Religiously Dedicated, an Uncommon Approach

As I finish writing this article, the Republicans and Democrats are holding their national conventions. By the time this is published, a new president and Congress, as well as 12 new governors, will have been elected. Living through this political theater of promised easy solutions, demonizing the “other,” and demanding ideological purity over thoughtful engagement depresses me, when I allow it to, and reminds me of why Parker Palmer’s book Healing the Heart of Democracy is a must read for all of us — students and adults.

I am also affirmed in my belief that teaching the humanities remains central to our work in independent schools. Almost countercultural today, focusing on the humanities — examining what it means to be human, understanding our cultures, and learning to embrace what Jonathan Sacks calls the Dignity of Difference — provides our students with the tools to reclaim our public spaces, our public dialogue, and our businesses and corporations from the venal, shallow, amoral, and even criminal.

And yes, I am, at heart, an optimist.

While all the humanities have their place, I want to focus on the ways in which religious studies bring a particular focus to this work. At Westtown School (Pennsylvania), where I am the assistant head for faculty and program, we want our focus on Quakerism and religious studies to help create empathetic changemakers in all fields of study.

What Alumni Tell Us

Every year, we survey our young alumni about their preparation for college. From students who have just graduated to those who have been out of high school for eight years, we learn about the ways in which we have lived our mission and our promise to families to send students into the world ready for their lives. We also hear about areas in which we might do better.

In all the years we have conducted this survey, our young alumni have shared with us the profound impact our religious studies program and teaching Quaker Testimonies have had upon their lives. As one alumna wrote, “I have carried [the Quaker values] with me in many of my personal relationships and professional experiences.” Another alumnus said, “When I first went to Westtown, Quakerism was completely new to me and I had to adjust. I honestly can say that I never thought I would miss Meeting for Worship, but I do. More than this, I miss being around people who are thoughtful, aware, and have open hearts and minds. I feel that students at Westtown are able to have deep, honest conversations with each other because of the Quaker teachings.”

At Westtown, we have Jewish, Muslim, Catholic, mainline Protestant, Evangelical, Buddhist, Baha'i, atheist, agnostic, and Quaker students. And these are just from our local day-student population. Among our boarders are students from China, Germany, Turkey, Palestine, Taiwan, Korea, Brazil, Colombia, and elsewhere — all of them bringing with them their own religious beliefs and cultural practices. With intentional programming, we do the hard and oftentimes messy work to create what William Penn, in the 17th century, called his “Holy Experiment” — a place where people of all faiths could live and thrive together. This past year alone, the national dialogues sparked by the Black Lives Matter initiative caused painful discussions among our students. Jewish students spoke with us about their sense that the school was too pro-Palestinian in some classes. Our Palestinian students worried that we didn’t understand how they experience their lives as being under siege.

Being able to create a safe and respectful place for students to hear and begin to understand each other, but not necessarily agree, is supported by our focus on the humanities and our approach to teaching religion in age-appropriate ways. In the lower grades, appreciation for and understanding of other religions are woven into humanities and social studies courses. By high school, students take a series of formal religious studies courses.

Considering that Westtown is a Quaker school, you might expect that we do the Quaker Testimonies of Simplicity, Peace, Integrity, Community, Equality, and Stewardship well. What you might not expect is the transformation over the past decade of our upper school religion course offerings from soft explorations of the history of Quakerism, major stories in the Bible, and basic beliefs of major world religions into vigorous course requirements and high-demand elective offerings.

While most schools are opting for fewer religion courses and requirements, Westtown has more than doubled the requirements and instructional time.

Rethinking Religion Studies

Ten years ago, as Westtown started moving away from offering AP courses, each department was asked to develop advanced courses that honored our school mission and offered students challenging opportunities for deep learning within the discipline. Eric Mayer, then the religion department chair (now head of St. Stephen’s School in Rome), and fellow department member Kevin Eppler conducted a study of what our peer schools were doing in terms of formal religious studies. At the time, Westtown taught on a trimester calendar. We required our students to take three courses in religious studies (all minors meeting five out of ten days in a cycle), which, at the time, was on par with religious study requirements at many of our peer schools and more than most of our fellow Friends schools. Our course on the Bible nested with our Quakerism course over the trimesters. Our World Religions course occupied two of three trimesters taught typically in the junior year.

