Apple News appears on my smartphone each day bristling with topics designed to capture a minute or more of my time. I mostly ignore them, knowing there’s a trend to present the sensational, the quirky, and the extreme over balanced reporting.

Recently, an item on “Toxic Positivity” appeared, and I could not look away. Was some commentator ready to accuse me of being overly-positive in outlook and activities? I’ve long held a positive outlook anchored in a Quaker belief in the perfectibility of humans and society – a belief based on the “goodness inherent in all individuals.” The principle, often questioned, survived even through periods of persecution and physical attacks on many practicing Quakers from 1650 to our times.

In our times, I fully understand how extreme examples of “positivity” might mask a lack of compassion and cause harm by ignoring another person’s emotional pain, perhaps unintentionally, but with hurtful results, nonetheless.

What bearing does my reaction to “positivity” have on a proposed Friends School in Arizona? It has much to do with the reasons that motivate me to plan and support a new independent school in Arizona.

Educators today are beset by challenges in the classroom. Some experience attacks on the school’s curriculum, assigned readings, and school policies. Some face controversies around individual faculty and staff members, their private emails aired in public, and conversations and photos posted by students. At some school boards, public meetings descend into shouting matches. Many of these exchanges are negative on both sides, often voiced through personal attacks, both venomous and dehumanizing. We bemoan the loss of civility in public discourse while saying it’s an acceptable casualty given the weighty issues discussed.

As someone involved in education, I’m convinced there can be schools equipped to navigate the whirlpools of our current culture wars without ignoring or air-brushing the hard realities of European and American history and the lingering legacies of sexism, classism and racism. I say this without taking a position on what has become a political divide with two extremes – and with many divisions and points of view on each side. Instead, I point to the values and principles of the Quaker movement that are as relevant today as ever – and more urgently needed than ever.

What I believe:

  • Parents have a vested interest in their children’s education and a right to choose their schools – all families should have choices – based on mission, curriculum and the atmosphere for learning. Phoenix Friends School stands as an alternative to government-run schools for its commitment to values-based education and skills development in an open, inclusive, and non-threatening environment.
  • We believe in classroom learning, not teaching. The Socratic method – leading with questions for discussion that engage both students and teachers – is the school’s dominant mode of learning.
  • We believe in pluralism in education. We do not exclude competing interpretations of history, philosophy, literature, and science. Rather, we present, question and discuss them.
  • We believe opposing ideas show a healthy sign of curiosity and not a failing when students are intellectually capable of voicing and supporting a position unlike the majority opinion.
  • We believe most students have the capacity to listen respectively to ideas unlike their own and to accept these different points-of-view without emotional distress or harm.

I freely admit no school, no matter how grounded in articles of faith and personal values, can maintain perfect harmony every day. Conflicts arise, sometimes through unexamined bias, sometimes through an individual’s refusal to listen to a different opinion, a different voice. Our Quaker Decision-making Process is a first line of engagement, a tool for mediation, be it with students or parents or members of the larger community. This decision-making process also requires sympathetic listening, a skill modeled and practiced within the school community.

Quaker-led education reflects the values and practices of a peace-loving people who face challenges and angry voices calmly, always striving to participate in public life as our better selves. This is the positive vision for everyone, everywhere, and for all times.

Willard E. White, PhD
Founder, Phoenix Friends School