, yes, being a Quaker (or yogi) does not mean you most forgo running water, it does mean that participating whole hog in a hyper-capitalist money-based economy, will, like it always does, compromise, if not radically alter, the very tradition you wish to promote.

And why would that be the case? Because money is not a neutral system. And why is money not a neutral system? Because money, as we use it, is entirely symbolic, and thus requires meaning to be placed on it in order to sustain its very existence. That is to say, if we didn’t believe money had worth, it wouldn’t! Unlike, say, a cash crop—an ear of corn, if you will—money necessitates a belief in its worth in order to make it have worth. An ear of corn has a direct correlation to your biology, thus not needing any more meaning than its use-value.

So, while it’d be very nice if money were simply a means to an end—a neutral system of exchange—it isn’t. Money-based economies are nothing like gift economies and certainly nothing like an economy based on mutual aid.

As it stands, the debate between the Friends meeting and the Friends Seminary is ongoing. Quakers, like any good anarchists might, require consensus coming to a “sense of the meeting,” a form of consensus, when making decisions, and can take some time. So far, despite many a moment of silence, a consensus has yet to be had.

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Read the follow-up “Money, Simplicity, and Embracing New Paradigms // Quaker Tuition Follow-up” here.

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For further reading into what a gift economy is and how it used to be practiced, check out the wiki page on the potlatch.

To read about how gift economies were actually outlawed by the State, read this section.

Nothing is neutral.

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11 replies

  1. Great article!

    It is a difficult thing to reconcile simplicity with affluence. No matter what compromise you come to, you both feel and look like a hypocrite.

    A market economy is about unequal rationing, exclusion and profit – which run in direct conflict with traditional Judeo-Christian values, especially Quaker ideals about ‘simplicity.’ I also believe this is the central neurosis of the Western mind – the cultural attempt to find a middle ground in this conflict when no middle ground is apparent. Certainly no point you can be at and be pure.

    Fransiscan Monks went to great extremes debating “did Jesus own his clothes or not and therefore should we?” We seem to be going through a secular version of the same. Perhaps we should trust our discernment and go that direction of the leaning, although it a scary path.

  2. Thanks, Bromo. While I hesitate to use the word “pure,” I completely agree with you. The neurosis of the Western mind to find balance between rampant commercialism and spirituality is the number one struggle. Trungpa nailed this in The Myth of Freedom and of course in his book Spiritual Materialism. For him, the making of idols of every facet of spirituality was the great challenge for the Western practitioner. Ongoing for sure.

  3. Among Friends, I think simplicity is the testimony that has suffered most under the pressures of modern, hyper-capitalist culture. It’s all too easy to aim the hypocrite finger at ourselves and our institutions on this one, but I don’t think it’s really fair a lot of the time. It is very difficult to truly live simply in this culture and there’s no path open that does not involve constant compromise, especially if you do not live alone and/or have children. And this difficulty does not have much to do with how much money you have.

    Anyway, I think the testimony that bears most on Friends’ Seminary’s problems is equality. Here, income really does make a difference. I know a lot of Friends who want to send their kids to a Quaker school but can’t afford it, and a few who do it anyway, at great sacrifice. Meanwhile, the schools themselves are doing their best to solve this problem, but the market doesn’t care. Their faculty are truly dedicated and seriously underpaid. Meetings that have responsibility for a Quaker school all struggle with the relationship; it’s hard. And we are not alone; Catholic schools are in crisis, as well. And, of course, public schools . . .

    Friends seem turn to hand-wringing and threshing sessions in situations like this the way Catholics cross themselves and kiss it up to God. This has a tendency to drift toward moralizing invocation of the testimonies, then sometimes even outright in-fighting. But I think we should remember how monstrous and ubiquitous Mammon is in this culture, how demonic the forces against right living are in the way they invade all our consciousnesses—and how hard most folks leading and working for our institutions are trying to do the right thing. They deserve our compassion and our love even more than they need the fruits of our erratic culture of eldership.

    Meanwhile, the larger problem calls for a revolution—a revelation, really. In one of his books, Alvin Toffler rates our institutions in terms of how fast they change, and education is at the bottom of the list. Our current system is little changed from that of a century ago or more, a few computers here and there notwithstanding. What would Quaker education look like if it was both available to anyone, effectively equipped its students to thrive in a hyper-capitalist society, and at the same time prepared them to lead us into a new, more just social order? We have no idea. Like everything else, this ultimately is a spiritual problem.

  4. Quakers may be good anarchists, but they do not require consensus when making a decision. The meeting will labor together to reach a “sense of the meeting”; perhaps that could be described as a sense of what Spirit is asking of us in our response or continuing care of the situation. For a better explanation see this article: http://about.quakerworship.org/quaker-business-method-and-organisation/the-sense-of-the-meeting/

    The misunderstanding of Quakers relying on consensus in decision making misrepresents the process of Quaker business and who we are as a people. Unfortunately, there are many Friends themselves who make this mistake of definition and practice.

  5. Thanks Bob. I am not a Friend from Manhattan, but I do have a son in Quaker school. I’ve appreciated your two posts on this issue. I’m still sitting with what I have read. Do you think there is any way to live in community in a way that takes away the power of money? It is just one the questions I am currently wrestling with.

    • Hi, Angela. Hard to say. Money is a symbolic system that we ultimately choose to participate in. I suppose if a group of people decided to work outside of the money economy it would be possible. It certainly works in short bursts (burning man, rainbow gatherings, etc.), but I bet it could work long term if enough people pushed hard for it. That would also depend on whether or not the State kept its talons out of it as well. Linked at the end of the original post is a link to the outlawing of Native gift economies, so probably not likely.

      It really depends on what people really really really want. Usually, working outside a money economy, while interesting and exciting as an idea for some people, is just not top on the list. Lots to consider, I suppose.

      B

  6. I actually attended Friends in the 70’s (graduated in 74). Even then there were very few Friends at the school and many kids came from wealthy families. The school made an effort to follow Quaker values – we had meetings to discuss issues potentially affecting students and consensus was reached. It is a shame that the school is drifting away from these core values that helped teach us, as young adults, that we had obligations to our society as a whole.
    Having been raised a Quaker (although I left the meeting) I have tried to instill these beliefs in my children. The fiscal bottom line cannot and should not be the only thing one considers in determining value.

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