Educational Psychology vs. the Christian Right

Of all the peer-reviewed literature on the Christian Right I’ve found, Professor David Berliner’s is the most excoriating. Not for Berliner the tolerance of historians like Adam Laats. He sees the Christian Right as a malign force, and shows some clear examples why. In short: they are politically active, and they want to destroy public schools.

Berliner’s paper, “Educational Pyschology Meets the Christian Right: Differing Views of Children, Schooling, Teaching, and Learning” makes the case that the goals of the Christian Right are so far removed from most educators – and from moderate Christianity ­– that it is not possible to work with them in a free society. He quotes from their fear-mongering propaganda literature, which calls on parents to dismantle the public education system from within by applying to become school governors, and purposely sabotaging the schools.

“Many among the Christian right are unable to engage in politics that make a common school possible. They may be unable to compromise and live with educational decisions rejecting a pluralistic democracy keeping separate church and state… If you are of the Christian Right, to be pragmatic, to give in, to compromise, to bargain or negotiate – that is, to engage in politics – is to lose to Satan.” 

The most chilling examples Berliner raises are of child abuse. He argues that the primary objective of fundamentalist child rearing practices is to create unquestioning obedience to God, and to parents and teachers, who have God-given authority. He has many terrifying examples from fundamentalist literature to support his point.

“The parent who spanks the child keeps him from going to hell. . . . A child who is spanked will be taught that there is a holy God Who punishes sin and wrong. Hence he will learn to heed authority and obey the laws and rules. When he hears the Word of God he will obey what he hears and will accept the Gospel as it is preached.”

The barbarism doesn’t stop there. Children shouldn’t be given reasons why they should obey; that undermines authority. He quotes a 19th century Protestant child-rearing tract:

“I do not know how we can continue to speak of obedience once reasons are given. These are meant to convince the child, and, once convinced, he is not obeying us but merely the reasons we have given him. . . . The adult who gives reasons for his orders opens up the field to argument, and thus alters the relationship to his charge. The latter starts to negotiate, thereby placing himself on the same level as the adult; this equality is incompatible with the respect required for successful education.”

As we’ve seen before on this blog, fundamentalist theology itself is at odds with raising healthy children. We are not talking about two different but equally viable belief systems. The fundamentalist insistence on obedience is at odds with the need for children to think and discover knowledge for themselves. Berliner continues,

“This view of family easily leads to child-rearing practices that are at odds with virtually all contemporary theories of the constructivist mind – one that actively seeks to make meaning for oneself The recent revolution in learning theories from behaviorism to cognitivism includes a profound change in the way we view children (see Greeno, Collins, & Resnick, 1996). Contemporary constructivist and situationist views of learning do not begin with an “obedient mind”; rather, they start with a view of the mind as active and socially mediated. The new psychology has changed how learning and instruction are thought about in the different subject matter fields (e.g., De Corte, Greer, & Verschaffel, 1996; Linn, Songer, & Eylon, 1996 ). These 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.”

I’d be tempted to say (as I’m sure you’re thinking) that this is alarmist hysteria, if I hadn’t been to a school based on exactly this kind of philosophy less than 15 years ago. The more recent fundamentalist literature Berliner quotes is no less horrific, no less set on mindless, unquestioning obedience. I know children who were beaten until their wills were broken, and it kills me to see them today, in their 20s and early 30s, defending the system. It’s like Stockholm Syndrome. Of course they support the system. In a form of aversion therapy, they were spanked every time they questioned too much.

Accelerated Christian Education/ School of Tomorrow claims to develop “Godly character” through the 60 character traits of Jesus, which he allegedly models in the Gospels. Among these some obviously relate to obedience – deferent, submissive, meek, respectful – but a great many more are used by ACE to promote the idea that teachers and parents are the bearers of divine, and therefore unquestionable, authority. Like this:

Cartoon from an ACE PACE

Unquestioning, Unthinking

Berliner also looks at the education systems of the Christian Right, and it’s here we find the roots of systems like ACE. Fundy educational researcher Norma Gabler says it like this:

“Too many of today’s textbooks leave students to make up their own minds. Now that is not fair to our children: What some textbooks are doing is giving students ideas, and ideas will never do them as much good as facts.”

It almost sounds like a grotesque parody of the Christian Right. If anything, Berliner may have over-egged the pudding. This is the problem I come up against when I tell people about ACE/ School of Tomorrow: It’s so antiquated, so appalling, they simply can’t believe it. Berliner discusses ACE directly as well, of course.

“In many of the Christian Right schools interaction between students has been cut off and intellectual activities in groups rarely occur because group work is not valued. Cooperative learning, which invests some power in and attributes some wisdom to the group, is seen to undermine the relationship of subservience of children to adults and to God. Cooperative learning is considered bad learning.” 

