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learning the words: education


Today’s guest post is from Georgia, a reader who grew up in the Independent Fundamental Baptist movement, left that behind, pursued an education, and eventually became a lawyer. “Learning the Words” is a series on the words many of us didn’t have in fundamentalism or overly conservative evangelicalism– and how we got them back. If you would like to be a part of this series, you can find my contact information at the top.

When my mother and father met, my mother talked to my father about the new movement she had heard of called homeschooling.  It was 1983 or so, and the only people who were homeschooling were, frankly, a bit weird. The homeschooling movement appealed to my father because he was concerned that the public schools were intentionally dumbing down students.  My mother was not a strong student, although she is bright; she found it too easy to tune out and stare out the window, and she wanted more direct control over her children’s education.  I think morality played a role in their decision, for sure.  But the idea that they were homeschooling in order to pursue a superior education was paramount.

My mother was really dedicated to legitimacy.  She bought the Mennonite curriculum, Rod & Staff, because instead of pictures or bright colors it had long pages of math problems.  She recorded every day’s activities in a set of record books, in case the government audited her and asked what she was doing. At this time, my mother said things like “Repetition is the key to learning!” and “Math will make you or break you in college!”  Both of these sayings are inaccurate, but demonstrate that she cared about sending us to college.  Sending me to college, even though I am female.

I don’t know what would have happened if we had stayed on this path.  I think it is not impossible that I would have been encouraged to go to a real college; with a different set of circumstances maybe I would have been one of those early homeschoolers who gets into Harvard and claims homeschooling created great success.

Instead, my parents moved from California to Georgia when I was nine.  My parents tried to find a non-denominational church they liked, but struggled.  One day, my mother was researching private schools (which she did every once in a while, although nothing ever came of it).  She found a church school in an unusual denomination called “independent fundamental Baptist.”  We tried it out.  My parents loved it.  The pastor was very charismatic and very committed to long sermons which were heavy on Biblical study.  Essentially, my parents viewed him as educated.

Interestingly, the pastor was a bit of an anomaly in his own denomination.  Guest pastors said things like “I don’t need man’s learning to tell me how to interpret God’s word.”  Our pastor was an intelligent man — he had studied to be an engineer before feeling God’s call.  But he overlaid the anti-educational ideas of his theology over his own commitment to scholarship.  Thus, the pastor prioritized finding the unaccredited Bible school of the moment which best aligned with every detail of his theology. The people who didn’t go to those schools were made to feel a bit second rate, a bit theologically suspect.

My family’s view of the role of women changed fairly radically with every year that they stayed with the IFB church.  My mother really fought against the church’s restrictions at first. But, as the years went on, she became more convicted that this was the correct way.  My family began to speak of my sister’s and my education as primarily a way to meet a husband at college and become a good mother, with a back-up career plan in case my husband died.  I convinced them to let me go to college at 16 because I had a boyfriend and my mother thought I probably would want to marry him soon, so I should speed up my education.

It was not in question whether I would go to an accredited school. How would I meet a husband who shared my values at a school outside my specific denomination? How would I gain the Biblical values necessary to true education at a secular institution?  I went to Pensacola Christian College for the 2002-03 school year.  Even this was a concession to education, because my the women in my youth group were going to Crown College for an early childhood education degree with a minor in music (so that they could marry preachers, play piano in church, and be able to conduct at least a Sunday school and maybe a church-sponsored preschool).

Truth be told, I didn’t actually understand what accreditation was.  I didn’t know that an unaccredited degree severely restricts educational options available, or that it essentially serves as a pipeline back into the church, the only place that will hire the graduates.  Until I was at PCC for a year, I had never heard about seniors graduating, going home, and working at Wal-Mart because they could do little else and they didn’t have a church school to fall back on.

I was disappointed and disillusioned by PCC.  I did not have to work at all to succeed in my classes.  I took twenty credit hours my spring semester, worked the maximum hours allowed at the bookstore, and still had significant time to spend with my friends.  I got a 4.0 that semester.  More importantly, I was in a crisis of faith, because the restrictions were absurd, and the students cruelly urged to turn against each other by the administration.  I heard about Liberty University in hushed tones from a fellow bookstore worker, who also kindly explained the importance of accreditation.  Without access to internet, and only able to call the phone number she gave me, I worked out a transfer.  I didn’t lose my credit hours because Liberty University was one of the very few accredited schools to accept credit hours from unaccredited institutions.