As part of the transition, we also surveyed current students about their views on our religion courses. Students complained the courses were soft and unrelated to their lives. They questioned the need for homework and the usefulness of Quaker history. Many of them wondered why they had to bother at all.

With the blessing of the school administration, the realized need to better serve our students, and the data from our peer schools, Mayer and Eppler worked within existing structures for a rethinking and expansion of the program. It was that third trimester on the heels of the World Religions course that provided us a unique opportunity that other schools with the most vibrant religion departments had as well: the opportunity (and requirement) for students to take religion electives. Eppler and Mayer saw opportunity to not only build upon the foundation established in our core classes but also to expand how students saw, understood, and learned about religion. They developed courses such as Liberation Theology, The Contemplative Experience, Mysticism, Environmental Justice, Nonviolence and Social Justice, Business and Society, and The Universe Story (now called Religion and Science).

One final shift has brought us to where we are now. Three years ago, the upper school program switched to semesters. As a result of the success and popularity of the electives, this schedule change created an opportunity for us to rethink our approach to additional courses such as World Religions, the Bible, and Quakerism. Now ninth-grade students take a yearlong weekly class in Quakerism focusing on the lived faith and testimonies. Over the course of their remaining three years, students take a class on the Bible, another on World Religions, and a third elective. These semester-long courses have the same contact time and academic weight of any other upper school course. No longer do students question the academic worth of these courses and more than a third of our students opt to take a second elective course.

The new electives aim to expose students to the ways in which religion is lived and experienced by individuals and groups, and to appreciate the ways in which it is alive in the world, how it shapes culture, politics, and social movements. Essentially, these elective courses ask students to consider how religion impacts them — their lives, spiritual identity, and worldview — regardless of their affiliation to a faith community or tradition or even their own attitude toward organized religion. For instance, the Religion and Science course appeals to our scientifically minded students. By exploring the interaction of religion and science throughout history, and the synthesis of these once bifurcated fields, the course offers students another perspective on the development of human consciousness.

Ultimately, the students are asked to develop their own worldviews that encompass both their spiritual and scientific experiences and knowledge. As one alumnus wrote about another of the electives, “Liberation Theology was amazing and changed my perspective of Christianity.” Another young alumnus noted that taking Environmental Justice, a course that examines current environmental issues through a moral and religious lens, “left me feeling empowered to engage with the problems of my generation.”

Our electives thoughtfully and intentionally combine academic engagement with self-reflection and introspection. They combine topics of ethics, current events, faith, and contemplation. In Business and Society, students consider what it means to conduct business and participate in our economy from a place of moral grounding. As one alumnus who has gone on to a career in finance wrote, “One of my most valuable experiences in upper school was taking Business and Society. I was given models and asked to consider how I would live my values in my career.” This combination allows these classes to have the rigor and feel of an advanced history or calculus course with the personal examination and demand for the self-awareness, ethical living, and empathy that is quintessential to a mission-driven Quaker education.

Our World Religions course has undergone as much transformation as any other course. In the early 2000s, it resembled a riff on Huston Smith’s The World’s Religions. Students learned the basic history and beliefs of Hinduism, Buddhism, and Islam. The texts, while rich and challenging intellectually, kept students at an observer’s distance from these faiths. Today, students approach these religions seeking empathy as well as knowledge. Along with close reading of sacred texts from the world’s major faiths, they read Karen Armstrong’s Mohammad: A Prophet for Our Time, Jonah Blank’s Arrow of the Blue-Skinned God: Retracing the Ramayana Through India, and Thich Nat Hanh’s Essential Writings.

As Brian Blackmore, one of the World Religions teachers, writes in his course syllabus, the United States is one of the most religiously diverse nations in the world. “Religion has been a driving force behind so much violence and prejudice as well as the prime motivator for so many compassionate social change movements. I believe that the study of religion is about examining what is most fundamental about the human heart and mind.” He tells his students to expect discomfort and disagreement, to not expect closure, and “to acknowledge and discuss those differences with kindness and respect.”