This is why I argue that Accelerated Christian Education is a broken system. Posts about lies in ACE are fun, but beside the point: A workbook-based curriculum can never deliver an adequate education.

Berliner’s paper is not flawless. It relies so heavily on secondary sources that we are not given the feeling Berliner has ever engaged directly with the Christian Right. It also depicts their views as monolithic, when in fact, there are areas of great disagreement between various fundamentalist factions, as commentators have noted. Still, Berliner ends on a conciliatory and reasonable note, which cannot always be said for his adversaries:

“It is one of the great paradoxes of democracy that in the interest of pluralism, we must tolerate a group out to destroy a public institution dedicated to the preservation of pluralism. An even greater paradox, notes Peshkin (1987), is that the mark of our vitality as a democratic nation is the very presence of a small but vocal Christian Right whose ideas are not democratic at all. All who are interested in the preservation of our public schools must be polite to the Christian Right and respectful of their concerns—some of which are shared by all of us.”

“Educational Psychology Meets the Christian Right” was originally given as the E. L. Thomdike Award Address for the Division of Educational Psychology of the American Psychologist Association, Toronto, Canada, August 1996. It later appeared in Teachers College Record v98 n3 p381-416, Spring 1997. It used to be online free at the Arizona State University website, and can now be found here via the Wayback Machine.

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About jonnyscaramanga

I grew up as a Christian fundamentalist in the UK. Now I am writing a book and blog about what that's like, and what fundamentalists believe.

Posted on August 8, 2012, in Accelerated Christian Education, Book Reviews, Christianity, Education, Faith Schools, Fundamentalism, School of Tomorrow and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. 8 Comments.

  1. I taught in a Public School in Canada and I remember using Phonics workbooks to teach my students. Although, I did use other sources also. I still remember 40 yrs. later this one young man who when he was finished the workbook and I had marked it and tested him on it that he said he hated using it. He was weak in reading and needed more than just ‘sight reading’ which was the new method that was coming along. However, despite his hatred for it he was now able to read pretty much any word I gave him by using the phonics skills learned. He thanked me for my perseverance on getting him to read and write and then asked if he could tear the workbook up. I replied, “Go right ahead,I’m tired of this idea of following rules to a T.” Variety is the spice of life!

  2. I know children who were beaten until their wills were broken, and it kills me to see them today, in their 20s and early 30s, defending the system. It’s like Stockholm Syndrome. Of course they support the system. In a form of aversion therapy, they were spanked every time they questioned too much.

    This is how all child-abuse ends up (maybe that should be ‘often ends up’) being, in a way, hereditary. People who’ve survived it (a) have often normalised it—it’s the only experience of childhood they have personally experienced, so to them it is normal—(b) tend to edit their memories, so that they don’t remember it being as bad as it was, and (c) often even give it an ‘ends justifying the means’ utility, in that they excuse it as having produced the fine upstanding citizen that they see themselves as.

    It’s a chain that takes a lot of introspection and will-power to break. (Something I’ve never been very certain of having—which is the major reason I’ve never wanted children; that’s the other way to break the chain.)

  3. As an educator (university level), and as a parent (both children are now adults), the one thing that has been most evident to me is that there is no such thing as teaching. Learning by the student comes from within, not from the teacher. The best that the teacher can do is provide direction, encouragement, motivation and an environment that is conducive to learning. The real work of learning must come from within the student.

    One of the worst things a parent or teacher can say is “don’t ask questions, just do as you are told.” Curiosity in a child should be encouraged. That curiosity is the key to successful learning.

    Thanks for the continuing series of excellent posts, exposing the gross flaws in ACE and similar programs.

  4. While I fully endorse the idea of encouraging creativity and imagination within children, I have to acknowledge that it makes incorporating discipline into parenting extremely difficult. With my three (age 8, 5 and 3) I find myself constantly trying to strike the balance between the two, and it’s very, very, very hard work because even my three-year-old can argue with me about whether he’s done wrong or not! I guess opting for discipline/obedience only is an easier way to go, especially if physical punishment is permitted. This is not endorsement of course, simply an attempt to understand. But using fear to raise a child – well that flies in the face of everything that Jesus taught.

    • Yeah, I’m not a parent but I spend a lot of time thinking about educating children without squashing creativity (Ken Robinson’s TED talk and Keith Johnstone’s book Impro are my major influences on this). Even the now-cliched example of whether a child should be taught to colour inside the lines is relevant. On the one hand, in any creative pursuit, there is no right or wrong. On the other, children do want to learn how to draw. It’s very difficult to know what right is. I actually think we can learn a lot from obscene child-rearing practices like these, because they offer some clear insights on what not to do.

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