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The Education of John Woolman

12th day, 6th month, and first of week. (1763) It being a rainy day we continued in our tent, and here I was led to think of the nature of the exercise which hath attended me. Love was the first motion, and then a concern arose to spend some time with the Indians, that I might feel and understand their life and the spirit they live in, if haply I might receive some instruction from them, or they be in any degree helped forward by my following the leadings of Truth among them. And as it pleased the Lord to make way for my going at a time when the troubles of war were increasing, and by reason of much wet weather travelling was more difficult than usual at that season, I looked upon it as a more favorable opportunity to season my mind and bring me into a near sympathy with them.

-- John Woolman, The Journal

So writes the 18th Century Quaker John Woolman on his way to meet with the Indians of Wyalusing in the north central part of Pennsylvania in the middle of what we now call the French and Indian War. It is difficult at this distance to comprehend what a journey of this kind must have been like in 1763. For much of the 20-day period of travel, there were no roads and no maps. Intermittent rumors of battles, of scalps being taken, and villages and forts being razed to the ground met Woolman along the way. His wife greets the news of his decision to go "with a good degree of resignation."

It wasn't his only trip, or his last. From his first two-week excursion from his home in southern New Jersey in 1743 at the age of 23, to his voyage to England and subsequent death in 1772, Woolman traveled, mostly on foot, the length and breadth of the American colonies. For much of this time, he was a one-man abolitionist movement (later to be joined by his fellow Quaker Anthony Benezet and other members of the Religious Society of Friends), reasoning, cajoling, and praying with Friends to free their slaves, not only because of the evil done to the enslaved - as clear as he was on that subject - but as much because of slavery's negative social and spiritual impacts upon the slaveowners themselves. Woolman would refuse to stay in homes where slaves where kept, or, where he had to, would pay the slaves for their services. By 1761, he gave up the wearing of dyed clothing, both because they represented what he would call a 'superfluity', and because the dyes were made from indigo, a product of slave labor. We can see him in his gray, undyed hat and gray coat and trousers, sitting in Meeting on Sunday (or "First Day", as Friends call it) among a sea of "Quaker Blue". Within 15 years the blue would be gone: by the time of the American Revolution, virtually all Quakers had freed their slaves, with most voluntarily providing what in today's parlance would be called "reparations".

What is startling to the modern reader about the reflections of Woolman's travels as found in his Journal, and especially one raised on "literature", are their interiority. There are no descriptions of place, no scenery, and little of people. There are no birds, no flowers, no trees (somewhat surprisingly, given that Woolman made part of his meager living as an orchardist.) There are no smells, and no colors (not even of the dye he decides to abjure). There is reference to taste, that of sugars, and his resolution to "decline to gratify" his palate with them because they are the product of slave labor in the West Indies. There are, however, many reflections upon the weather, as it has direct bearing on his ability to travel. Like his contemporary and publisher Benjamin Franklin, with whose Autobiography the Journal is often compared, what is important for Woolman is the record of his meditations as he goes forth on his temporal and spiritual excursions.

Woolman's Journal reveals a keen moral awareness of the issues behind the French and Indian War. He understands that those who have gone out to live upon the western frontier have often done so to escape the usurious rents set by wealthy landowners who have themselves forsaken "honest employment", only to settle on land they have not purchased, or to procure a living by selling rum to the natives. Perceiving that the Indians have engaged in hard travel and engendered much fatigue in hunting for skins and furs, he emphasizes that they often sell their wares low to acquire more rum, after which "they suffer for want of the necessaries of life", and "are angry with those who for the sake of gain took advantage of their weakness." Woolman notes that the extending of English settlements means that, for the Indians, "those wild beasts they chiefly depend on for their subsistence are not so plenty as they were," and, having been driven back by force, now have to pass over mountains, swamps, and barren deserts to bring their skins and furs to trade. And this in turn, leads him, as he is walking, to be "led into a close, laborious inquiry whether I, as an individual, kept clear from all things which tended to stir up or were connected with war, whether in this land or Africa, and my heart was deeply concerned in future I might be in all things keep steadily to the pure Truth..."

Woolman is not without physical fears, and as he travels in the face of perils, wonders whether he continues on as a matter of false pride:

In this grand distress I grew jealous of myself, lest the desire of reputation as a man firmly settled to persevere through dangers, or the fear of disgrace arising on my returning without performing the visits, might have some place in me.

