What Goes on in Fundamentalist Schools?

When does bad school cross the line into child abuse? The depressing answer is that it depends on who’s asking. Jonathan Kozol famously decried the racist and abusive practices in America’s urban public schools. Now Rebecca Klein is warning that tax-funded evangelical schools are doing more than just bad teaching. Are these schools using your tax dollars to abuse children?

Klein’s article focuses on the stories of fundamentalist school survivors such as Ashley Bishop. Bishop tells a story that has become depressingly familiar to SAGLRROILYBYGTH. Like some of the voices on this blog, Bishop’s experience in conservative evangelical schools was beyond terrible. Her schooling left her deeply conflicted and depressed. It took her years to become comfortable with herself and with her sexual identity.

My heart breaks for Ashley and all the other young people traumatized by hostile school environments. We tend to hear about brave survivors like Ashley, but we must remember that there must also be many more students who never escape, who make their lives entirely within a community in which they feel isolated and unworthy. The more attention such students can receive from journalists like Klein, the better.

Klein looks at the number of schools that use fundamentalist textbooks and concludes grimly,

there are thousands of kids receiving an extremist and ultraconservative education at the expense of taxpayers.

For full disclosure, I should point out that I spoke with Klein as she put this article together and she refers to my research. I must also point out that there are a few important points that she leaves out.

Ace hokey

This is terrible stuff. But is it abusive?

First of all, education scholars and historians know that we can’t simply equate textbooks with school curriculum. We certainly can’t look only at textbooks and think we know what kind of learning goes on.

Second, though Klein states that A Beka, Bob Jones, and ACE all share “largely similar educational philosophies,” that’s simply not the case. As I discovered a few years back, there are actually vast differences between the A Beka, ACE, and BJU approaches. A Beka insists on a rigid, traditionalist, teacher-driven classroom. BJU wants the opposite.

It’s also important to note that these textbooks are not static. In a recent book about education and ignorance, I argued that the treatment of history in A Beka and BJU textbooks has changed dramatically in the past thirty years. In some ways, the textbooks have become more like mainstream offerings. In others, they have become very different. In general, both BJU and A Beka have increased their emphases on the distinctive religious elements of their historical vision. A Beka history books, for example, explain in more recent editions that Native American populations originated from the downfall of the Tower of Babel.

a beka babel big

Textbook apocalypse.

Finally, and most important, we need to remember that abusive schools are not bad only if they use tax dollars. The state has a responsibility to protect all children in any school or homeschool. Even if a school is entirely privately funded, it has no right to enact policies that aren’t in children’s best interests.

In some cases—such as physical abuse or neglect, or sexual predation—that line is fairly easy to discern. When it comes to religious ideas, though, it becomes enormously difficult. Is it abusive to teach children that homosexuality is a sin? Is it abusive to teach children that mainstream science is a cauldron of lies?

If it is, then the state has the right and duty to intervene. It doesn’t matter whether or not the schools receive tax dollars in the form of vouchers. If it isn’t, though, then religious families and schools must be allowed freedom to have schools that we wouldn’t want our children to attend.

Leave a comment


  1. Religious schools shouldn’t be tax-supported even indirectly regardless of what they teach.

    Adam, is there some existing legal basis for your view that abuse necessitates state intervention? How do you define “abusive?” Do you think there are ideas that are abusive to teach? Is it the ideas or their conflict with accepted norms and values that are enshrined in the law? If religious institutions are allowed to be exempt from recognizing certain marital and reproductive rights and freedoms as well as accepted facts in the sciences, how can they be told not to teach their communities the science and law everywhere else around them his wrong? Then, regardless of who is right or what is actually true, doesn’t this variance between what a school authority teaches (which is probably reinforced by church and family) force there to be a conflict in every psyche affected by this enculturation when it comes into contact with the outside world and those inside who do not appear to fit or conform? Is this potentially abusive? Or seditious? In whose interested is it within a liberal democracy to preserve and nurture the liberties of anti-liberal anti-democrats who radically reject cultural pluralism?

    There’s no doubt in my mind that many Christians school and home school cultures are a threat to themselves and others for a variety of reasons which are not reducible to “ideas” and educational “content.” For example the spate of historical, reprinted novels and contemporary Christian young adult fiction clones set on plantations in the old South where young girls are arranged to marry much older men — can you call that “abusive” when you break it down to discrete elements, like a particular book? Ban this book / don’t ban this book? The problem is we see a patriarchal, misogynistic rape culture being created that propagates a highly amelioratory myth about slavery where others see themselves diligently restoring a biblical and traditionally Christian culture.