Many of the same problems still plagued me at Liberty. Although Liberty did not prioritize legalistic adherence to certain ideas like PCC, the school theology instead prioritized emotional response over argument and learning.  I continued to struggle to believe in God, or in the ideals my parents taught me. But I did begin to discover true education.  Some of my classes encouraged us to read texts which differed markedly from what we collectively were said to believe.  The purpose for exposing us to these texts was something like “analyze through a Christian lens” but I can’t really say I did that.  Instead, I read with interest and excitement.  I joined the debate team, which radically shifted my thinking at a basic level.  Through advocating positions I did not believe, I began to see statements and claims as a series of argumentative propositions — some better, some worse — and to apply a critical eye to things I had accepted as givens.

It’s not that I consider myself educated now because I ditched religiousness.  I think education is a commitment to process rather than a commitment to outcome.  The process of becoming educated involves informed consent — exposure to fair interpretations and original texts of other schools of thought, and a recognition that human beings have an imperfect grasp on Truth and must grope toward truth-little-t by exposing all ideas to rigorous argument and counter-argument.  For me, many of the principles I grew up with did not pass the tests of rigorous argument.  I have seen people who did satisfy themselves, or who have the capacity to bracket religiousness as something beyond the realm of logic and argument. But, it is hard for me to live with the not-knowing, and I envy without condescension those who have achieved some kind of balance between knowledge and faith.

Ultimately, I graduated with an accredited college degree. I took the LSAT on a whim and, because I test well, schools overlooked my questionable educational history.  When I mentioned to my parents that I had applied to Berkeley’s law school, my mother completely melted down.  She wrote me a letter which became infamous as the “Column A and Column B letter” among my friends.  Column A included items like “Have a strong marriage and be a submissive wife” “Homeschool children” “Write for the John Birch Society” “Defend persecuted Christians.”  Column B included items like “Prosecute companies for even small amounts of toxic waste” “Feminist marriage probably leading to divorce” “Children rebellious.”  When I chose to attend Vanderbilt law, my parents did kindly help me move into my new Nashville apartment.  We went to the corner store to pick up tape and the sweet Southern lady asked if we were moving in because I was going to Vanderbilt.  I said yes, and she said to my mother “You must be so proud.”  My mother made a face and said, “Kind of.”

I think she secretly became proud, though, over time, because I have heard from various sources that she likes to namedrop “my daughter the lawyer.”  And once, when I was having an emotional conversation with her about why I feared getting married because I wanted an easy escape if my husband engaged in physical abuse like she had suffered, she said, “What happened to me would never happen to you.  You are an educated woman.”


guest post at Leaving Fundamentalism


I wrote a guest post on my experience with conservative Christian homeschooling textbooks for Jonny Scaramanga’s blog, Leaving Fundamentalism.

As a homeschooled child growing up in the Independent Fundamental Baptist movement in the rural South of America, my family depended on textbooks provided to the homeschooling movement by Christian publishers. We used a smattering from a variety of publishers– Bob Jones Univeristy Press, A Beka (distributed by Pensacola Christian College), Saxon Math, McGuffy’s Readers, Alpha & Omega, and a few others.

I was intensely proud of my homeschooled education. In many ways, it was a good one. I studied Latin, Greek, and logic all the way through high school. I had the freedom to read everything Jane Austen and Charles Dickens ever wrote before I was sixteen. In some ways, my education was solid. It was good enough to get me through a Master’s degree, at least.

In other ways . . . it was dreadful.

There are huge– monumentally huge– gaps in my education, and I’m not talking about the fact that many homeschoolers tend to struggle with science and mathematics.

The most glaring problem with Christian-published textbooks is that they’re wrong. Factually and ethically wrong . . .

You can read the rest of it here.

