Picture this: gray walls rising up on three sides of you as you sit, hunched over your schoolwork - a science worksheet repudiating the theory of evolution, using the Loch Ness Monster as an example for why Darwin was horrifically, inexcusably wrong.
As you fill in the blanks, copying the answers from the pages of information in front of you, you begin to long for the sight of another human face, or the sound of something other than the scratching of pencils. Forget communication or cooperation with fellow students – the only way you can converse with the supervisor is to raise your small American Flag above your head, the stars and stripes alerting your need
You might be forgiven for thinking I’m describing a scene from Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-four. But for thousands of children and teenagers around New Zealand who learn under the Accelerated Christian Education programme – not to mention the hordes internationally – this is an everyday reality.
When I was eight years old, my mother and father summoned me to the living room, along with my six younger brothers and sisters. Reluctantly laying aside my comic book, I traipsed into the lounge and flung myself down upon the sofa, fully expecting yet another pregnancy announcement. Glowing with barely-contained pride, Mum clasped Dad’s hand and announced “We’re going to homeschool you!” Even then, as a self-proclaimed hermit who disliked school because of the bullying I received, I had a feeling this was not going to end well for me. Don’t get me wrong – my parents are wonderful, kind and encouraging, and I love them greatly. I grew up in a very loving home, with parents who taught us Biblical tenets and ensured that we knew who our Lord and Saviour was. To them, believing in God was a matter of fact, not faith. With church services at least twice a week, devotional prayers every day and the constant questioning whether I had “read my Bible” that day, the old adage “familiarity breeds contempt” began to make sense for me. Home-schooling was the final straw – ACE would ensure that right-wing, conservative teaching permeated my life a further six hours each day.
Accelerated Christian Education (ACE) is an American educational program for students from New Entrant level to the end of high school, founded in 1970 by Dr Donald R. Howard. ACE is taught in over 6,000 schools in 145 countries worldwide. ACE is also utilised as a homeschooling program - because it does not require any actual teaching on the part of the parent, virtually any family can use it. ACE upholds the belief that the Bible is literally true, and that there should be no distinction between church and state. Although the traumatic events of my own home-schooling 11 years before have seared themselves into my cerebral cortex, I decided to head to the ACE website to refresh my knowledge of this ‘educational’ regime. Clicking on an informational video, I was welcomed by a rotund, balding and over enthusiastic man waving his arms and waxing lyrical about the carnal, secular times we live in. This man was Mr Duane Howard, the Vice President of ACE. Duane informed me that “Children are so different – some short, some tall, some towering over their friends…children are uniquely different because God made them that way!” Paradoxically, every single child presented in this video (save one token black boy) was able-bodied, white and seemingly adhered to traditional presentations of gender.
After half an hour, I had learned more than I cared to know about this educational program. ACE comprises an individualised learning method that uses printed booklets of information known as PACES (Packages of Accelerated Christian Education) which enable the child to advance at their own speed. There is a compulsory core curriculum of five subjects; English, Mathematics, Social Studies, Science and Word Building (grammar). Pupils are required to complete 12 PACES per year per subject, and are examined by the ‘International Christian Certificate of Education’ in place of NCEA, GSCE or A levels. The ACE program may be employed for home-schooling, or it may be the educational curriculum for a Christian school. My brother Will recently spent six weeks at Drury Christian School in Auckland, where the ACE curriculum is implemented. I listened to his anecdotes with glee – Will’s first encounter with life at Drury involved him walking in on a hall of middle-aged men, wearing the same clothes – “long trousers, cardigans and bare feet” – silently washing eggs to sell. “Normal enough,” Will concedes, but “it struck me as a bit odd.”
These schools revolve around a ‘learning centre’; namely, a large room divided up into individual cubicles. Like a plastic, sterilised medieval monastery, the students are sequestered off for the majority of the day, working their way through PACES in utter silence. These learning centres also include supervisor’s desks, which are scoring stations where the pupils can mark their own work. Teachers do not exist within this institution – instead there are ‘supervisors’ and ‘monitors’, responsible for answering pupil’s questions. According to my brother, the monastic layout of the classroom creates a “studious environment” although “it fails in that you are always learning by yourself and that you seldom get taught properly.” Will said that ACE required a great deal of “self-motivation” which by his own admission he “sometimes lacked.”
