Education, education

albert einsteinOne of the things that is becoming clear in the reporting of extremism across the world is that fanaticism and good education are not natural bedfellows. The Nigerian extremist group, Boko-Haram, places rejection of Western education at the heart of its reason for existence. Their name in fact is translated as ‘Western education is forbidden’ in the local language Hausa. Recently a Muslim woman, Runa Khan, who had advocated jihad in Britain and posted a number of inflammatory pictures on her facebook account, was sentenced to five years imprisonment. One interesting comment was made at her trial by her defence lawyer. He said that she was given to thinking only in a ‘binary’ manner. In short, for her, everything to do with the Muslim faith was good and everything else was evil and fit only for destruction.

These first two examples are taken from recent stories connected with Muslim extremism but the same ‘binary’ pattern of thinking is embedded among many Christians. Recently I had an email from one Jonny Scaramanga who runs a blog concerned with the scourge, as he sees it, of Accelerated Christian Education. This is a course of teaching which is used by some 30 ‘Christian’ schools and also is followed by home educating parents. Jonny referred me to a recent apologist of this system of education who had written in the Times Education Supplement. He asked me if would write a response. I dutifully wrote a reaction to the article, which may or may not appear in next week’s TES. The scheme for ACE is strongly flavoured with an American Right wing approach to life. It is strongly imbued with laissez-faire economics, right wing political views and above all it is profoundly conservative and reactionary in both theology and morality. It takes an strong anti-evolutionary position and follows the so-called ‘young earth’ theory which dates creation to around 4000 BC. The thing that, for me, really discredits it as a system of education, are not the wacky ideas that are presented as facts, but the method of presenting them. The whole pattern for ACE is the centrality of work-books. Filling these in systematically enables the child to learn approved facts on a variety of subjects. Each work book is completed when the child has ticked the right answer for each question that is asked. The implication is that there is only ever going to be one correct answer. In other words binary thinking, right-wrong, black-white ideas are THE way to think. When you see the actual ‘facts’ that are presented in these work-books, you realise that the child will never have a chance to sort out fact from opinion, bias from truth. I quote from my TES letter. ‘One way perhaps of teaching history from a ‘Christian perspective’ is to ignore totally every other point of view. One quote that will give the flavour of the way that Christian/Right Wing rhetoric is fed into the curriculum is as follows. “The United Nations was created by Communists and has always been used by Communists to further Communist goals… Satan is the real force behind man’s efforts to achieve world government.” To present any subject like this and suggest that there is only one correct understanding of history is a kind of anti-education.’

I realise reading this kind of indoctrination that I have been fortunate indeed to have had a good education that allows one to sift facts before arriving at a conclusion. The conclusions we individually have come to on the topic of politics, religion or even science are always going to have a certain provisionality. Life itself allows one to change and grow into new insights. What a terrifying thought it would be if everything about life could be translated into a ticked box in a workbook. But, sadly, a large of Christians live in this binary universe where everything is good or bad, true or false or evil or sacred. This way of binary thinking feeds into the way that Scripture is read. Every statement in the Bible is literally true, it is claimed, otherwise the whole of Scripture cannot be trusted to be the word of God. Chris illustrated for me the crazy lengths to which this kind of thinking can take one. An earnest Christian woman that he knew, claimed that, of course, dragons once existed. They are mentioned in the Book of Revelation! Somehow in this woman’s education, the notions of metaphor and poetry were never introduced. What an impoverished education she must have had, not to mention the ways in which her thinking was permanently in a state of fear and confusion, having to deal head-on with all the passages about God’s wrath and anger.

In drawing this blog post to some sort of conclusion, I have to declare my understanding of education. I believe that it is about the ability to understand and communicate with other peoples, cultures and languages across the centuries. This requires the gifts of imagination, empathy and insight. These allow one to penetrate patterns of thought that are not your own but have existed in the past or in the present. This gift of empathy that enables this ‘culture travel’ means that one values language, while simultaneously being aware of its limitations. In my final year in charge of a parish, I spent the five weeks of Lent speaking about the ‘real’ meaning of five Biblical words. In every case it look more than a half-hour to tease out the nuances of meaning that were implied in these words. Thinking like an Old Testament writer is not possible for us now, but we can, with a little imagination, penetrate some of the key words that are used to deepen our understanding of what he spoke about.

Binary thinking is the product, not of education, but of ‘anti-education’. Our government and all citizens must see in this kind of crude simplistic thinking something that is deeply abhorrent and ultimately destructive. It destroys not only the well-being of the individual who thinks like this, by making them feel outside the mainstream of society, but also it is a way of thinking that ultimately is responsible for conflict and even violence in the wider society. Let us make it clear. The world is not made up of blacks and whites, but there are a glorious number of grey tones in-between. Let us rejoice in those shades of grey!

10 comments

  1. Rei

    It definitely feels like deprogramming once you leave those schools and enter the real world. They foster a very antagonistic view of anything not exactly like their twisted view of Christianity and it was very difficult to begin thinking in anything but absolutes. There are 6,000 ACE schools in the world being taught this philosophy!