Social Issues

centered on love– and learning to show it


Two weeks after I quit my soul-sucking bank job, I drove across the country and over the mountains–by myself. It was a harrying adventure, especially when I got to West Virginia and I didn’t have money for the toll. I ended up driving through the “country roads” John Denver loves to sing about until about one o’clock in the morning.

I will never, ever, do that again.

But, I managed to make it to Lynchburg, Virginia in one piece, got everything taken care of, moved into the house I’d be sharing with two other girls, and showed up on campus Monday morning bright-eyed and bushy-tailed. I had arrived about a month before classes were to officially start, as being a GA meant I had to take a short course of teaching college writing. I was excited, and figured I had a handle on it. I’d been a secondary education major at a university that was pretty famous in Christian circles for its education program, so how hard could it be?

I had no idea what I was getting in to.

Here’s what I was “taught” about education (and by “taught” I mean “bludgeoned into thinking is true”):

  • Repetition is the key to learning.
  • The purpose of Christian education is to evangelize. Actual education is secondary. (There was a three-sentence statement that basically said this that I had to regurgitate onto every quiz and test I took in any of my education classes. Thankfully, I have forgotten it.)
  • One-room schoolhouses were the BEST.
  • You should rue the day corporal punishment was no longer allowed.
  • The NEA is the worst thing that has ever happened. EVER.
  • Progressive education is a dirty word. John Dewey, and I quote: “introduced socialistic, anti-Christian philosophy in the schools. The Bible was separated from academic studies.” That was his only contribution. Oh, and he wrote and signed the Humanist Manifesto, which “enunciated secular humanism as a religion.”
  • Sight-say is of the devil.
  • New Math teaches that if a student thinks 2 + 2 = 5, it doesn’t matter.  (This is patently false.)
  • You should never want to be a public school teacher. Ever. Also, ignore our book that tells school founders to pay you $15k a year salaried, and yet force you to work 80 hours a week, minimum. If you go to a public school because they’ll pay you twice that, well, then, you’re a sell-out and God will punish you. (Also, this book was updated in 2009, I think, and they modified the $15k number from $10k to reflect minimum wage.)
  • If you hear the words “student-centered learning,” you should run away screaming.
  • Everything in the Chronicle of Higher Education is complete rubbish.
  • Never, ever smile at your students before Thanksgiving.
  • Have a plan (i.e., a pre-determined discipline progression), or your students will dominate you.
  • Psychology is a pseudo-science.
  • You are not your student’s friend, or their buddy. You should not care what they think.

I could go on, but I think you get my drift.

I walked into my very first classroom at Liberty, and I met a wonderful man. He was my professor, and I have never met a kindler, gentler, humbler, more loving person anywhere else. The first time he explained how being a teacher means adapting to the needs of your students, I was . . . mystified. When one of my fellow classmates gave a presentation on working with ESL students should require extra effort on the teacher’s part, I internally tut-tutted her. If they can’t make it to my standard, then that’s their problem, not mine. They’ll just need to take the course again.

I loved my professor, but I honestly thought of him as, well, terribly misguided. He just didn’t understand that “traditional education” was the better way. That being “progressive” or “student centered” would only lead to being an ineffective teacher that would have to lower her standards.

And then I started teaching fifty freshman writing students.

Heilige scheisse.

Everything I thought I knew about teaching failed. Failed spectacularly. At the end of my first semester, my boss– a magnificent, if terrifying woman, and one of the best supervisor’s I’ve ever had– pulled me into her office and told me that I was a breath away from getting sacked, and if I didn’t get my act together in the next semester, I was a goner.

I panicked. I didn’t know what to do. There were procedural things I could fix, and I did, but I couldn’t just magically transform myself into a better teacher. I read through all of my evaluations, repeatedly. I contemplated all the things that had turned into a disaster that semester, and I tried to figure out what had gone wrong. Eventually, I did see it.

The problem was me.


That hurt.

But, once I saw what I had done, it broke my heart. I had punished my students, constantly, for “failing.” I had guilted them, and handed them diatribes and discipline. And something my mother had taped to the front of our refrigerator came back to me:

No one has ever arisen out of a mountain of criticisms to please their accuser. 

