A Fundamentalist Flop?

Bad news: You just failed English. What can you do? In several school districts, you can take an approved online class to make up the credit. Recently, Slate reporters examined these online classes to see if they were any good. Mostly, they weren’t. Lurking at the very bottom of the barrel were sad-sack online tutorials provided for homeschoolers by the fundamentalists at Pensacola Christian College. Has PCC’s rigid traditional philosophy has caught up to it? Or are they providing precisely what fundamentalists want?

Thanks to the ever-watchful curmudgucrat Peter Greene, we stumbled across an intriguing update to our study of fundamentalist curriculum. Slate worked with the Columbia School of Journalism’s Teacher Project to produce an eight-part expose of “online credit-recovery” programs. At most schools, students who fail a class can take one of these online modules in order to graduate. Like old-fashioned correspondence courses, these new programs hover in the depressing gray area between unfortunate necessity and outright scam. In some cases, students taking these courses don’t learn a thing, but their “success” can be used by school districts to inflate their graduation statistics.

The online catch-up courses sometimes fill a real need and serve students who don’t have a better option. In some cases, though, they are pure educational garbage. Francesca Berardi and Zoë Kirsch picked three programs that they called the “bottom of the class.” Your humble editor noticed an old fundamentalist friend on the shortlist: A Beka Academy.

Baker successful christian school

Taking the “fun” out of fundamentalism

SAGLRROILYBYGTH may recall our earlier work with A Beka. The publishing company has its roots at Pensacola Christian College. Back in the 1970s, Arlin and Beka Horton (A + Beka…get it?) complained that their alma mater Bob Jones University had gone soft. They warned Bob Jones III that leaders of BJU’s ed school such as Walter Fremont and Phil Smith had imported dangerous secular ideas into their teacher-training program.

What fundamentalist schools really needed, the Hortons insisted, was fundamentalist religion delivered in a traditional top-down way by authoritarian teachers. As one A Beka proponent explained back in the 1970s,

Above all, Christian schools must be steered completely clear of the philosophy that has progressively wrecked the public schools. Permissive discipline, for example, is wrapped up with teaching methods that always try to make learning into a game, a mere extension of play, the characteristic activity of the child.  Progressive educators overlooked the fact that always making learning fun is not the same as making learning interesting. . . Memorizing and drilling phonetic rules or multiplication tables are ‘no fun’ (though the skillful teacher can make them interesting).  They can have no place in a curriculum if the emotion of laughter must always be attached to each learning experience a la Sesame Street.

What should a good classroom look like? As A.A. “Buzz” Baker described, the classroom should be catechetical. Teachers give information. If students are to respond, they do so in an orderly and scripted way. Consider, for example, this A Beka-recommended “doctrinal drill” for classrooms:

Teacher’s Statement:

“Heaven is a real place, just as real as this room.  It is a wonderful, safe, happy home where God lives.  God wants everyone to come there and live with Him.  Anyone who has taken Jesus as his Savior will be able to go to heaven and live forever with God; but anyone who has not taken Jesus as his Savior cannot go to heaven, but must go to a terrible place of eternal punishment.”

Drill Questions:

  1. Will everybody get to go to heaven? No.

  2. Who gets to go to heaven? The people who trust in Jesus and who take Him as their Savior while they live here on earth.

  3. Does God want everybody to go to heaven? Yes.

  4. Why won’t everybody get to go to heaven? Because some people won’t take Jesus as their own Savior.

In the A Beka world—a world that is populated by plenty of homeschoolers and evangelical-school students—the perfect learning environment consists of a loving authoritarian teacher delivering theologically pure information efficiently to obedient students.

Success in A Beka’s goals doesn’t look so successful to outsiders, though. Berardi and Kirsch blast A Beka’s “trite” online credit-recovery courses as the very bottom of the very bottom of the barrel, “in a league of their own” for inadequacy. Here’s a sample of what they found:

One rambling four-minute excerpt from an 11th-grade English course, for instance, consists mostly of corny lectures from a teacher on the work of 17th-century poet Anne Bradstreet. “[She] calls her poetry a child,” the teacher says. “And just as a child can be unruly, just as a child may not quite always look just right … this morning as we’re eating breakfast, I look at the girls, and they’ve got Nutella all over their face,” she continues. Poetry, like children, can be “a little messy.” The instructor wraps up by questioning the students about the religious message of Bradstreet’s poetry. The students then take turns rising, accepting a microphone, and slowly reading their handwritten responses in flat tones—not exactly engaging pedagogy that’s likely to hold the interest of struggling learners.

In another sample, a 12th-grade class called “Document Processing,” students can learn typing while watching four videotaped teenagers, well, type. The teacher circulates between the teens on the video, reminding them to “add that space there” and providing other tips. By the time she asks the students to check their posture, the viewer himself may be so bored he’s slouching out of his chair.

Sounds pretty grim. To be fair, A Beka’s lame online courses are not the only terrible ones on the market. The Slate series poked several other holes in the shadowy world of online credit-recovery coursework.

But here are our questions for this morning: Is the pedagogical lameness part of the appeal? That is, do fundamentalist schools and homeschools think that such tame fare is part of A Beka’s continuing effort to instill Biblical discipline in classes? To root out secular giggles, “a la Sesame Street”? Or has A Beka just gotten lazy? Do the Pensacola publishers simply recognize that they have a captured market of fundamentalists, people who wouldn’t trust secular courses? Have the A Beka folks just relaxed too much, knowing that fundamentalist teachers and parents have no other options?

