Quaker education has always been grounded in the most basic principles of the Religious Society of Friends. Each child has that of God within, and Friends’ education is centered in truth, practical learning, scientific inquiry, simplicity, and concern for civic society.
Quakers have a long history of questioning power and engaging in social action for human rights and peace. Today, many Quaker schools or Quaker affiliated institutions of higher education frame their learning environments with social or civic responsibilities and define community expectations through the lens of Friends’ values while still honoring the individual.
As the United States grew from colony to nation, the Quakers advocated for and delivered universal pubic education in Pennsylvania, built colleges, and created private Quaker secondary and elementary schools. The motto of the William Penn Charter School; “Good Instruction is Better than Riches” dates back to its founding in 1689 and still serves to describe Friends’ fundamental belief that knowledge outperforms wealth over time.
In the United States, Quakers were key to the founding of Haverford College (Pennsylvania), Guilford College (North Carolina,) Earlham College (Indiana), Swarthmore College (Pennsylvania), Johns Hopkins University (Maryland), Cornell University (New York), and the Wharton School of University of Pennsylvania (Pennsylvania).
Here are a few Quakers who have made significant differences as educators or founders:
Elise M. Boulding (1920 –2010) was a Norwegian-born sociologist, author, peace and women’s rights activist. She taught at the University of Colorado and Dartmouth and authored numerous books, including:
- The Underside of History: A View of Women through Time (1976);
- Children’s Rights and the Wheel of Life (1979);
- Building a Global Civic Culture: Education for an Interdependent World (1988); and
- Cultures of Peace: The Hidden Side of History (2000).
Boulding’s life spoke to the integration of peace research, education, and action. She built peace studies programs at the University of Colorado, Boulder, and Dartmouth College. A co-recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize in 1947, she was nominated for a second Nobel by the American Friends Service Committee in 1990.
Boulding and her husband, Kenneth Boulding, raised five children, and she credited her role as a parent with informing her work as a sociologist.
Ezra Cornell, (1807-1874) was an American businessman, politician, and philanthropist. He was born in a Quaker family in Westchester Landing, New York, and grew up to become a co-founder of Western Union and co-founder of Cornell University. He was disowned as a Friend for marrying Mary Ann Wood, a methodist, and therefore considered as ‘outside’ of the faith.
Ezra Cornell was said to be a man of few words who was rarely tactful. He was also a prolific letter writer and a natural mechanic; Cornell faced adversity after the Panic of 1837 when he lost his job as a mill manager for Beebe mills in Ithaca, NY. He was then just 25 years old and already married. Cornell bounced back by taking up the patented plow business, walking between the two geographic territories he had responsibility for (Maine and Georgia) to save money. The work with plows led him to a contract to bury telegraph wires, but that encountered difficulties, as the wires became damp, suffered poor conductivity, and degraded underground. His innovative solution, placing all telegraph wires above the ground, and insulating them with glass as they connected to supporting poles, was developed in partnership with Samuel B. Morse and led to the market domination of Western Union’s telegraph services. Ezra Cornell hired his sister, Phoebe, as his very first telegraph operator.
Cornell envisioned public prosperity and universal fairness for America. He funded the construction of a great public library in Ithaca and built and stocked a model farm, which became a center for the study of agriculture. He served as the president of the State Agricultural Society and a member of the New York State Legislature in the 1860s.
Cornell died in 1874. He was survived by his wife, Mary Anne Wood Cornell, and a son, Alonzo B. Cornell, later governor of New York.
Johns Hopkins (1795-1873) was an American entrepreneur, abolitionist, and philanthropist, born into a Quaker Tobacco farming family who emancipated the more than 100 enslaved persons on their Virginia acreage in 1807. The emancipation reduced the family’s means and capacity, and necessitated withdrawing Johns from school. At the age of 12, Johns went to work in the family’s tobacco fields, serving his family as a farmer for five years. The Encyclopedia Britannica says that Hopkins’ “awareness of his own educational limitations and of the needs of the newly freed Blacks would stay with him and influence him for the rest of his life.”
Noticing that Johns had a mind for trade and finance, his family arranged for him to work for a Quaker cousin in Baltimore at 17. Within three years, he’d become extremely successful in the cousin’s grocery business. He also fell in love with his 16-year-old first cousin, Elizabeth Hopkins, whom he never married due to a Quaker prohibition on marriage between first cousins. The two of them made a pact never marry another, and Johns supported his cousin for her lifetime, even building her a home and leaving her a legacy.
As Johns created wealth within the grocery business, he was not averse to taking payment in whiskey when store owners lacked cash for payment. He then sold the whiskey under the Hopkins brand name, earning him criticism from other Quakers. As his wealth accrued, he used it to support others and was known to provide generous, low-interest loans to business-owners who applied for credit. These very low rates of interest apparently undercut other bankers’ business (also generating complaints), but he continued the practice, notwithstanding his critics.
Hopkins invested in the wholesale grocery business and prospered. He made investments in real estate, river and steam transportation, and railroads, becoming the largest private individual stockholder in the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad. He then retired at the age of 52. In his will, he set up two corporations, one for a hospital and one for a university. He also funded an orphanage for children of color.
Johns Hopkins dedicated his life to building successful businesses and accumulating wealth, which he then enjoyed giving away. Strongly in favor of abolition, Hopkins related to the hardships faced by Blacks and directed his philanthropy accordingly.
Hopkins contracted and died of pneumonia in 1873, leaving $7,000,000 to be divided equally between two corporations (one a hospital, the other a University) set up six years earlier. This sum of money was equivalent to 1/944th of US GNP. As a result of his bequest, Johns Hopkins University was created in 1876 and Johns Hopkins Hospital in 1889.
This article is part of a series, and the next part will feature: Nitobe Inazo, Elizabeth Gray Vining, and Joseph Wharton.