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What Independent Schools Can Learn from Shaker Celibacy

Often when people hear the remarkable story of the Shakers, they attribute the sect’s decline to their celibacy. Certainly that qualification couldn’t have helped their cause. Yet the Shakers were as celibate during their incredible growth in the 19th century as they were during their decline in the 20th. Something else must have been in play.

That something offers a good cautionary tale for schools as they chart the 21st century—adapting to the needs of the times. The Shakers offered women and people of color meaningful social equality that was almost unheard of elsewhere in the U.S., yet less so with the rise of the equal rights movements of the 20th century. Celibacy offered women of the 19th century freedom from the greatest health risk they faced: childbirth. As medicine advanced in the 20th century and the risks of childbirth declined, so did the draw of celibacy. As material conditions improved at turn of those two centuries, the communal property practices of the Shakers appeared less attractive because people stood more to lose than to gain from all property being public.

So how does this matter for schools?

Schools that rely on tuition must be sure to adapt to the changing times in ways that the Shakers either wouldn’t or couldn’t. They must take care to protect their areas of advantage over other educational options, the primary one being a free education. Outside of the hollowness of simple prestige, independent schools must offer real value to students and their families, value that meets the demands of the current day while anticipating, forecasting, and preparing for the future. Independent schools are not alone in this; such an imperative describes the business model of most nonprofit organizations. This is particularly true in the 21st century, when change seems to happen at an almost split-second pace when measured against the comparatively glacial rate the Shakers experienced in centuries past.

Darrow is fully focused on learning the lessons of the Shakers—adapting, learning, and changing to address the needs of the present and future. I would love to know who else is also learning that lesson. What organizations that you know of are the flag bearers for the future?