A journalist asked me why I’m founding a private Friends school when I didn’t attend a private school. I offered two answers: 1) my parents couldn’t afford a private school for my sisters and me, and 2) in the 1950s, public high schools were generally excellent, the equivalent of many colleges today. The second point is no longer the case in our large urban systems, although exceptions exist in every city I visit, always the result of a few dedicated teachers.

Educators and parents have good reasons to question our education systems. Studies place the US at the low end of rankings among industrialized nations with declines across basic skills and general knowledge – reading comprehension, math, science, and history. In the UK and US, declines in reading comprehension correlate with shortened attention spans, the likely byproduct of time spent on social media and gaming. Concern is justified.

There’s more to education than grades and diplomas, of course – even more than getting into an elite university and securing a high-paying job. The young PFS student will discover interests and passions for a lifetime. We encourage connections to the outside world, to individuals and cultures unlike our own. We are a school community that respects the uniqueness of the individual while knowing the power of groups to learn together and to identify and solve problems. The truly centered, confident individual is the most likely to stand strong as a member of a group. Associations of individuals are net contributors to society.

Phoenix Friends School is a different option for families, one that may challenge students to stretch intellectually and to achieve more than they expect, while not losing the balance of mind, body, and spirit. The PFS environment will be social and communal by design, experiential in part with off-campus activities every week, an antidote to a great concern of today’s parents and educators, the isolation of students enthralled by social media and online experiences, at home and at school.

A recent article by Jonathan Haidt in The Atlantic: “Yes, Social Media Really Is Undermining Democracy,” examines the destructive influence of social media as a tool to separate, organize, and exploit groups of seemingly like-minded individuals. Since 2013, the enhanced powers of data collection and manipulation touch many aspects of our lives. For middle-schoolers, there may be direct harm, as isolation and self-absorption delay, even limit, intellectual and social maturity.

A board member at Phoenix Friends School reminded me that social scientists issued warnings about isolation well before the rise to dominance of social media. “Bowling Alone: America’s Declining Social Capital,” a 1995 essay by Robert D. Putnam (expanded and released as a book in 2000), pointed out signs of growing isolation and alienation, forces set to undermine our identity as communities and as a nation. At the time, “Bowling Alone” was a warning to a nation already losing its ability to form associations to solve local issues, one of our nation’s great achievements. Restoring this sense of community depends on individuals interested in people outside a small group of friends, individuals interested enough to care and to participate in something larger than themselves.

Have we reached a point of no return? Time will provide the answer. For Phoenix Friends School, understanding trends in society justifies the creation of a different model, one that starts with different assumptions about education for the individual student, for the school, and for the larger community of which we’re all a part.

Willard E. White, PhD, Founder
January 2023

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