Money, Simplicity, and Embracing New Paradigms // Quaker Tuition Follow-up


My recent piece on the cost of tuition at the Friends Seminary in Manhattan has gotten enough play to warrant a response. So here goes….

So far, much of what I have read in response to “The High Cost of Simplicity, Angry Quakers, and the Fallacy of Neutral Money” has taken the Friends Seminary and its tuition as an inevitable, if unfortunate, result of living in a hyper-capitalist society. I take issue with this.

First, I’m not a Quaker, and thus am not here to debate the tenets of the Quaker tradition and how best to adhere to or make manifest the nuances of the faith, as inspiring as it is. What I am interested in, however, is the intersection of community-oriented spiritualities and capital. Not even capitalism, but the rub of commercialism and spirit and how apologists defend where the two merge. So for me this discussion is, like, sun on a Sunday—welcome.

Introducing a Punk Ethos
Playing in indie/punk bands all my life, I have come to understand (at least) one thing: When confronted with a situation whereby a person or group’s ethics will be seriously compromised, that is, altered beyond the scope of acceptability, I have found it best to find ways setting up alternative spaces so all can continue to play and work in a meaningful and inspiring way. In effect, create a temporary autonomous zone.

Now, what do I mean by that?

For example, if you’re a fifteen-year-old kid playing in a punk band and the local club won’t let you play there ’cause you’re considered “under age,” don’t waste your time petitioning the club. Create a new space! Ask your mom if you can have a punk show in her basement. That’s exactly what punks have been doing ever since punk was worth doing, and it is this act of creating alternative spaces that I believe to be the impetus for, dare I say, everything, worth your two cents. Think about it: alternative media sources, independent films, health food stores and CSA’s, the United States of America, every religion, all forms of governance and anti-governance, revelation, revolution, sliced bread—all came from an act of creating new spaces, whether mental, spiritual, or in the world. So why, may I ask, should education not be included in this list?

Perhaps too many people are focusing on the wrong thing. Doug Bennett of The Observatory states in his piece “Simplicity and/or Quaker Education” that “It is difficult to provide a quality education, Quaker or not, inexpensively,” to which I simply ask, is it? Or is it just difficult to provide quality inexpensive education in one of the most expensive neighborhoods in one of the most expensive cities in the world when low tuition may not be the highest priority? I wonder what the priority of the Manhattan Free School, the Brooklyn Free School, the Albany Free School was when they were founded? It seems like someone is finding a way. I KNOW Quakers can too.

However it’s hard to get there when the school in question itself is misunderstood. In his piece “An Ocean of Ink”, Rick Seifert describes the school as “tucked away in lower Manhattan,” which I can only assume means Rick has never been there himself? I mean, if taking up almost half a city block in both directions just around the corner from Union Square Park at 14th and Broadway is “tucked away,” than what would you call this abandoned peep show hidden in the basement of a Times Square T-shirt shop? Nonexistent?

Now, in a way I’m playing devil’s advocate, not to be a pain, but to press the point that what is not being discussed here is options. Steven Davidson of Through the Flaming Sword touches on what I’m talking about in his comment over at Pennmanship:

“The only other alternative is to completely reconfigure the services. Institutions will always fight to survive. So a radical new vision of how to educate or serve the members of a yearly meeting will almost surely come from some other place. Usually, it comes from those who suffer from lack of services and yet have the resources needed to wage a revolution.”

Precisely! The sentiment is of course not without Quaker precedent, ironically coming from none other than the founder of the community of Friends himself:

“George Fox was himself a young adult when he found that no institutions spoke to his condition. He was led to lead a revolution. He turned inward in his search, after looking outward to the institutions around him for what he sought.”

Longstanding institution are often difficult to see passed. I’ve come up against this myself. This is why I am asking that people look for options and when there don’t appear to be any, to look elsewhere. Challenge the tuittions by creating alternative spaces where the tuition is more to your liking. Break out that Crass record and get busy. And then, when I’m in your position, please, remind me of this post.