    You may not appreciate the extent to which there is an often highly theorized and planned enculturation process that may or may not spell out things like “this government is illegitimate” or “this leader is God’s anointed” and “these people are evil and will soon be destroyed.” But sometimes individual teachers and books on the shelf do this, and other influencers in the family or community do. Racist and anti-gay views are often quite explicit but also pervasive, which actually helps make them more deniable. They’re seemingly everywhere but nowhere because it’s not one person or book or curriculum. It’s the air everyone breathes. There’s coded language and a diffusion of ideas that add up to a variant of white nationalism. There’s a neo-medieval, literalistic biblical view of reality that sees analogies, symmetries, and correspondences everywhere — as God rules, so men must rule women, and so on.

    If you listen to women and LGBTQ people of all ages in these communities I don’t think you see a preponderance of happy, healthy people. And if you poll those who leave or are driven out, that’s very much the case.

    • Dan, Good questions. I think there are some cases in which deliberate failures to teach students vital information counts as abusive. By abusive, I should clarify that I mean harmful to the child and against his or her interest. And done with that intention. In other words, I don’t think it counts as abusive if a student fails to learn certain information at a school, even though the school took reasonable steps to teach that information. But I do think it’s abusive when a school sets out on purpose to withhold information that is vital to success in the wider society. So, for example, some schools are accused of deliberately refusing to teach English to students. I think that hurts the life chances of the young people. Creationism is a tough question, too. I think a school that deliberately sets out to withhold information about basic mainstream evolutionary theory is causing harm to students. Having said that, I think that most creationist curriculums DO teach basic evolutionary ideas–they just teach students a different way of thinking about those ideas.
      As for the state’s role in defending student interests, I am influenced by Jeffrey Shulman’s Constitutional Parent. Not sure if you’re familiar with that title, but I’d look forward to hearing your impressions of his argument.

      • Thanks, that seems like a good minimum threshold for abuse — withholding basic, standard knowledge and skills. Of course anything along the lines of hazing or brainwashing, very obvious physical and emotional abuse, is probably criminal already, but I wonder how much that is really monitored. I don’t know if there are uniform requirements for guarding against sexual predation and bullying, but there probably should be.

        I am not highly familiar with the current legal schools of thought on the limits of religious freedom in relation to schooling, but they seem to have become almost unlimited. I wasn’t thinking about this in terms of parental rights, which seem even less limited and contested, so learning of Shulman is a surprise. His argument obviously applies to home schoolers, but what is the parent’s responsibility when they are using a school? Should a private or religious school be regarded as more prone to fail students’ developmental needs, as opposed to failing public schools in crime-ridden neighborhoods? I can see the conservative case for Shulman’s argument as a bludgeon against inner city public schools as abusive places for parents to send their kids.

        Stated in a general way, Shulman’s argument is unobjectionable to everyone who is not a radical libertarian or anarchist — not that those positions are terribly rare or simply wrong. But when you put his argument into a specific case, it’s going to sound oppressive to everyone who disagrees with the definition of “the developmental needs of the child.” If that is to be defined by the state, how can it be a consensus position when there are diametrically opposed views in play? Evolution actually seems easier than gender and sexuality because there’s a scientific consensus about it, and it doesn’t pertain to a child’s development at all. Legislating from the bench one way or the other on this type of issue will be maximally resisted until the culture changes, but it’s a change resistant culture. No to research, education, and inquiry-oriented discussion. No to gender neutral bathrooms.

        Even here in “socialist” Canada where there is publicly funded research and public media discussion of things that shock my American ears, the right is being united by cynical religious and don’t-ask-don’t-tell gay conservative leaders who put these questions squarely to their constituents: will you let the state decide you can’t be informed if your child attends a gay-straight alliance? Will you let the state tell religious schools what they must teach about sex and accommodate from LGBTQ2+ students? (That’s the full monty of Canadian progressive non-cishet identity acronyms.) Will you let the state and university elites tell you what pronouns to use? Apparently this type of reaction baiting also gets some traction in Germany. We may be past the point where politics and law can solve a deeper, global problem.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: