Even the minister can’t stand ACE

Fundamentalist Christian education systems are sometimes shielded from criticism because of the word “Christian” in the name. People tend to assume that anything Christian must have a moral core. Those who don’t know better might think that criticism of ACE is merely an anti-Christian attack. That’s why it’s so important that Christians speak out against abuses in the name of Christianity. Anyone can call themselves ‘Christian’, but that doesn’t mean they’re doing anything Christlike. Enter Annari du Plessis.

Hot on the heels of the vicar who couldn’t stand ACE, here’s another minister who isn’t a fan.  I’ll let Annari speak for herself.

Annari du Plessis

I was in an ACE school from Grade 8 (2001) to matric (2005) and started studying Theology and Ancient Languages in 2007. I am a legitimated minister of the Dutch Reformed Church in South Africa, and I’m currently doing my MTh degree on evolutionary theology. 

I started my A.C.E. journey in Grade 8 in the year 2001. I wanted to go to an English high school and my parents placed me in the school they thought was the best option. The A.C.E. system did look very promising and I was enrolled at Queenswood Christian School in Pretoria, South Africa for my high school career.

What I like about A.C.E.

  • It taught me to work independently and take responsibility for my own academic progress. If you didn’t do your part in A.C.E., you could end up as an eighteen year old in grade 9. Scoring the work ourselves taught integrity, because if you cheated you were only doing yourself in. As a result of this, I am appalled by accounts of others about how they could skip school, neglect homework, underachieve and still complete their school careers.
  • As an introvert, I enjoyed being able to work on my own instead of together as a class.
  • As an intelligent person, I enjoyed being able to work at my own pace and not being held back by slower classmates. I know that sounds egotistical, but it really was a frustration for me in primary school.

What I don’t like about A.C.E.

  • Something that immediately put me off was the sugary, too-nauseatingly-good-to-be-true cartoons in the PACES.  The “holy” people dressed like 1950’s suburban dream families and the only character to wear jeans was Ronnie, the “godless” guy. The women and girls were all quiet and submissive. The scenarios and dialogue were painfully fake and the moral lessons as subtle as a chainsaw. Something that struck me was that the white kids and the black kids were in different schools and even the churches were racially segregated. Silly me for thinking Apartheid died in 1994 when Nelson Mandela became our first democratically elected president. Apartheid is still alive and kicking in A.C.E.-land.
  • This is the big one: the creation science taught in the curriculum. The A.C.E. system built up straw men of evolutionary science and then shoot the caricatures down. For example, A.C.E. made a complete fool out of evolutionary biology by claiming that it teaches that a fish begets a fish begets a fish begets a frog. The reality is that evolutionary biology never made such a ridiculous claim, but that is what we were told evolutionists believe.

After discovering these blog posts, I shared them with a friend who was unfamiliar with the A.C.E. system and she could hardly believed her eyes. I remember those examples from when I was in school, but then I did not realise the absolute absurdity of the lies, because I did not know any better. I feel like A.C.E. has stolen years of my life, years in which I could have studied proper science and at the age of 24 I had to learn from scratch what evolutionary biology, archaeology, and geology are all about.

  • Something else I only realised after school was the political currents in the A.C.E. curriculum. A.C.E. is decidedly right-wing and very intolerant.
  • The social sphere was not much better. Evangelical fundamentalism was force-fed to us every day. Having grown up in a home where my parents never forced religion upon me, this was very alien. I went to a Reformed school during my primary school years, but that was nothing compared to A.C.E.’s bombardment. Much of the evangelical lingo was unfamiliar to me and only later did I understand the full scope of their onslaught.
If it weren’t for my level-headed parents and the good examples I had of Christians at my Dutch Reformed Church, I would have wanted nothing to do with Christianity whatsoever.

For the first two to three years things went well and then the wheels started coming off. I discovered metal and gothic music and aesthetic, which opened a whole new world to me. I am still a part of the metal and goth community, even more now than when I was younger. I remember the day I was called in for a meeting with the school’s principal and pastor. My mother was away on holiday and they grabbed that opportunity to nail me. After more than an hour and a half of accusations and interrogation where I was not given a chance to defend myself or explain anything, I was sent back to class. I was afraid that I would get expelled, but I was not. After that I was labelled a Satanist who abused drugs (neither of which was ever true).

