A guest post by Jonny Scaramanga, who blogs at Leaving Fundamentalism.
In an earlier blog post, The Dogma That Followed Me Home, Cat Givens described the horrifying abuse she suffered at New Bethany Home for Wayward Girls. This school used the Accelerated Christian Education/ School of Tomorrow curriculum. I too attended an ACE school, and abuse was rife there too. While New Bethany was a particularly extreme example, physical abuse is endemic to Accelerated Christian Education. It is at the heart of the theology that inspires the curriculum. Their beliefs about the nature of the child inform the whole way the schools are built.
Accelerated Christian Education believes that children are inherently wicked, full of original sin, and that this must be driven out of them by breaking their spirits. This results in ruthless discipline. Among the Scriptures that inspire this belief are:
“Foolishness is bound in the heart of a child; but the rod of correction shall drive it far from him.”
“The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked: who can know it?”
Several years ago, I had dinner with a supervisor from my old ACE school. She told me, as though it were completely natural, “sometimes when you look into the eyes of a child that’s being naughty, you can just see this spirit – it’s demonic.”
It’s this theology that leads to ACE’s system of separating children into carrels, with high partitions on each side to stop them from communicating with their neighbors, shown in this ACE promotional video. The message is simple: With your inherently sinful nature, child, you cannot be trusted.
This need to break the child’s will is a staple of Christian Right thinking, says Arizona State University’s Professor David Berliner. In “Educational Psychology Meets the Christian Right,” (website link no longer active) he quotes extensively from fundamentalist literature on child raising. This is John Robinson, leader of the Puritans and hero to modern fundamentalist educators:
“Surely there is in all children … a stubbornness, and stoutness of mind arising from natural pride, which must, in the first place, be broken and beaten down; that so the foundation of their education being laid in humility and tractableness, other virtues may, in their time, be built thereon.”
Who is more a fundamentalist icon than John Wesley? This is his mother’s view on child-rearing:
“A child must be conquered. . . . And when the will of a child is totally subdued, and it is brought to revere and stand in awe of the parents, then a great many childish follies … may be passed by. . . . I insist on the conquering of the will of children betimes, because this is the only strong and rational foundation of a religious education … [and] when this is thoroughly done, then a child is capable of being governed by the reason and piety of its parents.”
The tone has barely changed in the intervening centuries. Berliner cites Jack Hyles, from 1972:
“The spanking should be administered firmly. It should be painful and it should last until the child’s will is broken. It should last until the child is crying, not tears of anger but tears of a broken will. As long as he is stiff, grits his teeth, holds on to his own will, the spanking should continue.”
Berliner notes that this way of thinking is utterly opposed to the healthy development of the mind. “Various subject matter fields now require of a learner curiosity, agency, and thoughtfulness – characteristics that cannot develop well when obedience is the primary goal of child rearing.”
This view of the child as needing to be broken, like a horse, led to hideous abuses at my school. It was not only spanking. In drama classes, if a movement was painful, the teacher made students repeat it endlessly. A classmate recently emailed me to describe a time her sibling was made to snap his fingers until they were covered in blisters. In a choral verse class, children had to hold contorted positions on stage for 10 minutes or more at a time, and the teachers screamed at them if they were seen to move at all.
The same student also described the experience of being paddled at an ACE school:
“I was at [the ACE school] aged 3 – 7, and i cant remember what happened exactly when, but i got paddled a lot and remember having big red marks on my thighs from it and it hurt and was really terrifying! And straight after being paddled [the teacher] asked ‘do u believe that i love u?’ and i said ‘no’, cz obviously i knew that she hated me, and she said ‘YES I DO LOVE YOU!’ and it was just weird and confusing for a small child! and the things i remember getting paddled for were dragging my gym bag along the floor cz it was too heavy, and for drawing a cat on my pace, and for saying i havent had a biscuit when actually i had had a biscuit, which was a malicious lie!
“And [the teacher] would make you say a prayer after being paddled to apologize and I said ‘I wont do it again’ in my prayer and she interupted and said ‘YES YOU WILL DO IT AGAIN’! again, weird and confusing for a child!!”
Earlier editions of the School of Tomorrow Procedures Manual have clear instructions for supervisors on how and when to use the paddle to administer spankings (cited, for example, in Roger Hunter’s “The Shock of the Old: The Militant Church and Education”). The Catholic Herald (website link no longer active) described the paddle in one British ACE school as “a cricket bat-shaped US import.” The latest edition of the manual is sanitized, and only says that students who receive more than six demerits should be referred to the school administrator for appropriate punishment. It then quotes three of the Scripture verses most commonly used to justify corporal punishment, including Proverbs 22:15.
The probable reason for this sanitization is that school spankings are now illegal in a majority of territories where ACE is sold. That doesn’t mean spanking is entirely a thing of the past. My school ran a discipline policy that required parents to come in and paddle their own children if the teachers deemed it necessary. If parents declined, their children could not attend the school. The Branch Christian School is one school running a similar policy today.
In places where paddling is still legal, including 19 US states, of course, it happens openly. You can read online the policy at Victory Christian Academy, Florida, for example. It’s almost word-for-word the same at each school that uses it, because it’s lifted from the School of Tomorrow Procedures Manual. The same discipline policy appears in ACE schools across the world.
What can students get paddled for? That’s for the school to decide, although past ACE manuals have included suggestions. One of the schools that has posted a non-exhaustive list is Cornerstone Academy, Amarillo (link no longer active). The punishment can be awarded for such obscenities as (this is just a selection):
- Disobedience to school authorities and school policy
- Being disrespectful to proper authorities
- Cheating in any manner
- Lying in any manner (word or deed)
- Stealing or borrowing without owner’s permission
- Griping and complaining or chronic bad attitude after being cautioned
- Being disruptive in class after being cautioned
- Touching any student in an inappropriate manner
- Vulgar or offensive slang expressions
- Consistent failure to have required items for school activities
If there is any question over whether religion can make good people do evil things, fundamentalist child abuse is the answer. My ACE supervisor used to tell the class all the time how much it hurt her to have to paddle us, how awful and painful it was, but she had no choice because God commanded it. No evidence that it might be harmful was considered. No alternative interpretation of the the Bible was countenanced.
It is this doctrine of the child as naturally rebellious against God that must be challenged. It is the idea that the child must be made unquestioningly subject to the teacher’s authority that is the problem. That, and the interpretation of Scripture that makes corporal punishment a non-negotiable imperative, are the great danger. Any attempt to improve fundamentalist curriculum content is a treatment of the symptoms, not the disease.