Every morning, pupils set themselves goals in terms of the number of pages they aim to complete that day, and then are left to work at their own speed through the PACES. If the pupil encounters difficulty, they raise a flag on their learning station to ask for help from the monitor. At regular intervals throughout each PACE, the student marks their own work, and at the end of each booklet there is a test in which they must achieve at least 80 percent before progressing onto the next PACE. Indeed, Duane informed me that a student has “to repeat the unit of work until he had learned the material”. Hearing this, I was transported back to memories of filling in the same Social Studies worksheet until tears of frustration filled my eyes because I failed to understand a certain concept, and not having an actual teacher to explain it to me (or classmates to ask), I was doomed to repeat my mistakes until I chanced upon the right answer.
The educational video went on to discuss the chaotic, hedonistic environment of regular schools, as the camera panned over a stereotypical classroom, complete with many desks crammed together and students hurling paper planes at each other. Into this anarchy, a voiceover intoned how “the nurture and admiration of the Lord requires biblical discipline” – until relatively recently, corporal punishment was considered a valid means of disciplining a wayward child. ACE even published instructional guides on how to properly spank a student with a paddle (known colloquially in some schools as the “Board of Education”). This short film was often unintentionally hilarious – at one point, dear Duane recounted how “most schools screen out underachievers”, while a lanky, bedraggled student was lead outside the classroom and the door shut ignominiously in his face. The next frame showed the same student morosely peering through the classroom window like a Victorian street sweeper glued to the windows of a brightly lit department store.
According to the official ACE literature, students “are taught to see life from God’s point of view”. Religious instruction is embedded in every facet of this educational system – biblical principles and concepts are insidious and inescapable. History is presented as ‘His-Story’, the unveiling of God’s will. The concept of Creationism underlies every Science PACE, and evolution is simply a devilish lie. Every example, illustration or activity is inherently religious; for example, in English, children are given examples of interrogative sentences such as “Do you know Jesus as your personal Saviour?” The children are then asked to underline the correct verb in a sentence like “God (is, are) good.” This conservative approach extends to politics, where pupils are taught that God’s views are solely right-wing; left-wing ideals are evil and godless. For example, students are taught that government benefit schemes and healthcare programs defy God’s will. To quote Social Studies PACE 1094, “God’s plan is for these needs to be met first by family members, and then by local churches, but not by government programs.”
Quite apart from its propagandist and brainwashing elements, ACE is flawed because it relies upon disproved, outdated methods of teaching and learning that restrict a child’s imaginative and creative potential, as well as discouraging actual understanding in favour of rote memorization. For example, in my experience with English PACES, I only remember filling in countless pages of grammar exercises – I cannot recall ever studying a book or a poem. The majority of educational activities in ACE involve rote memorisation and filling in the blanks, which has been criticised by educational researchers such as D. Fleming. To quote educational psychologist David Berliner, these teaching methods are essentially “low-level cognitive tasks that emphasize simple association and recall activities.” Students are forced to work in absolute silence – there is no possibility for debate or argument. In my opinion, exposure to varying opinions and ideas (as occurs in classroom discussions) is healthy, encouraging the student to consider all alternatives and make a well-informed decision on the topic. Almost utterly devoid of scholarship and critical thinking, ACE promotes a very limited and often inaccurate view of the world within the mind of the student. Children have no chance to learn through investigation, exploration, or hands-on knowledge.
