A Quaker institution for the modern world

Pickering College defines itself through its values and the tradition that informs them.

by Glen Herbert

“It’s noisy and then it’s quiet,” says Peter Sturrup. “It just happens.” He’s speaking of the Morning Meeting at Pickering College, where he’s been head of school for more than two decades. Each day, students gather in the Meeting Room and sit in rows facing the centre. Then, as if on cue—this despite the fact that there isn’t any cue—they all stop talking and there’s silence. For anyone who hasn’t experienced it before, it’s as enchanting as it is mysterious: How do they all know to get quiet without anyone holding up a hand? Students and faculty then take turns standing to give announcements. Again, no hands, no pointing. Should two people stand at the same time, the one behind defers to the person further forward, nearer the centre of the room.

While most aspects of school life are what you’d expect of an independent school of this size and stature, the Morning Meeting at Pickering is, well, different. There's a welcome calm. In the structure of the room, as well as in the way people conduct themselves within it, the Morning Meeting is a very direct expression of the traditions that the school was founded with—then as West Lake Quaker Seminary—more than a century and a half ago. Pickering College, then as now, reflects its Quaker roots, if not necessarily in the ways you might initially expect.  

Reaching in

The term “Quaker” is actually derogatory, used first by a judge in England to demean the members of the group, a suggestion that they should quake at the word of God. The proper name is The Religious Society of Friends. Still, it says something about how they see themselves that they took what was essentially an insult and made it their own.

“If you go to a Quaker meeting,” says Sturrup, “typically they’re in old meeting houses which are single storey, very plain on the outside and very plain on the inside.” There’s no altar, no ornamentation, no distraction. There’s no minister, no rabbi, no leader. People—they refer to themselves as Friends—enter and sit in silence. If someone feels moved to speak, they stand, share, and sit back down, after which the silence resumes. “It’s awkward if you’re new to it," he admits. "But it’s actually quite profound. I find it very democratic.”

Indeed, the thing that defines Quaker society is precisely that core democratic concept: every person is of equal value and of equal worth, no matter where they come from, what they personally believe, or what their gender or socio-economic status may be. 

As in any religious community, there’s a spectrum of observance from orthodox to secular. However, Quakers tend more typically to be open to other religions, other ideas, and other orientations. Sturrup feels it's the job of the school to help students understand those core beliefs not from a religious standpoint, but to consider them in the broadest, most searching terms. "What is integrity? How do we know it when we see it, and how do we know it when we don’t see it? … What is consensus? Collaborative decision making? Peace? Community? ... At Pickering, because we are non-denominational, those ideals are translated into secular practices and foundations.”

Reaching out

For many, one of the touchstones of the Pickering experience is the opportunity to attend the Quaker Youth Leadership Conference, which annually gathers student leaders from more than two-dozen Quaker schools from across the US and Canada. At last year's conference, hosted in Washington, D.C., the theme was “Higher Ground Through Common Ground,” and centred on issues facing leadership and communication in a digital world. Topics of discussion included the  ethical demands that the digital commons places on us, the people who meet in that space. Further, attendees discussed how they could be stewards of that space, in a sense, serving as effective mediators, or “bridges of communication,” during divisive situations.  

Given the world we live in, those Quaker ideals—communication, conflict resolution, peace, listening to the ideas of others—are particularly of the moment. “Everybody had similar mindsets,” says Phillip Carson, who attended, including “being open and accepting to new ideas that others may have.” Now in Grade 11, Carson adds that “we all came to the conference for the same reason … everyone was excited to meet new people from across the country and Canada who shared the same values as themselves." There, as at school, he says it's “more about the values and traditions than anything else," including everything from small acts of kindness, to environmental stewardship, to living a full and meaningful life. 

It can admittedly risk sounding overly grand, if only because we live within a world that, at times, can easily tend toward the cynical. Of course, were you to visit right now, you would see that Pickering is a school, in most ways, just like any other. There are dramas and upsets, joys and misunderstandings. They rouse to disagreements, just as any students do, but then work to build the tools—understanding, collaboration, creative thinking, an honest empathy—that they need to resolve them. In all of that, the academic context—its history, its traditions, its core values—becomes the primary lens through which students see their world. The goal, as exemplified when they gather each morning, is to engage thoughtfully with others, to listen as much as speak. There and elsewhere, Pickering College continues the work that it, and the Quakers themselves, has always done: creating moments of quiet in what can be a very noisy world. 


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