Sure, I had followed the “sandwich method.” I think, in my heart, I really did care about my students. Their success mattered to me– their personal lives mattered to me… but my indoctrination absolutely forbade me from showing any of that.

The next semester, and the next year, I vowed things were going to be different. And they were.

I spent two hours a week with my ESL student, Hyun*, teaching him about articles and verb tense– outside of my scheduled office hours. Hyun continued coming to see me after that semester, just to chat.

I knew– knew— that Trevor* was a wonderful writer, but he needed some tough love to get there. He did, fighting with me the entire time, but by the end of the semester he came to my office to tell me that my refusal to accept his “good enough” had changed his life.

Instead of resorting to rebuke when Brandon* kept falling asleep in my class every day, I asked him if anything was going on. He started crying– Brandon, my camo-wearing, Browning-backpack-toting, combat-boot-stomping student– and told me that his father had leukemia and he was driving home three hours every day to see him in the hospital. I hugged him, and cried with him, and told him that I loved him, and we prayed for his father– who is now in remission, and wrote me a letter thanking him for taking the time with his son.

I recognized that James*, who was painfully shy, was brilliant and just needed a tiny push out of the nest. He’s now a published writer, part of Sigma Tau Delta, and is presenting at a conference in a few weeks.

I wanted to grow frustrated with Mark*, who was constantly absent, but I stopped. You don’t know what’s going on in his life, Samantha. Ask him. See if he needs help. Turns out he had contracted a rare virus while he had been deployed in Afghanistan and it had caused spinal degradation so bad it required major surgery. He came to me the day he had to officially withdraw from college and told me that my willingness to cry with him and pray with him was a reason he was going to come back to college, even if it was in a wheelchair.

Jessica* made me want to tear my hair out, she caused so many disruptions and distractions in class. But, I asked her to come to my office, and then I just asked her if she was ok. She broke down and told me she’d been raped, and she didn’t know what to do. It was the first time I had used my experience for good– to tell her that she was not alone, and that I would help her however she needed me. She is now in the honors program as an English major, and wants to be a teacher– and she’s organized several rape awareness campaigns on campus. The very first ones, at least that I’m aware of.

I’m not sharing any of these stories to brag about me, or anything I did in those situations. The only thing I did was throw away the evil idea that students should be less than human to teachers. That teachers are only there to deposit information in little brain-ATMs. The only thing I managed to do was reject a system of living that tried to cut me off from people– that wanted me to treat their existence like it didn’t matter to mine.

I’ve never found love and grace in a fundamentalist mindset– and that is the most frightening thing imaginable, because love is the only thing that has the power to change the world, or to make a difference.


flight: on leaving the fundamentalist nest

I eventually chose Liberty University for grad school– mostly because of Kevin Roose’s book The Unlikely Disciple: A Sinner’s Semester at America’s Holiest University. I picked it up in Barnes and Noble while I was still at my fundamentalist college, mostly for kicks and giggles. The subtitle about “America’s Holiest University” amused me, mostly because it exposed how little anyone really knows of places like Bob Jones, or Pensacola Christian, or Hyles-Anderson– all of which make Liberty University look tame. BJU and PCC like to think of themselves as big stuff– and they are, in fundamentalist homeschooling circles, but… well, PCC’s student population hovers right around 4,000 students. That’s miniscule compared to Liberty’s 12,000, and that’s nothing compared to Michigan’s 45,000.

But, the book made it seem that Liberty was a place I could potentially fit in– and grow. It is still a conservative evangelical university, and the administration is famous for various stunts including disbanding the Democratic student organization. It is also still very much Jerry Falwell’s school, a man who came onto my radar for the first time when he claimed on national television that hurricane Katrina was punishment for America’s toleration of homosexuality. Needless to say, I knew what I was getting myself into.

However, I was also terrified of secular colleges. I had been told, my entire life, that if you went to a secular college, you were going to be mocked, persecuted. You’d fail classes because your liberal professors would single you out for your Christian beliefs. You’d either have to compromise your faith to survive, especially in graduate school, or you would be stifled and silenced. One of my English professors told my senior-level literature class nightmare stories about the trauma she endured while in graduate school– all those horrific, ugly, nasty, perverted books like The Awakening by Kate Chopin or anything written by Virginia Woolf. Basically, if a woman wrote it post-1850, it was suspect as a work of literature. She told us all about how literary theory classes were nothing more than liberal indoctrination, and how being a Christian made it impossible for her to have an equal part in any class discussions, because she was always dismissed by her fellow students.