He writes that he is not fearful of being killed by the Indians, for God in His mercy would care for him. But he does fear being taken captive for, he being of "tender constitution", they "might demand service of me beyond what I could well bear." As bereft as the Journal is of physical colors, textures, and tastes, and, it is worth adding, of humor, so is it a veritable panoply of psychological and spiritual shadows and shadings. Here, his palette is unstinting.

And yet, to what end this journey? Woolman is traveling, for him rather uniquely, with exquisitely little in the way of an agenda. There are no Quaker gatherings to frequent or to preach at, no widows to comfort, no slaveowners in need of convincement, no committee meetings to attend to compose epistles against the payment of war taxes, no plan of mediation between warring parties to negotiate or implement, no rare worldly commerce for him to enter upon. Here, there is neither the practicality of a Franklin (or, in his own way, of Woolman himself) nor a precursor of modern tourism. He goes, simply and straightforwardly, to meet with total strangers, of customs and language unknown to him, to understand their life and spirit, to receive instruction of them, and share of himself. Love being the first motion that animates his spirit, there is nothing of greater import - neither wife nor family, neither employment nor commitments to his religious community, not even his crusade against slavery - for him to attend to.

When he arrives, and now finding himself in the company of a Moravian evangelical missionary, Woolman presents a certificate to the Indians from his Friends Meeting regarding his good conduct and his concern. He indicates that he has no intention of preaching or converting, or holding any special sessions, but simply asks for permission to attend their meetings and to speak "when love engaged me thereto." At one of these meetings, feeling his "mind covered with the spirit of prayer", he asks the interpreters (who seem from what can we can tell to be somewhat bewildered and "none of them quite perfect in the English and Delaware tongue"), not to interpret, for he "believed that if I prayed right he (God) would hear me". At the rise of the meeting, one of the Indians, Papunehang by name, says of Woolman's message to one of the interpreters who has been silent the entire time, "I love to feel where words come from."

And that, essentially, is all. He returns to his home (and later wanderings), having "so often been confirmed in a belief that whatever the Lord might be pleased to allot for me would work for good, I was careful lest I should admit any degree of selfishness in being glad overmuch…" He has met "that of God" (in the language of Friends) in those who otherwise might be most alien to him, befriended them, and is enlarged as a result, "having laboured to improve by those trials in such a manner as my gracious Father and Protector intends for me."

* * * * *

It is good for thee to dwell deep that thou mayest feel and understand the spirits of people.

-- John Woolman, The Journal

Love is the first motion, as every mother of a newborn (and every father, if but at greater distance) knows. It is both a miracle and a mystery, this love. After all, up until now, the child-to-be has, for the most part, been a source of discomfort and, mostly recently, pain. If pregnancy was not a celebrated part of our cultural experience (and, sadly, less celebrated all the time), it would be difficult to perceive it as a gift, rather than a source of foreboding and, perhaps, woe. (And, until the last century, probably as often woe as occasion for thanksgiving.)

This lump of less-than-firm protoplasm of seemingly indistinct intelligence hardly seems a fitting object of our approbation. We speak of its appearance among us in pounds and ounces, inches and fractions, the time of the lying-in, the drugs necessary to facilitate its arrival, forcibly ejected or (ever-more commonly) violently yanked from its warm, dark, sheltered, comfortable solitude.

The newborn is nothing if not "otherness" personified. It is unbounded by language or tradition. It does not walk with us, converse with us, share our stories, sing our songs, laugh at our jokes. But somehow, somewhere, beyond the reach of the trappings of culture, we have learned, from a place beyond teaching, to see ourselves in this other, and by such seeing have been motioned to love. Culture has bent itself to this celebration, too, in as many ways as cultures have engaged to express themselves. For it is in embracing this otherness, by drawing it into ourselves (even, in this case, having first physically expelled it), that we grow.

Every friend and every enemy was a newborn once, and a child. Every president and maharajah, every singer and seer, every poet and painter, every holy man, secretary, soldier, and garbage man, every prostitute and drug addict, con artist and saint, voyager and cripple, millionaire and salesman, hunter, patriarch, pimp, architect, and pea farmer, every fisherman and nurse, pirate and foundling, insurance broker and snake charmer, ax murderer and prince is part of this never-ending round of birth and birthing.

They are all part of our circle. This is not always a comfortable truth, or a comforting one. Some we would perhaps desire to banish from recognition as part of our species.