ACE is also very problematic with its insensitivity towards Blacks, Jews, and Asians – in fact, anyone who isn’t white. I remember sitting at my desk until five or six in the evening, toiling over a white-washed colonialist account of American History with only the odd brightly coloured comic strip incorporated within the PACES to alleviate my boredom. These cartoon strips promote segregation – students of each race attend different schools. White children attend Highland, Black students attend Harmony and Asian students go to Heartsville. The PACES go on to explicitly support racial segregation, arguing that although apartheid appeared to allow the unfair treatment of blacks, it was nonetheless a remarkably successful system, enabling the development of South Africa into a modern industrialized nation; “White businessmen and developers … turned South Africa into a modern industrialized nation, which the poor, uneducated blacks couldn’t have accomplished in several more decades. If more blacks were suddenly given control of the nation, its economy and business, as Mandela wished, they could have destroyed what they have waited and worked so hard for.” Forget the misery, poverty and racism occasioned by such a scheme – as long as white Christian businessmen were in power, all was well in the world.
It won’t surprise you to learn that ACE is also guilty of promoting sexism, homophobia and ignorance regarding gender and sexuality. It’s no secret that religious fundamentalism and feminism aren’t exactly compatible. Traditional, restrictive ideas of femininity and masculinity are reinforced throughout ACE, from English PACES where students studying grammar are asked to underline words about women submitting in the home to cartoon strips where young girls are shamed for daring to show their knees. Consider this question, found in a Maths PACE: “You come home from school to find a sink full of dirty dishes. What should you do out of consideration for your mother?” One of the less-than-credible answers is actually “Tell your sister to do the dishes while you do your homework.” Also, the female characters in the cartoon strips are always homemakers – or, if they actually have a career outside of the home, they are always secretary to the male CEO or teacher aide to the male principal. Any girl aspiring to something other than motherhood and the domestic sphere (not to deride these occupations, but one should be given a choice) will be sorely disappointed, as will any male student who wants to be a stay-at-home dad.
Far from inspiring me in my quest for femininity and purity, the aggravating piety and beatific smiles of the children in the comics made me want to rant and rave – to throw plates, swear vociferously, and push old ladies in front of buses.
I couldn’t abide the unerring compliance and righteousness of the women and girls in these comics and thus they paradoxically brought out the worst in me. My parents blame my heretical ways on my secular education at a public high school, but I firmly believe that my wicked ways began with the provoking effect of the ACE comics. Unsurprisingly, sex education in ACE was virtually non-existent. All I gained from ACE was the feeling that somehow I was to blame for having a developing body – it was my fault that the mere sight of my shoulders or bare knees incited a man’s lust. Pre-marital sex was a no-no, let alone any romantic or sexual interest in the same sex. I was led to believe that the majority of my worth as a young woman resided in my virginity, and any sexual activity before marriage would render me ‘damaged goods’. Uniform policies are strictly enforced at ACE schools - as if the sight of bare skin somehow propels one closer to Hell. My sister recently visited Drury Christian School for an exam, and was severely told off for wearing a sleeveless t-shirt - for daring to show her shoulders. Although this was at the height of summer, she was told to put on a hoodie to preserve her modesty. After hearing this, I became so enraged and indignant that I seriously considered donning my most revealing outfit, smearing on great quantities of red lipstick and marching into Drury to protest.
ACE PACES are relentlessly homophobic. Beneath a section titled “Man’s Corruptions”, one may learn that “homosexuality is a learned behaviour” and that there is “no biological difference between homosexuals and others”. Given that homosexuality was met with death in the Old Testament, and that “since God never commanded death for normal or acceptable actions”, the act of love between two persons of the same gender is tantamount to “murder or stealing” (Science 1077). Thousands of young queer people have been exposed to these poisonous beliefs that they should be ashamed (if not stoned) for their sexuality. My brother Will told me that even while swimming, young boys were ordered to keep their shirts on, just incase the sight of another boy’s prepubescent chest stirred up latent feelings of homosexuality.
