‘Leaving Fundamentalism’ guest post: Take a lesson from the kids

Christian parents: Love your children, treasure them and, by all means, teach them what you believe. But don't brainwash.

This post, written by Tyler Francke, was originally published by Jonny Scaramanga on his blog Leaving Fundamentalism, which is dedicated to examining the effects of fundamentalist culture, especially Accelerated Christian Education (ACE).

The piece details my wife’s experiences growing up at a small ACE school in Oregon.

It’s not typical (though probably far more common in Accelerated Christian Education schools) that your principal is also your church pastor, but such was the case at the small private school in Oregon that my wife attended from preschool through twelfth grade.

Based on her experience, I wouldn’t recommend it. Giving a single man (always a man at ACE schools, of course) such broad and absolute authority over impressionable children’s intellectual, spiritual and moral development just seems like an obviously bad idea.

She could tell you horror stories. One of the pastor/principal’s favorite exercises on Wednesday morning chapel services was to call the students up on stage and “separate the sheep from the goats.”

In the original parable that inspired this grim practice, Jesus spoke about how he would judge the nations at his second coming, separating those who lived righteously and gave to the needy from those who were wicked and ignored the poor and suffering.

In Pastor/Principal’s version, he would separate those whom he deemed to be the “good kids” from the bad ones, and my wife always ended up with the goats (those are the ones destined for the eternal fires, by the way, if you’re unfamiliar with the story).

Pastor/Principal made my wife — who was then and still is a woman of remarkably strong faith — terrified of heaven, telling her how — in his twisted version of Paradise — her clothes would be burned off and she’d be forced to stand naked before the masses and watch a projected slideshow of every sin she’d ever committed.

The Bible I read says that “there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus,” but Pastor/Principal must have missed that part. He was probably too busy gleefully studyingRevelation to be bothered with all that fruity talk of love and grace that comprises most of the New Testament.

During the frequent lectures he gave to the kids he considered the worst offenders, he was fond of gravely informing them that if they made it into God’s heavenly city, they’d have nothing but a cardboard box to live in and their skivvies to keep them warm — no mansion orwhite robe for them.

He’d wave a Bible in his victims’ faces during these little chats and repeatedly accuse them of not being a “true Christian.” My wife, who had to endure more of these lectures than she could count, eventually learned that the only way to stop the sermon quickly was to burst into tears. That signaled “victory” as far as Pastor/Principal was concerned.

I know my wife’s experiences are not completely unique, though she may be in the minority. I certainly hope monsters like Pastor/Principal are not in charge of schools all over the planet. But even minus the spiritual and emotional abuse she and her friends and family grew up with at the hands of that profoundly misguided man, the ACE education that they received was far from world-class.

Most of the material she and her classmates learned from was at least a decade old — usually older. And it wasn’t just that the PACEs used information that was obsolete; the very curriculum itself seemed to have been fundamentally inspired by a worldview that was musty and archaic.

She recalls “computer skills” classes that used worksheets so absurdly outdated that they were actually about typewriters. One of these lessons went so far as to caution students againstcomputers, saying that having such a device in your house is like “giving the devil a window into your home.”

The girls were forced to take home economics while the boys received an extra shot of Bible training (given the guy who was teaching them about scripture, I’d have much rather they learned sewing any day).

Biology and chemistry were taught primarily through shoddily made, grainy videos. She remembers watching the dissection of a worm that may just as well have been a straw or a bit of string for all she could see it.

Videos were used for just about everything. Struggling in math? Watch a video! Not exactly “targeted teaching,” but that’s ACE for you.

And boy did they ever have stuff to say about evolution. Everything — and I mean everything— disproved it. Nessie? Disproves evolution. Rotting carcass dragged up by a Japanese fishing vessel in the ’70s? Disproves evolution. Paluxy human/dinosaur tracks? Disproves evolution. The coelacanth? Yeah. I think you get the idea.

Suffice to say, she struggled mightily in the introductory science courses she took at a local community college after graduating from the private school. She later earned her BSN at a respected four-year institution, but this was in spite of her years in ACE, not because of them.

As a Christian myself, that fact alone is troubling. Christian education should not be virtually synonymous with “bad education.” Those who claim to both represent and be empowered by the God who made the universe should not be putting forth cheap knock-offs of secular material in his name.

But beyond that, and beyond even my wife’s experiences — which were dreadful — I oppose any “education” system that, when reviewed with even the barest level of scrutiny, more closely resembles an indoctrination system.

I can think of no greater contrast between Pastor/Principal — a man who would presume to take the place of Christ in separating the “sheep” and the “goats” — than Christ himself.

Jesus was no brainwasher of children. Don’t get me wrong: He had no shortage of teaching for the adults around him. He spent the bulk of his ministry training, correcting, rebuking, instructing and otherwise trying to reach wayward adults. But children? Nah. He just wanted to be with them.

