31 October 2017

Small Fundamentalist Church Schools: Truth & Falsehoods, Part 2

Continued from yesterday...

6. "My child will be safer at a SFCS than anywhere else." The meaning of "safer" is somewhat up for grabs here. Safer from guns, drugs, and violence? Quite likely. But parents who make this statement are usually referring to two dangers in particular: (1) bullying, and (2) ideology that goes against their beliefs (evolution, secular humanism, non-abstinence-only sex education, etc.).

Well, thanks to the parents who treat the SFCS as a reform school (see #4 from yesterday's post), your average SFCS student isn't necessarily guaranteed not to come in contact with bullies or bad influences. Even worse, the "bad influences" can include adults as well: It's not unheard of for a SFCS not to require educational training or background checks for their staff members, many of whom occupy low-paid or volunteer positions. Without a solid system in place for vetting the "bad apples", the door is open for all kinds of less-than-ideal scenarios, from inept classroom management (at best) to an abusive situation (at worst). (The high frequency of abuse incidences in fundamentalist communities -- of which the SFCS is often an integral part -- is an unfortunate reality, though not always a well-publicized one).

The supposed imperativeness of protecting children from "false ideas" is a sticky subject. I can sympathize with concerned parents who don't want certain ideologies and agendas popular in government-run schools to be pushed on their children. On the other hand, it's a good idea for students to be equipped (in age-appropriate ways) to grapple and engage with opposing viewpoints -- not simply for the purposes of rebutting them, but also in order to identify deficiencies in their own preconceptions.

But this undertaking requires healthy doses of critical thinking, and critical thinking isn't a strong suit of your average SFCS. Pat answers and "explanations" that boil down to "This is wrong because we said so!" are much more their style. This is often (though not always) a consequence of the school being under the auspices of an authoritarian church that requires blind obedience to "those in authority." Taking the "because I said so" route is also more straightforward, requires less effort up front, and seems less risky. It doesn't require trusting students to think for themselves, in which case they might go off track and get too comfortable with the wrong idea.

This is short-sighted, though, because once your children go to college or get a job, they will be exposed to those influences from which you labored so diligently to shield them. You will want them to have their feet on a solid foundation when that time comes. And yes, their church and home life should be laying that solid foundation as well.

In my case, however, the school was the place that really came up short in this area. The school was the place where kids had to turn off their brains, to memorize and recite their King James Bible verses or else. Considering that one of formal education's primary purposes is ostensibly to stimulate and activate the brain, not shut it down, that strikes me as opposite of the way things should be.

7. "SFCS is adequate preparation for college." This should be evaluated on a case-by-case basis, obviously, but here's why this one has my "no" vote based on my experience:

Much admittedly depends on what kind of classroom model a school uses. My school used the Accelerated Christian Education model, created by School of Tomorrow (a name that couldn't be less descriptive of what it actually is: outdated and regressive). Their main approach to academic work was fairly mindless: you read the paragraph, located the answers, and filled in the blanks. From the lower grades all the way through the end of high school, the curriculum rarely deviated from this format. It relied almost exclusively on lower levels of thinking -- rote memorization and basic reading comprehension. Higher levels of thinking, of the kind that require students to apply what they've learned, or to analyze something to discover how it works, or to synthesize -- use what they've learned to create something new -- were largely absent. In subjects where the help of a teacher or a hands-on demonstration would have been invaluable to learning the material (think math and science), we had to make do without.

The ACE model dictated that students complete their work while sitting in cubicles facing the wall. No interaction with others was allowed, except at break times. Because each student worked independently at his or her own grade level, there were no group assignments and no need for a teacher. There were, however, classroom supervisors and monitors who observed the class and made sure everyone was dotting their i's and crossing their t's (ACE required extreme strictness about all the minutiae of classroom conduct* being just so).

This was all done in the name of teaching students to think and work independently. I would be the last one to dispute the importance of such a skill, but in today's world, like it or not, knowing how to collaborate and cooperate with others is a big deal. A student who is handicapped in this area will struggle mightily in college and even more so in their job when they don't know how to navigate normal social interactions or "be a team player."

And boy, did college ever give me a tough time. At the start, being constantly surrounded by so many people all at once overwhelmed me. Not that the on-campus resident population was very large -- in 2006 it was around 400 or so -- but it was gigantic compared to my SFCS's student body, which at that time was a grand total of sixteen students from K-12. I had no idea how to act in such a setting, and I did do some learning the hard way.

I struggled with the lecture format in class and with having a teacher (although I quickly adapted to it and enjoyed it). I struggled with studying for tests that required me to do something other than fill in the blanks. I struggled with writing papers, because I'd never written any before. I struggled with group work, because I'd always done my own thing without having to bother about what anybody else was doing. I warmed up pretty quickly to having a whole class full of students working on the same assignments as me, though. It's great to have peers who can lend you their brains on archane subjects, like astronomy. Ultimately, the fact that I survived and even thrived is due only to the grace of God (and the fact that Bible college is a very forgiving environment for socially maladroit homeschoolers and the like).

The most damaging part of SFCS for me was that it taught me to set my sights low. Not to know or develop my talents and strengths, not to aspire to anything. To be concerned more with what to think rather than how to think. To view the world at large with fear and disdain, as a place to withdraw from, instead of as a place rich with unexplored possibilities, in need of the unique gifts God entrusted me with. How might my path in life been different if not for that? I don't like to think about it, but if I can spare others from making the same mistake, I will.

My final bit of advice to parents at the end of all this is: do your research thoroughly before choosing a school for your child. Know what to look for, and know what your child really needs and in what kind of setting they will shine. Don't evaluate a school merely on the basis of what it says about itself. The old adage that "children are the future" is true, and so it behooves them (and you) to invest in that future as wisely and thoughtfully as possible.

*For example, not pushing in your chair after standing up was a punishable offense, as was "sitting incorrectly", i.e., sitting in any way other than feet flat on the floor and back straight against the chair. I kid you not. (Because we all know what becomes of those public school delinquents who are allowed to sit cross-legged or -- heaven forbid -- SLOUCH. It's the gateway to all kinds of other misdemeanors, you know).

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