15 replies

  1. Nice article! By the way, it got republished at Energy Bulletin, which is the New York Times for the peak oil community. I’m a big fan of the Friends Meeting House east of Union Square Park and have organized many events there. May I suggest that Quakers and others should explore why the cost of education is likely to go up – and what is being done about that now to make more egalitarian, resilient and sustainable communities. Contact me at beyondoilnyc at, or beyondoilnyc dot org.


  2. It’s a good question, Dan. My guess is that if there is a real interest from within the community to make education available to everyone (at least) within the community itself, then we’ll see some shifts happening. Until then….

  3. Hi Bob: I love it! Thanks for sharing. I think you’re spot on. I’m a Quaker but I also come from a more punky DIY background and I’m always amazed at how much dead Quaker money gets thrown down the toilet for grand-sounding projects that never go anywhere.
    I publish, an unfunded, unofficial DIY project. At this point it’s one of the more widely read Quaker sites (we linked to your first post, which is the reasons Friends read and commented there). This month we’re doing a blog carnival on DIY Friends and your post fits right in. I tagged it so it should show up. If you wanted to write a followup on what you think DIY Friends might look like, I’d love to publish it or link it. This kind of “the club won’t let us in so we’ll play in our mom’s basement” ethos is exactly what I’m trying to explore. There’s a lot of semi-underground things bubbling up these days in Quakerland and I’d love to encourage more of. Thanks again.

  4. Hey, Martin. Glad you like the piece. I’ll be in touch. I was immediately drawn to when I stumbled on it some time back. Really looking forward to the blog carnival. So far, so good.

  5. “The only other alternative is to completely reconfigure the services. Institutions will always fight to survive. So a radical new vision of how to educate or serve the members of a yearly meeting will almost surely come from some other place. Usually, it comes from those who suffer from lack of services and yet have the resources needed to wage a revolution.”

    Yes. Love that. I have a vested interest in this conversation as my family is deeply involved in Olney Friends School, which just had a green summit in the fall to explore this very issue of reinvention. I know that, even though it’s a bargain by East Coast standards, having to pay tuition, even with generous scholarships, can be prohibitive. (But the school is so great for so many kids!!! I can’t overstate that. For some kids it doesn’t work, but most love it.) The school is exploring ways to generate income so that tuition can be low. I think we are all, in the middle class, going to need to look outside that proverbial box to find ways to do what we care about without, as they say, the Man. As a Quaker, the elitism of many Quaker schools concerns me and troubles me deeply, as it has for many years, but Olney is as close as the real thing as you will get. It IS the real thing. These things are worth preserving.

    I’d also like to comment that homeschooling is problematic for many people. People like me are not cut out for it, many families have to work to survive so that homeschooling too can become an elitist symbol of a (usually) stay-at-home or part-time employed wife, and most of my cohort, when I ask if they wish they been homeschooled, say no.

  6. I’ve hesitated to add my voice to this conversation. In part because I’ve written about it before, many times.

    I thought you might like to hear about Wellsprings Friends School out in Oregon. Their student body is almost entirely made up of people the public schools found too difficult to educate. They are bringing the best of what Friends schools have to offer and without the huge price. Just $7,000. That’s still a lot of money, but it’s not $35,000. And they’re not catering to the rich.

    As I’ve said before, Friends Seminary and others like them are giving the best education available to those who are already privileged. It’s like giving your best and most healthful food and resources to already well-fed fat babies and ignoring or occasionally feeding all the starving babies around you.

  7. Having been involved in an attempt to provide a Friends school for all it is difficult to explain what happens when people with good intentions seem to assume that services not geared to the rich probably are thought of as “missions” where volunteerism is the model. It is very difficult to operate under the following guidelines: 1) Low tuition to allow many to come; 2) High scholarships to allow anyone to come; 3) Fund raising is not needed. This may seem “high minded,” but persistent application and denial of the apparent contradiction led to ultimate collapse of the effort.
    It does take money to run a school and to provide for at least a living wage for employees. It is important to recognize that sacrifice either must be shared by a significant number of individuals or there be a source from some affluent source that is dependable. Wellsprings has a “reliable” source as a charter “public” school.