A.C.E .teaches children to be prejudiced. There is a definite division, positing the “us” against “the other.” This other consists of any unbelievers, and sometimes even those that are different in their Christian beliefs. The others are painted as debased, evil individuals who seek only to corrupt and be corrupted. Children are then encouraged to attempt to convert as many lost souls as possible, e.g. by handing out tracts and witnessing to strangers. A sense of guilt is fostered in those who have not “lead any souls to Christ.” This kind of guilt-mongering has long-lasting effects. Even now, eight years after I finished school, I sometimes still feel guilty and that I am not doing enough for God and His Kingdom.  It took me a couple of years to mingle with different kinds of people and to realize that not all unbelievers are evil and conversely, that not all who claim to be Christian are good.

On a related note: most ACE schools I know of are rather small and thus the students do not have the “normal” high school experience. I was the only matric [graduate] at my school in 2005 and thus missed out on all the tradition milestones during one’s last year of school. Sometimes I still feel that I have missed out on many distinctive high school experiences, for example the matric dance and encountering a diverse group of other teenagers during school instead of being sheltered and lonely.

The kind of Christian fundamentalism espoused by the A.C.E. system does a disservice to the pupils. From a theological viewpoint, it does great damage to Christians. This brand of Christianity keeps people stuck in their first naiveté, where everything is simply taken at face value and Biblical literalism is the only correct way of thinking. There is only a limited space for growth and deepening of the life of faith in the first naiveté.  No room is left for the critical distance and any critical distance is condemned and shot down immediately. Without the critical reflection, one cannot advance to the second naiveté, where the Bible is not read in a literal sense and personal responsibility is taken for beliefs. For years I was caught up in naive fundamentalism and only with my theology studies did I encounter and grow through critical reflection.
Biblical literalism does not engage responsibly with the texts. As mentioned by Reverend Oliver Harrison, the creation accounts in Genesis 1 and 2 cannot be taken literally. There are two different accounts and they can’t both be factual. The Bible is not a science or history textbook and should not be used as such, but that is what A.C.E. does. The students are taught that the Bible can be used as a fact book for literally anything. As a result, when confronted with actual science, the students are not equipped to reconcile their faith with the real world. The result is that the majority end up either as biased fundamentalists who cling to a misconception of Scripture and the Christian life, or militant atheists who attack the fundamentalist brand of Christianity as though that is the total spectrum of belief in God.

To wrap it up: A.C.E. doesn’t prepare students for the real world. The curriculum leaves much to be desired and the blatant lies cause a huge gap in the students’ education. On a social and psychological level it shelters students from the world and impairs their future interactions with others for years to come. A.C.E. is a disservice to any child and doesn’t deserve to be called an education or Christian.

If you enjoyed this, please let Annari and me know with a comment. And while you’re at it, check out Annari’s blog!

PS Please consider voting for Leaving Fundamentalism to win ‘best blog’ in The Skeptic magazine’s Ockham Awards.

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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 February 10, 2014, in Accelerated Christian Education, Christianity, Creationism, Education, Faith Schools, Fundamentalism, School of Tomorrow and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 31 Comments.

  1. As a child of evangelical missionaries, I didn’t go to a school like this but was taught similar doctrines at home. Thankfully, growing up abroad and the otherwise open disposition of my parents meant that racism wasn’t part of the teaching. Religion is institutionalised and something I can live with but seeing fundamentalism protected as “religious freedom” in schools like this is horrifying! Thanks for posting this

  2. For the record, I don’t agree with Annari’s “good points” about ACE, but this is her post, not mine. I might discuss why I disagree in a future post. If anyone’s interested, let me know.

  3. I agree on the cartoons.

  4. Good post Annari. At the time I sort of noticed the indoctrination, but it’s only looking back on it with years of distance that I see how heavy-handed it was, and the weight of emotional blackmail they put behind it. I’m glad that you’ve gone on from that to enjoy genuine study.

  5. I like that you’ve opened with positives about ACE, even if I don’t agree with them.

    First, “independence” and “responsibility” are ACE/SoT buzzwords, used heavily in marketing the system. Now, just because they’re buzzwords used by the cult of uneducation doesn’t mean they’re wrong, but I think they deserve a bit more decomposition than is given here. “Independent study” and “reading through a PACE and writing words in blank sentences” are not synonymous. “Responsibility” and “setting goals” are not synonymous. “Integrity” and “self-marking” are not synonymous.

    I’ll accept that when it came to distance learning with the OU, I found it relatively easy to study through course books and do my research, but I had real problems with meeting deadlines, partially because Life, and partially because deadlines are something I dislike (thanks ACE!).

    Even if we accept the words on their face, in order for those statements to be true, ACE would actually have to be an education worth having. I don’t accept that ACE meets all of the necessary criteria of an education.

