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The miseducation of Jonny Scaramanga

Body shame comic strip

A comic strip from an Accelerated Christian Education schoolbook teaches girls body shame at an early age.

When I was 15, I knew I was right. The world was 6,000 years old, I had a personal relationship with God Almighty, and I knew his opinions on such diverse matters as sexuality, economics and literature. When anyone presented me with a counter-argument or disconfirming evidence, I mostly ignored them. It did not matter whether I could defeat their argument or explain their evidence. I knew the Word of God, so they must be wrong.

The teachers from my Christian school would have considered my rigid attitude a success. To the fundamentalist, faith is certain. This is not to say I and my fundamentalist friends did not experience doubts – we did. For us, though, doubt was something to be overcome, a temptation sent by Satan to separate us from the Lord. The best response was to pray.

There are three qualities of fundamentalism that put it at odds with most conceptions of education. The first is the aspiration to certainty. The second is its exclusiveness. To its adherents, fundamentalism is not just one way to live a flourishing life – it is the only way. While unbelievers may claim to enjoy their lives, this is ultimately futile, resulting only in eternal destruction. This belief in hell is the third anti-educational quality of fundamentalism. It turns thinking into a risky business. If God’s will is known, there is no upside to questioning it. At best, we confirm what is already known. At worst, we entertain doubts that lead to damnation.

The belief in hell turns thinking into a risky business

The Independent School Standards for England require that students receive a balanced presentation of opposing political views. To those who drafted the Standards, this doubtless seemed an unproblematic requirement. Politics is a subject about which there are a range of acceptable views. An adequate education must assist children in understanding and evaluating the arguments for each and, where appropriate, forming well-justified opinions. To the fundamentalist, this is anathema. While there are some areas where they acknowledge legitimate differences of taste and preference, there is a great body of law that has been revealed in God’s Word. Considering arguments in favour of abortion, same-sex marriage or cannabis legalization, for example, would simply be to court sin. Accelerated Christian Education, the US fundamentalist curriculum I studied, refers to considering diverse beliefs as ‘the philosophy of exposure’, of which it claims:

‘By following the humanistic philosophy of exposure, the public education system has left numerous children functionally illiterate. In addition, many more children are addicted to various substances, and literally millions are void of the solid Christian values that would enable them to live lives full of righteousness, peace and joy.’

This conflict of values presents liberal democratic societies with a problem. Parents have the right to choose for their children an education in accordance with their values; but education must also include such values as respect and tolerance for those with different beliefs and values. But what happens when these requirements conflict?

For many people with fundamentalist beliefs, religion is a foundation that enables them to live a flourishing life. For me, though, it was impossible to live a fulfilling life within fundamentalism. My education deprived me of the right to pursue happiness. I spent my teens fighting suicidal urges. To my former ‘educators’, these tendencies are evidence that I am unstable and my criticism of their schools therefore invalid.

Eventually, my parents were so concerned by my behaviour they removed me to a mainstream school. The culture shock was intense. I’d been taught to see non-Christians as immoral, so that was what I found. It was four years before my mind was prised open enough to consider the possibility I might be wrong. Currently, fundamentalist schooling is still considered a form of education. It would be better to think of it as intellectual vandalism.

Jonny Scaramanga is a PhD student at the UCL Institute of Education researching students’ experiences in fundamentalist schools.

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