Plus, Oregon and Brigham Young wouldn’t accept my non-accredited degree. Liberty had a long history of accepting students from my college, and I didn’t want to have to start over.

But, I had to get over some hurdles first.

I took the GRE after studying for it for three weeks. That is not enough time to study for the GRE, by the way. Not if you know next to nothing about math, which I did not. Also, the reading comprehension bits are not usually narrative. They’re non-fiction, and can get incredibly technical. Blech.

I had to go off-campus, again, to submit my application and print out the graduate assistant application so I could mail that in. My family does not have an over-abundance of wealth, and there was no way I was going to exist under a mountain of student loans when Liberty was willing to pay for my education. I had all of that submitted by November, about a month before my graduation. I’d applied for Liberty’s spring semester, although I knew that was a long shot.

I did get accepted, but for the following Fall.

I started celebrating, and that was when I started encountering opposition.

My Sunday school teacher from my youth was incredulous that I would even consider going to such a “party school.” She told me that Liberty had co-ed dorms and no restrictions- that the entire school existed to accept the students who couldn’t hack it at “real” Christian colleges. She told me that if I went there, I’d be in constant danger of spiritual and physical corruption.

When I was discussing post-graduation plans with my co-workers and announced that I’d be going to Liberty in September, she reached over, took my hand, and told me that she would “be praying for me,” that I would “see the light,” and “come to my senses”– that I would realize that my “true place” was in the “center of God’s protection,” and that I’d stop “rebelling against what I knew to be true,” and that I needed to stay at my undergrad institution– if I wanted to pursue a graduate degree at all, which she didn’t “feel was wise for a woman to do.”

Both of those were fairly easy to laugh off as ridiculous– because they were. Utterly and completely. Even back then I knew that they were crazy.

A more difficult conversation was with my parents. I told my mother I’d applied and been accepted to Liberty, and her response was that I’d “have to discuss it with my father.”

Those words were ominous, and filled me with dread. What if my father said I couldn’t go? What would I do? I was realizing every day how fervently I wanted–needed— this step forward.

When I did, eventually, talk to my father, the conversation did not go well. He told me that he did not think going all the way to Virginia for grad school was a good idea, that a daughter shouldn’t be so far away from home. That, if I went, I’d be “outside the umbrella of his protection,” and had I considered going to grad school online, or a Christian school closer to home?

It was difficult to explain that online master’s degrees in English were not really worth the time or money, and that the schools near home were too conservative for me– if they offered grad programs at all, which few did– and none in English. “Well, why did it have to be English?” he asked, and then I had to explain about my dream of becoming an editor. My father’s concern, at that point, shot through the roof. Become an editor? Move to New York? That was insane– impossible. I could not do that, was incapable of ever doing that. I had no idea of what the real world is like, he told me, and trying to make it on my own, outside of the protective shield of my parents, would destroy me. I should give up on that immediately and find a more realistic option. I could go to work at the same company my father worked at, be a communications or marketing assistant if I really wanted to get into editing. That way, I could stay at home and skip all of my ridiculous notions of making it as an editor, on my own.

When Liberty told me that even though I had been accepted into their graduate school, there was no room in the GA program, it felt like a crushing defeat. It felt like God had slammed the door in my face just to prove my father right. I couldn’t do it. I should just go home.

So I did.

I went home.

I got a soul-sucking job as a teller, and every day I came home with another example of how I couldn’t make it in the real world. I wasn’t cut out for it. Wasn’t designed for it.

That lasted for eight months– until I got an email from the director of the GA program asking if I was still interested in the program.

Was I still interested? Was he kidding me?!

Nervous, borderline nauseated, I called my father at work and asked him what I should do.

One of the things I have always appreciated about my father is that he is never hasty. He has the patience of an oak, and can wait out nearly any storm. He also takes questions like this one seriously, and he’s never rushed just so he could give me an answer. Usually, when I ask him for advice, his response is that he would pray about it– and he would tell me what he thought a few days, maybe a few weeks later.