    Second, “As an introvert…” The fact is, not everyone is an introvert, therefore your statement is not likely to be true for say 50% of the population. Also, introverted students need to get used to functioning in a social environment (as much as extroverts needs to function in an asocial environment): there are very few jobs where avoiding contact with other people has much value. Thus, all students lose out because they miss out on being in a normal, inclusive, communicative, social environment. And socialisation is a massive part of preparing people for the grown up world.

    Third, “As an intelligent person…” Obviously, PACE are an intellectual insult at their best, and pedagogically offensive at their worst. And yes, as someone who found primary school studies easy and boring (which doesn’t per se make me intelligent), I share some of your perspective on this, but larger high schools with a greater mix of abilities tend to “stream” their students so that more advanced students aren’t held back, and the less advanced students don’t get less engaged because they are intimidated. Again, the actual educational content needs to be of an adequate quality for this paragraph to hold true.

    The rest of your post, the criticism, I can get on board with.

    I’d be interested in seeing how your experiences in ACE and fundamentalist evangelical christianity have influenced your beliefs, theology and approach to pastoral care.

    • I don’t think I have much of that brand of fundamentalism left in my theology or pastoral care.

      • Sorry, I wasn’t implying you did subscribe to that brand of fundamentalism.

        I was more asking how it influenced the ways you think about theology and pastoral care.

      • I can’t seem to reply directly to your second comment.
        I did subscribe to it, but that was when I was still in that school. I think one of the biggest influences my A.C.E. experience has on my theology and pastoral care is to think what one’s words about God implies.

      • I’m surprised; I sort of expected you to be able to say how your current positions differ from the fundamentalist positions, and what persuaded you to move from one ot the other.


      • I’ll try to keep it short and simple. It’s quite a challenge for me to adequately explain what I mean or what my position on something is without taking a long time and writing a mini-thesis 🙂
        I think one of the main reasons why I moved away from fundamentalism was my studies at the University of Pretoria. As I learnt that e.g. Moses did not write the Pentateuch, that Jonah might just be a myth to illustrate a point, that context is of such tremendous importance, etc, I realized that the fundamentalist view propagated in A.C.E. is a very impoverished way to engage with the Bible and the world.
        The way people are treated in that kind of fundamentalist mindset is actually quite appalling. I do not see the agape love in their ways, which are so exclusive and lack compassion and understanding. One can simply follow the cartoons in the PACES and see how they paint non-Christians and how they teach good Christians think and act.
        Personally, I don’t try to convert people. I’d rather be a friend and have compassion and be there for someone than be a Bible-basher thinking everyone else is evil. My approach is one of simply being there, of listening and trying to live out my beliefs rather than proselytizing.
        My sermons are different from those of fundamentalist preachers. The sermons I do are more like lectures about the specific texts and their backgrounds than the typical “turn or burn” sermons many people remember from fundamentalist churches. I also keep my sermons for when I’m actually asked to do one at a church and don’t take them to people in my everyday life.
        I hope that was clear and answered at least some of your questions.

  6. “The result is that the majority end up either as biased fundamentalists who cling to a misconception of Scripture and the Christian life, or militant atheists who attack the fundamentalist brand of Christianity as though that is the total spectrum of belief in God.”

    I would say this is a rather overconfident statement and not certain where your statistics come from. In my experience most of the people who I went to ACE with have ended up as fairly liberal Christians over time. They don’t appreciate the regimented Fundamentalist system of God worship and thus reject it, but they are also unable to lose the concept of God entirely as it has been hammered into their heads since before they were old enough to question it.

    I’ve seen very few stick to Fundamentalism, just as I have seen very few become ‘militant atheists’. In my case I would identify as being an atheist/humanist at this point. But not because I’m angry because of eight years in ACE (though the wasted years of ‘learning’ are a shame, I am what I am because of it and in some ways wiser for it). Rather I dismiss the idea of God (but for in the most deistic sense as, hey, anything’s possible) because after I’d torn down the edifice of ACE teachings, the Bible, Jesus, etc, it became obvious that it was all a house of cards. And to rebuild it, I’d have to start by lying to myself all over again.

    Once you start picking and choosing which parts of the Bible are fact and which parts are fiction, what have you really done except make yourself God?

    • Then your experience is different from mine.
      With regard to your last question: there are many things to look at, the “decision” isn’t arbitrary.