Finally, ACE is the antithesis of scientific information and methods. ACE is incessantly and inexcusably Young-Earth Creationist, with “evidence” for creation included in virtually every PACE. Evolution is denigrated as “impossible” and a “sinking ship”. According to ACE, evolutionary scientists believe that “There were only fish. Then one day a fish mysteriously gave birth to a frog. Then there were reptiles… Then there were mammals… Then one day a monkey gave birth to a human and… voila! The human race.” As a child, this was the only explanation of evolution I received. Mainstream scientific books were very rare in our house, and thus from about the age of 8 to 14, I was under the impression that evolutionists were incredulous idiots. I distinctly remember asking my biology teacher why, if humans had evolved from chimpanzees, chimpanzees still existed? According to ACE, evolution couldn’t have occurred because there are “no transitional fossils” – nor will there ever be any future discoveries of the sort. That is, if one ignores the thousands of transitional fossils discovered since On the Origin of the Species was published. Remember that vaguely exciting discovery of Lucy, a 40 percent complete Australopithecus afarensis skeleton back in 1974? Perhaps ACE missed that memo.
Furthermore, ACE ridicules evolutionists by claiming that they use the “hopeful monster” theory to explain this apparent lack of transitional fossils. This theory, put forward by Richard Goldschmidt, dates back to 1940 and argues that the large genetic differences between species require profound ‘macro-mutations’ as a source for large genetic changes which once in awhile can occur as a ‘hopeful monster’. However this theory has been rejected by the scientific community at large and is not incorporated within the widely-held theory of evolution. A straw-man version of evolution is thus set up and set fire to, thereby ‘proving’ Creationism. Lamarckism, an old theory arguing that evolution can be influenced from non-genetic experience, (for example, a giraffe stretching its neck to reach to the tops of trees will have babies with longer necks) is also resurrected as another straw-man attack on evolution. Students are taught that fossils exist to test one’s faith, that Noah’s flood explains the Grand Canyon as well as our reserves of oil and gas, and that humans and dinosaurs existed at the same time. All this makes me wonder whether the PACE writers genuinely don’t understand evolution, or whether they are wilfully misrepresenting it.
ACE also includes no practical science and consequently no investigation. When I was a student of this program, I remember learning about the material world ad infinitum, with nary an experiment in sight. Upon actually entering high school, I was struck with how illuminating and instructive experiments and investigations in the lab could be. As with other areas of learning, there is no room within this reading and comprehension method of learning for the generation of ideas, the formulating and testing of hypotheses, and the discussion and application of results. Moreover, ACE’s approach to science is decidedly unscientific as rather than weighing evidence objectively, ACE systematically rejects any science that contradicts the Bible; “If a scientific theory contradicts the Bible, then the theory is wrong and must be discarded.”
Lest I be accused of biased reporting, let me dwell briefly on the potential benefits of ACE. For a start, children are encouraged to set goals each morning. This provides them with something to work towards, and I remember the sense of achievement I felt after completing each day’s list. Another advantage of ACE is that unlike traditional classrooms, if a child is absent, they can just pick up where they left before. Hearkening back to the instructional video, I learned that the silent, individualised method of learning ensures that a “child does not have to ask embarrassing questions in front of his peers.” Having said this, ACE does not take into account children with social or developmental disorders – I have heard of no accommodations or alterations to the curriculum for children with ADHD or Dyslexia, for example. Even a number of Christian educational experts disagree with ACE. For example, Geoffrey Duncan (General Secretary of the National Society and the General Synod Board of Education for the Church of England) describes an ideal Christian school as one where “the ethos of Christianity pervades the schools, but dogma is notably absent.” Not so with ACE.
I guess I’m one of the lucky ones - I escaped ACE after only half a year of homeschooling. My mother, who acted as my supervisor, couldn’t deal with the stress of homeschooling five children and raising a baby. I returned to a secular primary school and went on to high school, where I learned about safe sex, evolution and women’s rights. I was never physically or mentally abused, although it has taken time for me to unlearn certain fundamentalist principles. I also was primarily taught at home, and thus escaped the more poisonous environment of the ACE schools themselves. However, six of my brothers and sisters continue to ‘learn’ under the ACE curriculum, and I really feel for them. I still can’t fathom the rationale for why so many parents are willing to put their children through what can only be described as psychological abuse. I guess that ultimately, if you seriously believe you are saving children from Hell, you can justify anything.