But banishment is not an option. For in our own little ways, in ways which we may not be willing to admit to ourselves except in the middle of sleepless nights or in the circle of dreams, we partake of all of them. They are part of who we are as human beings, and we are drawn to them, as much as we might think at times that we would prefer otherwise, like iron filings to magnet. And by them, even in our rejection of them, we are enlarged, or at the very least changed.

We are all Indians to each other.

* * * * *

I love to feel where words come from.

Long before the words make any sense to the infant (or so we believe), she is drawn to them. They entertain relationship, first to the mother, then perhaps to a father and siblings, or a great aunt. There is sense before sensibility, or upon which the latter depends, the sense-idea that others are knowable, and help form the ground upon which we come to know ourselves.

There likely is no self to speak of, no less to think on, without there being others, just as it is unlikely that there can be such a thing as thought that cannot be spoken. Nature has built nurture into the core of our very beings. The nurturing place where words come from is nature herself (and one can capitalize Nature if one so chooses.) For whatever purpose upon the earth we are created, we are not amoebae who can simply subdivide, and then go our separate ways. It just doesn't work that way.

And so even before our children know what the words mean (or so we believe), they know they come from a place, loci of safety and security, or of anger or hazard, some as welcoming, others (and hopefully there are few) of danger.

From here they go out to meet the world, to take it in, make sensibility of sense, build a more complete picture, give it form and language, furnish their own mental and physical world, and inhabit it as themselves. This process is what we grace with the word learning.

* * * * *

Five years before his visit with the Indians, John Woolman wrote an essay related to education, understood in its narrower sense of the term. It was first published in 1758 as part of a series of four essays: "Considerations on Pure Wisdom, and Human Policy; on Labor; on Schools; and on The Right Use of the Lord's Outward Gifts". It was last published in 1922 (though it is now published here for the first time in more than 80 years, at the end of this essay). Given the holistic, all-encompassing frame of Woolman's mind, schools are inseparable from these other objects of his concern. To think clearly about education, one must view it in the context of wisdom, human policy, labor, and how we best go about ordering our use of resources-both natural and human-and our consciousness as well.

"On Schools" is only six paragraphs long, and within a span of just over 900 words, and in the quaint but trenchant language of 18th Century Quakerism, Woolman provides both a framework for a critique of the next 250 years in the development of American education, and an entire basis for an alternative to it. Indeed, as a labor to unfold its wisdom, it is difficult to forego the temptation to quote it in full!

Woolman begins, "To encourage children to do things with a view to get praise of men appears an obstruction to their being inwardly acquainted with the spirit of truth." Woolman accepts the possibility that in encouraging the love of praise, children may sometimes learn things faster than they otherwise would, but to do so is to neglect the very purposes of education:

That Divine light which enlightens all men, does, I believe, often shine in the minds of children very early; and humbly to wait for wisdom that our conduct towards them may tend to forward their acquaintance with it, and strengthen them in obedience thereto, appears to me to be a duty on us all.

The danger is not that children will not learn, but that depending upon praise may set a life pattern that obstructs a commitment to what really matters.

Teachers are Woolman's next object of concern. The standard for teachers has to be higher than for the average citizen, with frame of mind rightly prepared so as to not ensnare a child, not only by their conduct but by their methods of teaching, in "the wisdom of the world":

It is a lovely sight to behold innocent children; and when they are sent to schools where their tender minds are in imminent danger of being led astray by tutors, who do not live a self-denying life, or by the conversation of such children as do not live in innocence, it is a case much to be lamented.

Sometimes, of course, it is not the fault of the teacher per se, but simply that he

hath charge of too many, and his thoughts and time are so much employed in the outward affairs of his school, that he does not so weightily attend to the spirits and conduct of each individual, as to be enabled to administer rightly to all in due season; through such omission, he not only suffers as to the state of his own mind, but the minds of his children are in danger of suffering also.

For when too great a number are committed to a single teacher, "and he, through much cumber, omits a careful attention to the minds of his scholars, there is danger of disorders increasing among them, until they grow too strong to be easily remedied." For regardless of how "education" is conducted, unless one believes in something like a "hundredth monkey" theory - whereby the consciousness of many directly forms the consciousness of the individual -- learning happens one child at a time. Woolman's remedy is a simple one, that more time be spent by parents, and by tutors in school "in weightily attending to the spirits and inclination of children." For this is our responsibility:

To watch the spirits of children, to nurture them in gospel love, and labor to help them against that which would mar the beauty of their minds, is a debt we owe them; and a faithful performance of our duty not only tends to their lasting benefit, and to our own peace, but also renders their company agreeable to us.