    • There are many factors that go into the interpretation of ancient texts. For example, one looks at the Sitz im Leben, or situation in life in which the text was written. Some texts, like the royal Psalms or prophetic oracles are easier to place in a particular Sitz im Leben than others. Then there’s the various layers of interpretation and reinterpretation present in inter-textual relationships. Redaction criticism shows that the texts in Genesis (and the rest of the Pentateuch) was written by at least 4 different authors or redactors: the Yahwist, the Elohist, the Priestly source and the Deuteronomist. For example, the two creation narratives in Genesis 1 and Genesis 2 were not written by the same person and not in the same socio-historic context. The two text address different situations and views. Studying the surrounding ancient Near Eastern religions and customs also helps to make sense of and illuminate Biblical texts. For example, the fact that Genesis 1 speaks of certain things that are divided from each other, the amount of days and the sequence of the developments all have connections to other ancient Near Eastern creation stories and also the symbolic universum of the Israelites. Then, of course, there is the ancient Hebrew language it was written in that has to be dissected.

      Then there’s the fact that science has told us what actually happened in the history of life on earth, but that’s not really an issue if one understands that the Bible isn’t a history or science textbook.

      • Fair enough. But this sounds to me like how one dissects any ancient text. Take The Iliad or The Odyssey and break it all down to which parts are historical and which parts are mythical, sure. But that doesn’t mean I worship Homer as God.

      • To put it in a more consistent manner with the Bible:
        “This doesn’t mean I worship the Gods Homer writes about.”

    • The point here is not to debate the validity of faith in the God of the Bible.

      • I’m not sure who decides what the point here is. But fair enough if you don’t want to debate.
        I would say that you should write, Gods of the Bible, though, as in Job for example (the oldest book in the Bible most say) there is a pantheon of Gods including El and his lady Asherah (not to mention all of the archaeologist evidence that shows ancient Jewish sites littered with Asherah figurines – she was the Goddess of fertility.)
        Unfortunately later patriarchal types usurped her role and gradually Yahweh became the only God worth believing in. But the remnants of the rest remain and cannot be ignored.
        As such, I wish you all the best with your ongoing faith in the Gods of the Bible.

    • I am fully aware of Asherah worship among ancient Israelites.
      To compare with the stories of Homer: the Bible simply makes more sense to me and archaeological evidence provides some proof that the Bible is not just conjecture. This is not to say that the purpose of Biblical archaeology is to prove the Bible as true, rather, the purpose is to help fill in the background of the texts.
      Ultimately it is a question of faith and faith isn’t exactly something that can be proven or successfully debated or adequately explained, not by me in any case. This blog post is about A.C.E. and an insight into a specific person’s experience in the system, not about challenging faith or dissecting specific words and phrases in the account.

      • I apologize if I come across somewhat incredulous. I admit that it is probably because I am. It seems to me that you have all the information at your disposal to recognize that the God(s) of the Bible are human made, and not the other way around, and yet you still choose to believe. Do you not think it might be possible that your ongoing faith against the odds just might have something to do with the fact that your brain was filled with impossible stories as fact before you were developed enough to know that such stories were impossible? It’s a rhetorical question.
        It’s just that I went through the exact same thing, and I know the last piece of the puzzle I finally gave up on was the existence of the specific Christian God. I realized I was holding on to Him for no other reason that I’d always been told He existed; since before I could properly think.
        But you’re right. This particular post is about ACE and I respect your right to live your life in any way you think right.
        Thank you for taking the time to answer my questions. I am truly genuinely curious as to what it is that makes some people hold onto ‘faith’. I wasn’t just trying to be an arse. Honest.

      • It is a question that is difficult to answer. I’m not a biblical literalist, so for me a lot of the stories are not necessarily factual, but that doesn’t mean they are not rooted in some kind of experience. For example the new research that found that camels were not present in Israel during the time that Abraham apparently moved there. (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/02/06/carbon-dated-camel-bones-bible_n_4737437.html) My view is basically that of Dr. Robert Harris, as quoted in the article. Still, there might have been an Abraham that did move from Ur to where Israel is today. That is something we don’t know.
        The fact that the Bible was written by so many different people over a long stretch of time, through different traditions, interpretations and contexts actually make it more believable to me. It makes it more authentic.
        For me personally, I think a major factor in my faith is that Christianity is the only view that makes sense of the theodicy dilemma. No other belief system gives a satisfying answer to that.

      • I would think that ‘no God’ also solves the ‘theodicy dilemma’. But we can leave it at that. Thanks for your post and taking the time to answer my queries.

      • Yes, that would also be an answer, but a less satisfactory one for someone who stubbornly wants there to be restitution.
        It’s a pleasure. I hope my answers make sense.