A recent graduate wrote of her experience in World Religions that “[it] inspired me to delve deeper into spirituality, and to pay particular attention to mental states. Taking a class on World Religions encouraged me to maintain my own religious tradition (Judaism), and to explore this via inquiries into other religious traditions.”

Ethical and Spiritual Engagement

As educators, we may no longer, nor should we, take as a starting place that a majority of our students come to us from families worshipping within the Judeo-Christian denominations, and yet one of our required courses, The Bible: Message and Meaning, has this assumption in its historical roots. This past year, we surveyed students who had taken the course; over two-thirds of the respondents reported that they were “becoming more self-reflective and have a better understanding of who [they] are, what [they] value and how [their] actions reflect [their] identity and principles.” Clearly, the current course is supporting our mission. However, just as many students report no prior experience with the Bible or regular connection with a Jewish or Christian faith community. To meet all of our students where they are, the upper school religion teachers have begun discussions about shifting the focus of the Bible course from a consideration of the sacred texts of the Hebrew Scriptures and New Testaments to approaching Judaism and Christianity as faith traditions to be introduced, explored, and experienced just as we do the other world faiths. The re-envisioned course will be grounded in scripture and reflect the cultural and social experiences of these influential religions, but the approach will mirror that of the World Religions course.

In all three divisions, attention to the lived religious expressions of being a Friends school provides students with regular models and opportunities to test their emerging ethical and spiritual beliefs beyond their classes. Several years ago, middle school students and faculty were frustrated with the “popularity contest” feel to student government. Working with interested students, the faculty explored other processes for selecting student leaders. Today, middle school students use a “Sense of the Meeting”1 process within a Meeting for Worship setting to discern as a community which students are best suited to provide the leadership they most need. In their student leadership meetings, the middle school student clerks (Quaker for leaders of a group) use a similar sense of the meeting process to make decisions about everything from service projects to themes for spirit weeks.

This past year, the upper school student government shifted from a traditional representative system to a Meeting for Worship for Business system. The student body presidents learned to lead a committee of the whole upper school through productive meetings. The student body has embraced this as a means of ensuring all students’ voices are heard. As one student said, while she has been a class officer in the past, this year was the first time she felt as if she truly had a voice in decisions that directly impact the student body. Another student appreciated the way that contentious issues such as dress code and ongoing concerns about white privilege could be aired in a respectful manner.

While the upper school discipline process has a long history of happening within a Meeting for Worship for Business manner and students have always had equal voice and numbers with faculty, in recent years the process has become even more focused on restorative justice as an active goal. Students understand this as growing out of the school’s religious principles. Students who sit on Discipline Council and those who come before it as well as students reading the council’s decisions learn to appreciate themselves as members of a community and what it means to live a life of integrity.

Year after year, an average of 22 percent of our young alumni report majoring in STEM areas. Another 10 percent are in business majors. From science and social studies topics covered to texts selected, students find themselves immersed in the types of questions, habits of mind, and approaches to seeking truth that are at the heart of the humanities. At Westtown, religious studies sit at the center of the humanities. Whether our students go on to major in social sciences, STEM fields, humanities, the arts, business, or pre-professional fields, we strive to ensure that Westtown’s religious studies program has afforded them the opportunity to develop and test their own ethical grounding and their empathetic approach to understanding other’s beliefs and worldviews.

Reflecting back on her eight years since her Westtown graduation, an alum wrote, “To be honest, I felt prepared. [These classes and] values are what make [me] a good citizen of the world.”


1. Sense of the meeting is not to be confused with consensus. “Since our method of transacting business presumes that in a given matter there is a way that is in harmony with God’s plan, our search is for that right way, and not simply for a way which is either a victory for some faction or an expedient compromise. In a meeting that is rightly ordered no one wins or loses, but Truth prevails.” Quote taken from “When Friends Attend to Business” by Thomas K. Brown.
Margaret Haviland

Margaret Haviland is the assistant head for faculty and program at Westtown School (Pennsylvania).

Kevin Eppler

Kevin Eppler teaches religion and is the assistant dean of faculty at Westtown.

Jennifer O'Brien

Jennifer O’Brien is chair of the religion department at Westtown.