* * * * *

In learning, we meet up with and remake ourselves. We take in from the outside, we reorganize, we test for coherence, for consistency, for agreement with that which we think we already know, and create anew. Every time we learn something new our entire brain-mind is reorganized, fresh connections established, and others fall by the wayside. Physicians make use of this fact in the rehabilitation of stroke victims. This in-built capacity for cortical reorganization makes it possible to take advantage of functional and structural neuronal plasticity. This plasticity is greatest, of course, among children. The great truth here is that habits of mind are both physiological and psychological facts.

And that's why such care must be taken in the education of children. Often, it is the context of education, rather than its content, which makes up the bulk of learning, and through which habits of mind sink into our unconscious. Children are resilient - they are made that way - but they are not invulnerable. Once you accept as true that it is possible to beat a child into learning her times tables but that then she is likely to associate math with pain and humiliation for the remainder of her life, the rest is simply a matter of degree. Make children understand through experience that learning is associated with boredom on the one hand or embarrassment on the other and you "have marred the beauty of their minds." Teach a child that learning is bound up with relentless interrogation and regurgitation on demand, and her untended powers of discovery will atrophy. Teach the musical child that singing happens only on alternate Thursdays when the music teacher makes her appearance, and she will learn to devalue what could be her greatest gift. Teach the physically active child that learning only takes place when he remains in his little chair behind the little desk, and that pharmacological agents are the only way to help him do so, and he will believe that he is sick, and was born that way. Label a "late reader" a "slow learner", and you have blighted her joyous and unsettling journey into competence and self-understanding. Praise children unstintingly and only for right answers, and, in search of further praise, they are less likely to make use of their capacities of inquisitiveness. Tell a child repeatedly that "now is not a good time for questions", and eventually he will have fewer of them. Once you have either praised or beaten, bullied or manipulated, bribed or humiliated, goldstarred or drugged or just plain ignored a child into habits of unthinking compliance or unmindful submission, it is that much more difficult for her to grow out of them, to find and make use of 'more favorable opportunities to season her mind'.

Our children are going off to meet the Indians - and everyone and everything else. They will pass over mountains, swamps, and barren deserts, occasionally picking up a handful of pebbles and stuffing them into their pockets, sometimes just staring upwards at the boundless expanse of stars and sky. Everything they need for this journey was given to them upon creation, and to us to outfit them properly.

Trust in your love for your children, even as (if you are of a religious frame of mind) you trust in the love of the Great Creator for you. If you are not of a religious persuasion, trust in your love for your children as an evolutionary truth, a love which is the impetus for the future progress of the species. And if neither of these views speaks to your condition, trust in your love for your children because, even with the seeming burden of an entire culture - Woolman's "wisdom of the world -- weighing upon you, you simply know in your heart that it is right.

Dwell deep that thou mayest feel and understand the spirits of children.

And, while you're at it, please give them a big hug for me.

* * * * *

The best modern in-print edition of Woolman's works is The Journal and Major Essays of John Woolman, edited by Phillips P. Moulton (Richmond, IN: Friends United Press, 1989). I have given away more copies than I care to remember. Unfortunately, some of the best, most dynamic instances of Woolman's writing are contained in essays not found here, including "Considerations on Pure Wisdom, and Human Policy." For these, one must seek out the 1922 edition of Woolman's works, edited by Amelia Mott Gummere.

For a contemporary explication of Woolman's faith and practice, with suggestions of how it might be applied in the modern world, I heartily recommend A Near Sympathy: The Timeless Wisdom of John Woolman by Earlham College Professor of Religion Michael Birkel (Richmond, IN: Friends United Press, 2003).

Now that I have mentioned Earlham College, for homeschooling families seeking to provide their teenagers with a pre-taste of the college experience, I want to put in a plug for Earlham's Explore-A-College. It takes place for two weeks every summer, and I know many homeschooled kids, both Friends and not, who come back with glowing reports. It draws on a national and even international student base. Students get to live in the dorms, and to live and build community with each other, study with very fine faculty, and participate in activities both athletic and artistic. There is also significant financial aid for families in need of it. Check it out at http://www.earlham.edu/~eac.