  7. I’m currently in an argument with a Bible believing Christian. The argument is based on my view of Ken Ham in the YEC v evolution debate held with Bill Nye. There is a blind spot in this particular person’s views on whether or not Nye denigrated the opinions of Ham. Ham began his presentation with the statement that science has been hijacked by secularists. Nye, in referring to Ham’s beliefs, stated that Ham is basing his views on a Bible which uses American English as its translation. Nye also pointed out that there are billions of religious people in the world who don’t subscribe to the YEC model of the origins of the universe. This person sees what Ham said as perfectly fine, while believing that Nye somehow insulted the Bible, because, this person said, it is well known that Nye is an atheist, so it was an implied insult. Sigh. It’s so very hard to hold a dispassionate discussion with a literal Bible believing person. ACE’s goal is to populate the world with such “thinkers.”

    • I did not watch the debate, because I did not want to be upset by Ham and all the flashbacks of A.C.E. “science.” From your description it doesn’t sound like Nye insulted anyone or anything. I have been caught in discussions with YEC’s many times and it just never goes anywhere, because they absolutely refuse to listen to anything other than “the Bible is literally right.” One thing that tends to disrupt their arguments is when you mention that Genesis 1 and Genesis 2 have two different creation stories and that both cannot be literally true. For example, in Genesis 1 plants are made before Adam and in Genesis 2 Adam was made before plants.

  8. The result is that the majority end up either as biased fundamentalists who cling to a misconception of Scripture and the Christian life, or militant atheists who attack the fundamentalist brand of Christianity as though that is the total spectrum of belief in God.

    A ‘militant’ atheist seems to be anyone who doesn’t respect and privilege religion. For this, non believers who criticize religious belief are pilloried. And the most common way to ridicule atheists who speak out is to pretend they are an unreasonable and marginal group of fanatics from an otherwise reasonable group (read silent) atheists.

    Not true.

    The second common way to ridicule atheists who dare to speak truth to power is to claim they criticize a caricature of beliefs that most people don’t hold.

    Not true.

    I am disappointed that an otherwise good critique of ACE is polluted unnecessarily by the use of these tropes. Atheists are not militant in any normal usage of the word. They are most often critical and skeptical thinkers vastly underrepresented in prisons or found acting anti-socially. This is not militant behaviour. And if your schooling had better prepared you for critical and skeptical thinking, you would recognize just how flippant and unfair is the label of militant to those who are standing their ground on intellectual integrity and philosophical principle. Please stop promoting or supporting or spreading this kind of faith-based apartheid. You’re better than this. And if that criticism makes me a ‘militant’ than so be it.

    • It was not my intention to bash atheists. I know atheists who are wonderful people. Yet, I still stand by what I said. In my experience I have encountered that caricature too many times. It is not employed as ridicule, but it is a correct account of many “debates” I have encountered. With “militant” I do not mean those who speak out about their beliefs. With “militant” I mean those who make it their little campaign to (almost to the point of ad nauseam) ridicule others who do not hold the same beliefs and to be basically the exact flipside of the coin of Bible-bashers that try to convert everyone they meet and send everyone who do not believe exactly as they do to hell.

      I do not see my story as promoting faith-based apartheid and that honestly was not my intention. Please keep in mind that it is not easy to paint an inclusive picture of one’s intentions and experiences in only 1000 words. It’s easy to be misunderstood because of semantics.

      Your reply is not what I would term militant.

      • Thanks for the clarification. It would go a long way to avoiding the perception of a different standard for non believers if the term ‘militant’ were also used to describe what you assure us is the other side of the same coin, namely, the religious fundamentalists who speak out in favour of religious privilege… but I don’t think I’ve ever come across the use of term this way; the flip side is used to describe those of the religious extreme who justify violence done in its name. The term, however, is commonly associated with non believers who publicly speak out against religious privilege. So although the intention to be fair may be presented after the fact (and almost always is when I challenge people’s use of the term), the common practice is to label one side with terminology that is not just derogatory but grossly misleading in any fair comparison. And this practice supports the principle behind so much discrimination: supporters of an ‘equal but different’ kind of equality! And this is what I see in play here with the one-sided terminology deserving of a comment.

      • Actually, tildeb, most academic studies of fundamentalism (the Christian variety) accept George Marsden’s definition of it, which describes it as militant anti-modernism, if memory serves (militant is definitely in there). Marsden is a Christian, for what that’s worth.

      • Now if only the trickle-down effect would work and the term was used equivalently, that would suit me just fine. In the meantime, people like these is what passes for militant religious belief: suicide bombers (more aptly defined as mass murderers). The difference in usage is rather telling when one tries to defend the atheist version as some supposed equivalency.

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