Christian fundamentalism and home-schooling: confusing, isolating, disheartening

“The culture of the fanatical, fundamentalist, Christian right was so unhealthy for my parents that they ended up making very basic errors in judgement that could easily have been avoided”

When asked, I say I was home-schooled because it’s an easier answer than the truth, but the difficulty is that then people tend to have follow-up questions. The most common of which is “My sister/uncle/colleague/vet is considering home-schooling their kids. What do you think?” That is when I have to level with people that I’ve no idea what I think about home-schooling, because I wasn’t home-schooled. I was left alone with books. For years.

My parents were the kind of ultra-fundamentalist Christians that only ex-hell-raising hippies can be. Before I was born they travelled around in a kind of semi-converted campervan. Most of my early childhood, though, was pretty normal for a church-kid. We had a house, my mom had a job, my dad went from one job to the next, I wasn’t allowed to watch He-Man because Jesus is the only Master of the Universe, and I wasn’t allowed to drink 7up because the stringy dude on the adverts was apparently something to do with the New Age.

photo: William Starkey
photo: William Starkey

When I was five my parents started taking the family on short term mission trips during the summer holidays, living in temporary hippie communes with other British Christians in northern Spain and travelling around to hand out Christian leaflets and do prayer walks, which are kind of like normal rambler walks only with more earnest holding of bibles and purposeful furrowed brows.

Over the following four years my family would spend more and more time “on mission” and less time in the UK until at age nine we moved over to Spain. My parents had no ongoing funding, no oversight from an organisation, but they were “Living By Faith”, “Tentmaking Like Paul” and “Full Time for The Lord”. At this point my parents decided that instead of sending me to the (flawed but ultimately pretty damn good) Spanish schooling system, they would home-school using an exciting and innovative company called “Accelerated Christian Education”.

I wasn’t home-schooled. I was left alone with books. For years.

The emphasis was on an individualised curriculum where you could learn at your own pace. The truth was the whole model was based on magazine-style workbooks in which, regardless of the subject, you’d read a page or so of text, then do a page of written exercises on that text, read a page, page of questions… Change subject workbook, read a page, page of questions. You get the idea. I don’t want to write about how the material was biased, racist, sexist, and generally didn’t take into account educational theory. Many people have already written about this much more eloquently than I could manage, and have backed their writing up with research and examples.

My problem, aged nine, was just how mind-numbingly boring and isolating I found it. Maths was just pages and pages of arithmetic, dozens of long division problems per page, work book after work book. I now love applying maths to real life situations, coding on computers, solving problems, but at that time for me it was just pages of problems I’d get wrong, and not understand why because I was, for most of the day, alone with my sister. Literature replaced great classic novels with Christian biographies, simple moralistic drivel and storyfied arguments against science. For a lonely kid (have I mentioned how lonely this all was?) books were a refuge. My grandparents (absolutely legendary people, RIP) always sent my sister and me whichever novels were winning prizes for our age-bracket at the time. To have the excitement of reading replaced with dross, predicable non-literature was really disheartening. Science was just confusing. Much of the curriculum seemed to include short biographical articles about historic scientists, because that fits into the “read a page, page of questions” model quite neatly. The lasting impression I have of the subject is that the writers of the material were more interested in the moral lessons we can learn from historic scientists than the important discoveries these people spent years working on.

Accelerated_Christian_Education logo

The loneliness and lack of motivation lead me spend day after day doing the bare minimum for maybe one of the three hours I was supposed to sit at the desk doing work books, and then watching TV in a language I hardly understood or wandering the local streets in silence with my sister.

By age 11 I had no friends, no confidence, my level of Spanish was still very poor, and my parents were running out of money to pay for the work-books. I’ve no idea what support was offered at the time by A.C.E. but the fact is that less than two years after starting the home-schooling system, the work books stopped arriving, and I spent what seemed like forever with no real educational material at all. My mum would spend hours trying to rub out the answers in my sister’s workbooks so that she could hand them down to me (thanks for trying, mum), but I could still see answers and would just copy them in. I was too demotivated to do any different.

I think my parents realised this had all gone horribly wrong, but didn’t really know how to do anything else.

A good while later my aforementioned legendary grandparents paid for my sister and me to complete some GCSEs and A-levels through open-learning courses. While these courses seemed to be targeted at young professionals completing extra qualifications in their own time, the content was pretty good, and there was a tutor at the other end of the phone for any time I got stuck. I’d spend around a month living between my legendary grandparents (back in the UK) and some friends of the family who would help me cram for my exams which I’d take as an external candidate. I scraped the grades to get into University and escaped to an Arts and Humanities degree that was fascinating, well taught and fulfilling in a university that still feels like home to me.

Going back to the original question that people pose to me about my journey through “home-schooling”, when I briefly explain my experience, I’m usually met with “But…”. But your parents obviously weren’t prepared for the responsibility. But you’ve done very well for yourself, though. But if you were lonely they could have got you involved in extracurricular activities. But those problems are home-school based, not faith-school based. But that’s just A.C.E. and other systems are much better.

And all of those things are somewhat true.

But I believe the culture of the fanatical, fundamentalist, Christian right was so unhealthy for my parents that they ended up making very basic errors in judgement that could easily have been avoided. When they started to realise that all was not well, that same culture discouraged them from seeking and obtaining experienced and professional help.