In fact, Jesus told the grown-ups they could take a lesson from the kids. Yes, really. “If you want to go to heaven, you need to be more like these children,” he told his disciples.

Look, I understand the desire that devout religious folks have that their children would come to share in their faith. Honestly, as a soon-to-be father myself, I get it. But spoon-feeding kids warmed over doctrine doesn’t help anyone. A house stands strongest when it’s built on a solid foundation — preferably one that the homeowner laid himself.

And heck, if Jesus’ example counts for anything (and I certainly think it does), there is a lot more than we can learn from our children than they could ever learn from us.

Originally published on Leaving Fundamentalism.

  • Larry Bunce

    I have always felt that there is a special place in hell for grade school principals who use their authority to terrorize young teachers fresh out of college. A worse place would be reserved for those who terrorized their students. A strong personality will survive an abusive upbringing, but many will emerge either with feelings of guilt and helplessness, or becoming self-righteous and judgemental.

    I hadn’t heard of the A.C.E. group, so I looked it up on the Wikipedia. The aritcle slams it hard, but that may not bother the organization, because their unit on ‘computer skills’ teaches typing, with advice to stay away from computers, because they bring the devil right into your home. The Wiki article would seem to prove their case.
    As has been brought uo on this site many times, students brought up with only one viewpoint in a Christian school stand a greater chance of rejecting Christianity itself on learning of factual errors in some of their education.

    • I have always felt that there is a special place in hell for grade school principals who use their authority to terrorize young teachers fresh out of college. A worse place would be reserved for those who terrorized their students.

      How Dantesque of you. And what do you think the punishment would be in this circle of hell? 😉

      But seriously, I agree with you. This kind of stuff has always bothered me. It’s one thing to share your beliefs with your kids and teach them about what the Bible says and why you trust it. I have no problem with that; in fact, I plan to do it with my own children. But indoctrination and brainwashing, lying or misleading in order to support your beliefs, teaching kids to be afraid of questioning and anyone who is different from them — all of that is horrible. And, as you mention, it tends to produce atheists and extremists far more regularly than it produces kind-spirited, winsome, reasonable and faithful followers of Christ.

  • Preston Garrison

    It seems like to me that all primary education is unavoidably indoctrination. It’s tough to teach critical thinking even to college students. Elementary school kids are just not at the point where it’s possible. You just have to make sure the people who teach them are sane, decent, caring people who have a reasonable sense of proportion and that they cover the basics well. If you’ve never seen Dorothy Sayer’s essay called The Lost Tools of Learning, it’s worth looking for. You can find it on the net. She works off the viewpoint that kids at different ages are best suited to different kinds of learning, and a curriculum should take advantage of that.

    • That’s an interesting perspective, Preston. I can see that, that kids may not be capable of real critical thinking until they reach a certain age and maturity, but that’s where I think the ethics of teaching are more important than ever. I mean, this is exactly what makes the whole house of cards fall apart: “Educators” teaching kids untrue things about evolution, the age of the earth and other scientific matters, then when they grow up and are capable of critical thinking, they either realize they were lied to and reject their faith or spend the rest of their lives coping with cognitive dissonance.

    • Preston Garrison

      In all honesty, I should admit that I make these comments from that standpoint of all-knowingness about children that comes from not having had any myself (at age 62, that will probably remain true.) 🙂 The Sayers essay was originally pointed out to me by a friend who has a doctorate in education and raised 4 kids, none of whom are known criminals today, so I guess the authority is vicarious.

    • Society is unavoidable indoctrination. We live as we do because society tells us to. And that’s not a bad thing, until society starts telling us that it’s okay to leave your baby on a mountain because it can’t squeeze your finger hard enough.

  • Larry Bunce

    Good points, Preston and Tyler, and if parents want their children to be Christian with right-wing political views, sending them to ACE schools is their right. One of the criticisms of the ACE curriculum is that it relies heavilly on rote memorization. That is necessary for some subjects, and seems to be typical of most schooling throughout the world. It may lead to better test scores, but does nothing to teach children how to use their information. If students are taught that everything is cut-and-dried from the beginning, they aren’t likely to learn critical thinking later.
    I have read that one of the ways America leads the world in innovation is that oue educational system teaches methods of thinking over just facts. That may be because public schools have students from all backgrounds, so they learn about different ways of thinking from each other.
    My only exposure to parochial education is from friends who attended Catholic and Lutheran schools. They learned Christianity, but seemed to have gotten a balanced, mainstream education.

    • To be sure, I don’t think there’s any way to be down on all religious or private education. I’m not at all against a Christian school teaching its students about the Bible. What I don’t support is Christian schools teaching its students that their personal interpretation of the Bible is the only correct one, and that they are not real Christians unless they agree.