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2 Comments

  1. Interesting questions. I think dry rote learning is probably necessary for the successful transmission of fundamentalist beliefs. Witness, for example, Milton Gaither’s account of how teaching Christian homeschoolers debate helped to prompt what he calls “The Revolt of the Joshua Generation” (in the latest edition of Homeschooling: A History). I think fundamentalist belief only takes hold when it is held in such a way that it is impervious to rational critique. That makes it incompatible with contemporary mainstream ideas about good pedagogy.

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  2. Dan

     /  May 27, 2017

    The answer is Yes to all these questions. We should recognize this insipid, mind-numbingly boring and mean-spirited pedagogy as fundamentally violent and abusive in its intention. It aims to break down and rebuild minds the way all totalitarian closed societies do. I experienced it as a kid and recognized it later in prison and slavery narratives, stories of life in China during the cultural revolution, Salazar’s Portugal, or North Korea. The differences are mostly of degree; the essential qualities are all the same. Of course the people perpetrating these crimes believe they are doing it for our own good and saving the world as part of some cosmic struggle wherein they are the good guys.

    When I was starting school in the local public system (southeastern New York, ca.1977-81) my mother was subbing in it as well as a “Christian” school that was based on the Abeka program. I had to attend the dreaded (by me) fundamentalist school on snow days when my mom was working there and the public school was closed. It was a memorable experience — terrifying actually. A few sharp memories remain of the fear and authoritarian, arbitrary rule-driven and highly punitive environment void of any classroom fun or kindness. The teachers acted like prison guards. Students had limited access to the bathrooms. This led to one particularly embarrassing day when I must have been five or six. That school followed the Abeka pedagogy exactly, and most of the time students worked silently on their Abeeka workbooks in cubicle-like desks. There was a demerit system leading up to corporal punishment from the principal.

    While my parents were sold on being culture warriors for the religious right back then and quite antagonistic toward the public school and its “secularism” (Halloween celebrations, pagan Santa and satanic Frosty, etc.), my mother’s reservations about her fundamentalist church and school circles kept us out of this Abeka stuff, which she never thought was any good. (We had a few of their workbooks at home, and I remember them eventually being tossed out — along with her Elvis, Simon and Garfunkel, and John Denver records, that guilty pleasure of “secular music.”) We were on the bubble I suppose. My dad was into all the Gothard stuff, young earth creationism, and I was very aware how this was completely at odds with the mainstream culture and school system.

    The friends and neighbors who were into the Abeka stuff were also big fans of PCC, and some sent their kids there or even moved to Pensacola, which they described as almost a utopian community. My parents would (then and now) draw the line at BJU, I think. (They have little direct experience with it, but its stock went up with them over the years through friends associated with it.)

    When the time came for my brother and I to be sent to a private school (to avoid the pot epidemic in the local junior high) it was a comparatively mainstream, ACSI accredited K-8 institution that had a high degree of religious/non-religious pluralism. It, like others I’ve had experience with, still had fundamentalist elements and teachers closer to the Abeka mentality, but they were a minority. For that reason I had the impression it would be regarded as semi-secular and “slipping” into “progressive education” by the hardline fundies.

    My family also had a foot in both worlds. They overlap and clash with each other because there has never been more than a vague socioeconomic class boundary mediated by regional divisions that separates the fundamentalist from the evangelical. While my family shied away from the more authoritarian behaviors, were were still far closer to them than the mainstream middle class average. My parents were open to but shied away from the dispensationalism as well, but not so much the creationism, even in the young earth junk science forms, which have had a permanent hold on my dad. (Probably due to his conservative Lutheran upbringing and incomplete college education which was partly conducted at fundamentalist schools.) With a Wheaton BA and an MA in special education from a Catholic college in progress, my mother must have been regarded with some suspicion by friends and colleagues who were sold on the Abeka system and convinced it was the path of truth and sanity in a dark age nearing the “end times.” (She was also too assertive and intimidating to many fundamentalist men to avoid being labelled a feminist and worse at times.)

    My memory of those Abeka dispensationalist people is quite strong and unpleasant in many cases — stern authoritarians but also some happy separatists living off the grid on farms, mixing in with the hippy “back to the land” ethos of that era, which was one of nuclear apocalyptic fear and economic austerity. Absent a little more education, or given a little more income, we might have joined in with others we knew who completely separated from the social and educational mainstream.

    In retrospect, I think Jonny’s comment is apt — the Abeka world is where right wing Protestantism becomes quite openly a totalistic, authoritarian cult based on hazing and a generally punitive approach. It intends indoctrination, not education. It intends to assimilate people to an alternative nation and culture, an alternative consciousness in which the individual must conform to a uniform pattern set for all.

    The adults who most bought into this were abusive to students and their kids. One particularly unpleasant couple (who started the pot scare) never smiled, seemed to hate kids, and yet taught music and ran a CEF “good news club” to save children’s souls. They were miserable to be around and seemed to take no joy from “saving” kids. (Maybe after you see the same kids get “saved” multiple times it’s hard to not become a cynic who knows this is manipulative junk.)

    Some of these people I now know had been abused themselves, and some of the biggest fundamentalist churches in the area seemed to have a pattern of sex scandals with their pastors. Experiences of abuse and broken trust between adults and children were part of my parents’ history as well. The conservatism of abuse survivors is often one that says “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.” There is a strong social Darwinist and even a Nietzschean streak in their will to survive cultural assimilation, to tilt the world their way, and to impose it on others. Traumatized people traumatize others, abusers abuse. We integrate our experiences into stories of meaning that give us a sense of value and direction. A lot of people have very bad material to start with. Things like Abeka are going to make sense to some of them.

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