Finally, for those with children ages 10-18 seeking a non-competitive summer music experience, I can give no higher recommendation than to Friends Music Camp in Barnesville, Ohio. Open to Friends and non-Friends alike, only a year of prior musical experience is required, and I find it hard to imagine that a child will find a more supportive music adventure, one run in the spirit of a Quaker community.


On Schools

by John Woolman

(First published in 1758 by Philadelphia Yearly Meeting, Religious Society of Friends, as part of a series titled "Considerations on Pure Wisdom, and Human Policy; on Labor; on Schools; and on The Right Use of the Lord's Outward Gifts")

"Suffer the little children to come unto me, and forbid them not, for of such is the kingdom of God."

- Mark X. 14

To encourage children to do things with a view to get praise of men appears an obstruction to their being inwardly acquainted with the spirit of truth. For it is the work of the Holy Spirit to direct the mind to God; that in all our proceeding we may have a single eye to Him; may give alms in secret; fast in secret; and labor to keep clear of that disposition reproved by our Savior, "But all their works they do for to be seen of men." - Matthew XXIII. 5.

That Divine light which enlightens all men, does, I believe, often shine in the minds of children very early; and humbly to wait for wisdom that our conduct towards them may tend to forward their acquaintance with it, and strengthen them in obedience thereto, appears to me to be a duty on us all. By cherishing in them the spirit of pride, and the love of praise, I believe they may sometimes improve faster in learn than they otherwise would; but to take measures to forward children in learning, which naturally tend to divert their minds from true humility, appears to me to savor of the wisdom of this world. If tutors are not acquainted with sanctification of spirit, nor experienced in an humble waiting for the leadings of truth, but follow the maxims of the wisdom of this world, such children as are under their tuition, appear to me to be in danger of imbibing thoughts and habits the reverse of that meekness and lowliness of heart, which is necessary for all the true followers of Christ.

Children at an age fit for schools, are at a time of life which requires the patient attention of pious people; and if we commit them to the tuition of those, whose minds we believe are not rightly prepared to "train them up in the nurture and admonition of the Lord," we are in danger of not acting the part of faithful parents toward them. Our heavenly Father doth not require us to do evil that good may come of it; and it is needful that we deeply examine ourselves, lest we get entangled in the wisdom of this world, and through wrong apprehensions, take such methods of our children. It is a lovely sight to behold innocent children; and when they are sent to schools where their tender minds are in imminent danger of being led astray by tutors, who do not live a self-denying life, or by the conversation of such children as do not live in innocence, it is a case much to be lamented.

While a pious tutor hath the charge of no more children than he can take due care of, and keeps his authority in the truth, the good spirit in which he leads and governs, works on the minds of such as are not hardened; and his labors not only tend to bring them forward and outward learning, but to open their understandings with respect of the true Christian life; but when a person hath charge of too many, and his thoughts and time are so much employed in the outward affairs of his school, that he does not so weightily attend to the spirits and conduct of each individual, as to be enabled to administer rightly to all in due season; through such omission, he not only suffers as to the state of his own mind, but the minds of his children are in danger of suffering also.

To watch the spirits of children, to nurture them in gospel love, and labor to help them against that which would mar the beauty of their minds, is a debt we owe them; and a faithful performance of our duty not only tends to their lasting benefit, and to our own peace, but also renders their company agreeable to us. Instruction thus administered, reaches the pure witness in the minds of such children as are not hardened, and begets love in them towards those who thus lead them on; but where too great a number are committed to one tutor, and he, through much cumber, omits a careful attention to the minds of his scholars, there is danger of disorders gradually increasing among them, until they grow too strong to be easily remedied. A care hath lived on my mind, that more time might be employed by parents at home, and by tutors at school, in weightily attending to the spirit and inclinations of children, and that we may so lead, instruct, and govern them, in this tender part of life, that nothing may be omitted which it is in our power, to help them on their way to becoming the children of our Father who is in heaven.

Meditating on the situation of schools in our provinces, my mind hath at times been affected with sorrow; and under this exercise, it hath appeared to me, that if those who have large estates were faithful stewards, and laid no rent, nor interest, nor other demand, higher than is consistent with universal love; and if those in lower circumstances would under a moderate employ, shun unnecessary expense, even to the smallest article; and all unite humbly seeking to the Lord, He would graciously instruct, and strengthen us to relieve the youth from various snares in which many of them are entangled.