So his response shocked me.

“You should go.”

His answer was immediate, without hesitation. Firm. Sure.

“Really? I’d have to be there in two weeks.”

“Yes. Go into work tomorrow and tell them you quit.”

So I did.

Two weeks later I was in Lynchburg, Virginia.

Photo by Diana Robinson

not just in Pakistan: Christians don’t believe in educating women

Like most kids, “what I wanted to be when I grew up” changed . . . oh, every six months, maybe? My interests ran the gamut– I wanted to be a vulcanologist. Then a large-animal veterinarian. A marine biologist– no, a marine botanist; algae is so cool! I wanted to be a medical researcher. Wait, a nutritionist. Oh, wow– quantum physics is fascinating.

Then, something interesting happened. And, by “interesting,” I mean “awful.” I loved, loved math until I hit higher mathematics in high school. In truth, I loved everything about school. There was a period in middle school when I got insanely bored, so my mom’s solution was to skip a grade. I skipped sixth grade completely, and I skipped sixth and seventh grade in math. Why? Because I was good at it.

And then I had a conversation with my friend, the pastor’s daughter. I was enthusiastic about geometry and algebra, and I was having a one-sided, yet still quite animated discussion, about the Greek philosophers. She rolled her eyes at me, made a dismissive motion with her hand, and told me that the Greek philosophers were a bunch of pagans who could never really understand the world because they didn’t “have God,” and didn’t I know that girls were supposed to hate math?

Why no . . . no, I didn’t.

I told my Sunday school teacher I wanted to be an astrophysicist– and he asked me how I expected to have a job and be a mother at the same time? Well, maybe I could just do it before I had kids. Then I could stay at home.

“So, you’re going to spend all of that money going to college and then never use it?”

I . . . guess not. That does seem kinda silly, a woman, going to college, ha-ha.

When I did, eventually, go to my radically conservative fundamentalist college, I was a music major.

Because “math” became useless to me. Because I was good at playing the piano, and why didn’t I just do that? Then you could go to college, if you really wanted to do that, I don’t understand why you just don’t stay home, but at least, this way, you could be a stay-at-home-mom and teach piano. Wouldn’t even have to leave the house, even. Children could come to you.

I started off as a piano performance major. When they introduced the piano pedagogy major, nearly everyone I knew pressured me toward that degree track. Because it was designed to create piano teachers– and piano performance is really only trying to get you to be a concert pianist, and why would you need that? You’d have to leave home.

At the end of every year in the music program, you are evaluated based on your progress. If they think you can’t hack it as a piano performance major, you’re told to go into another track– church music, piano pedagogy, music education, or choral conducting. My freshman evaluation was coming up, and I knew I was going to fail it. I wasn’t a spectacularly good pianist, and I knew it. So, I had to consider my options. Enter piano pedagogy, like everyone wanted?

I chose music education.

I explained this to my mother as a “calling,” an explanation that turned out to be frustrating later when I decided I definitely hated the very idea of teaching music to a room full of 13-year-olds holding things capable of making hideous noises. But, it was convenient at the time. I even had a neat little story of how I was vacuuming my room one day and I just knew, like a voice from heaven, that I was supposed to be in music education. It was just so clear.

It had nothing to do with the fact that the thought of caving to all those people in my life and choosing to be a good little stay-at-home-piano-teacher was absolutely repugnant. Nothing at all.

By my junior year, during one of those rare occasions when I consented to going to church with my parents, I ran into Mrs. B. She was an aeronautical engineer that had worked at NASA during the 70s. She had also been the woman to tell me one morning when we were both “keeping nursery,” in no uncertain terms, that I was smart, and that I needed to go to college.

She asked me how college was going, and I told her that I had changed majors, that I was considering graduate school.

She was thrilled.

She was the only person that had ever become happy when I told them I wanted to pursue higher education. She told me that I could be anything that I wanted to be, and to “never give up on my brain,” as she put it.

Mrs. B doesn’t know it, but her encouragement probably saved my life two years later.