  2. Stephen Parsons

    Welcome Jonny and Rei. Up till now I have not spoken about ‘Christian’ schools, but they form a big part of the abusive reach of some Christian bodies in the UK. For the record I wrote about the school that Jonny attended as a child in my book, Ungodly Fear. I obtained a very clear picture of what went on in such schools from the perspective of a mother/class volunteer. It was pretty chilling stuff. I am not sure which was worse, the gratuitous violence meted out to the children or the mindless repetitive nonsense in the name of ‘education.’ Jonny recognised that I was describing his school and mentioned it on his blog two years ago. That is how we came into touch with one another. I may not share Jonny’s present theological convictions, but I have a great deal of respect for the work that he is trying to do to in showing that ACE is neither Christian nor education in any recognisable sense.

  3. haikusinenomine

    Hello Stephen, thank you for this. Intellectual exploration is a vital part of any proper education, as you say. I was struck by a similar thought recently when I was reading about work to challenge FGM (Female Genital Mutilation) in the Gambia. It was shocking and depressing to read the absolutely absurd problems that women there thought would result from not mutilating their daughters. Clearly, they had no educational background to enable them to remotely question entrenched traditional superstitions, let alone to link them to a critique of the subordination of women.

    However, I wanted to add something to your statement about the purpose of education. Education is about more than learning empathy and intellectual openness, as vital as these are. I think our educational system in Britain suffers from an overemphasis on its intellectual purpose, (linked to a neo-conservative narrative about global economic competition), or rather, a neglect of its pedagogical role in forming the whole person. Education is also about forming a confident, ethical person who understands society and is emotionally ready to take a positive adult role in the world – as I’m sure you agree.

    Of course these things are not at all mutually exclusive, and one of the interesting things is to look at how they interact. Quite a bit of your work touches on this. So the ACE style of intellectual deadness creates fearful people who accept rigid hierarchies and are easily dominated, manipulated and abused, and this is no accident.

  4. Carrie Buddington

    Well spoken and much needed article. I was bereft of criticaql thinking in the closed group I was a part of. We hardly even read the newspaper, and when we did it was interpreted in a black/white, Christian/secular light (or should I say darkness). Now that I am out, I am soaking up education like I was a sponge. It is the joy of my life and I hope it never stops. I love reading about and talking with peopoe about what is going on in this world of ours, and what different people think about it. My mind was so starved for so long that now it is a perpetual feast. It is a grief to me that so many years of my life were lost to education, a grief I will always carry, but at the same time my life is full of joy that now I can go to College and feed that side of my life. It also makes me sad because the group I came from does homeschool their children now, and they are sad, angry, intellectually stunted children. Breaks my heart.

  5. EnglishAthena

    Just to throw a spanner among the pigeons! A political point. Education in this country used to be about opening doors. You could teach a child how to learn. Then he or she could carry on learning for the rest of their lives. Nowadays it’s like a badly made car from the former eastern block countries. It’s built down to price. The government cynically send its own children to different schools. (To those of you from America, what we call “public schools” are actually the private, fee paying schools that rich people send their children to). These schools don’t have to follow the “national curriculum” that the plebs’ kids have to follow. They don’t even have to be inspected in the same way. The headmaster of Eton, (one such school) did once say that he couldn’t do what state schools do on their budget. He had 14 times more money per child to spend on educating them. We need to be willing to spend enough to be able to educate all our children to the same high standard. It would curtail individual freedom, but I can’t help feeling that if all public schools were closed, rich people would have to send little Penelope and Tristram to the local comprehensive, and a LOT more money would be spent on it. And while you’re at it, you could close the faith schools and the ACE schools, too!

  6. David Pennant

    In some areas of life, there is a right and wrong answer (2 plus 2 do not equal 5) but in others there is no such clarity (how can I best show love to someone who is out to hurt me?). Maybe one outcome of a good education is knowing when a binary response is needed, or when a multiple choice is called for. But please may I be allowed sometimes to add my own answer when none of the multiple choice answers supplied seem to fit, without incurring the examiner’s wrath?

  7. Gail

    Hello, all. I have been watching this thread with interest and had determined to stay out of it, but I find my American ‘nosiness’ will not be denied! So, my two cents, for what they’re worth….
    I have been in a school that used ACE and I have been in schools that did not. I have been in, what we in America call, public schools and I have been homeschooled. I agree with so much of what each of you say. However, I think there is another side to the story. ACE is a curriculum, and it has been useful to many small Christian schools, because it is just a curriculum. It’s value is in those who teach it. Yes, it is designed so it can be completed by students sitting alone in a cube with no interaction with anyone else, but I know of quite a few schools who use it, but do not use it in this manner. It is just like anything else, the value is not in the facts presented, but in the manner in which they are presented, and when utilized by a competent, creative teacher, it can have great success. I do not consider myself uneducated or unintelligent by any means. (my current college 4.0 gpa should mean something! lol) Even the very best curriculum, when taught by closed minded, controlling people produces students who may recite facts and figures correctly but never learn the critical thinking necessary to see real intellectual growth. I was lucky, I received most of my education before my church had become a cult. After I finally got out, some 20 years later, I discovered I still possessed the ability to think critically. I had simply lost the belief that I could trust my own thoughts. Like I said, just my two cents worth…

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