  8. I am attracted to the Quaker value of simplicity, but it’s not something I have seen much in practice. I myself live as simple life as I can, with an emphasis on continual downshifting. My ex, raised Quaker but adamantly not one currently, was asked to speak at Illinois Yearly Meeting, because he “walked the talk”. He was amazed at the people who wished they could live simply, but appeared to have too much money to do so. In my bible, it has a verse about it being easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than a rich man getting into heaven, but I don’t think that verse is in most Christian bibles.

    I homeschool as well, and disagree that it is only for the rich, or for the religious for that matter. It is for the creative, sure, but I live far below the poverty level. I realize if I worked more hours, and sent my kid to free daycare (aka school), I could have a lot more stuff. But that’s not what I’m interested in having. Then again, I grew up in extreme poverty, and that is what feels most natural to me. My brief affair with middle classness brought me exhaustion, depression, and an inability to experience joy. I don’t want to go through that again.

    When I first began downshifting, I asked myself what monetary commitments I could rid myself. We bought a small house, sold our car and learned to ride the bus, entertained ourselves (including cooking from scratch), borrowed books and cds and dvds from the library, and so on. We made a concerted effort to get out of debt. It made a huge difference.

    My approach to the simple life is to see what is the bare minimum I need to pay my bills, and I hold my nose and do it. Thankfully, with no debt or car, it’s not much. The rest of my time, I invest in the economy of the community, where abundance has replaced scarcity, and an abstraction like money is replaced with caring, sharing, and helping. I feel a lot better about my life, and if I, in extreme poverty, can do it, I think anyone can.

    ($35,000 a year for an “education” with the job market and American economy the way they are–it seems like selling yourself into slavery.)

  9. Homeschooling is an interesting counterpoint. We homeschool our oldest, now seven and part of that is a once/week “coop” that involves dozens of families. It’s hosted and run by a Orthodox Presbyterian church but apart from the space and oversight, it’s funded by the parents who volunteer their time to teach the various classes or do the administrative work to keep it humming. It’s very well organized and extremely affordable (about $75/semester for four once a week classes).
    Is it even necessary to mention that despite being located in a relatively Quaker region, there are no Quaker children enrolled at the coop (including my own, since my wife left Friends for Catholics and we’re raising them that way).
    Diane: just FYI, none of the families at the homeschool coop appear wealthy. They’re always passing clothes around and the little ones always have hand-me-downs. Having a parent at home or relying on part-time jobs means the family will usually be poorer in terms of gross domestic income but when you count the intangibles (no commuting, no childcare costs) I’m not sure it’s always so much less. Of course it’s probably a more possible in areas with lower housing costs.

    • Martin,

      I agree with you, and if you are cut out to homeschool, go for it. I just want to say, however, that I think it can be part of unconscious privilege, as it (usually) presupposes a two-parent family and one or one-and-a- half incomes being enough to scrape by. When I was an education reporter, I saw plenty of single mothers who could not homeschool because the family would have been homeless if the mother had not worked full time. Just saying. 🙂

  10. This is why I homeschooled.
    I raised 3 YA’s in an unschool environment, with an income under $15,000 and they all were excepted at Select colleges- shout out to Gilford for a great scholarship package-
    I’m happy to talk with anyone interested in simple lifestyle.
    Check out my blog

  11. We had started the beginnings of a “Virtual Friends School” on-line to provide support and a “clearinghouse” for “home schoolers” or those who wish to supplement other forms of education in a Friends manner. However, health issues and other issues have interrupted these efforts. Utilizing the “blogosphere” and media to develop Friends education would seem to be a legitmate purpose.

  12. When we were homeschooling – we reached out to the single moms and enfolded their families into our community so they could give their children the experience they wished for.
    I am here to tell you I ran a family of 5 in an affluent suburb on$15,000 and still took in many who needed temporary shelter.
    there may have been many things we did not have money for and we never postponed Love, friendship and sharing.
    Prayer is a big part of making this work and knowing the true source of supply.
    I believe in prayer a lot more than I do this economic system that has never
    fed, comforted or sheltered me.

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