“The ACE system is an abomination. It is isolating, oppressive, racist, sexist, ill-informed and abusive.” You probably won’t be surprised to read those words on this blog. But you will be surprised about who they’re coming from. Today’s post is from Simon Dillon, who is still a creationist and a Christian fundamentalist despite attending an ACE school for seven years. Take it away Simon.
When Jonny asked me to post on his blog, I felt both humbled and honoured that he would want me to do so. After all, I am a born-again Christian Creationist, and would no doubt qualify as a “fundamentalist” in the eyes of many. However, Jonny recently said this about me, one of the highest compliments I have ever received: “If all fundamentalists were like you, I don’t think I’d be one, but I almost certainly wouldn’t have a blog called Leaving Fundamentalism”. With such an endorsement, I hope you will read on.
Jonny has asked me to post my views on the ACE (Accelerated Christian Education) system specifically and Christian education in general. Therefore, perhaps I should begin with my ACE credentials. I was a student at The King’s School Witney from when it opened in 1984 until 1991, from the ages of 9 to 16. I must point out from the outset that the school didn’t only use the ACE system. For students up to the age of 11 it was used about 60 to 70 percent of the time, from 11 to 13 considerably less (maybe 40 percent), and from 14 (the onset of GCSE age) not at all. The school was never entirely happy with the ACE curriculum, seeing it rather as a means to an end until they could replace it with something better. They ditched the entire ACE system years ago, although they were still using it in part when I left in 1991.
Again, to bring complete balance to what I am about to say, I should add that I have no hard feelings towards the school or any of the teachers there. In fact, compared with some of the ACE schools I have read about, The King’s School Witney seems relatively broad minded. In spite of ACE, I actually obtained a pretty decent education there for this simple reason: in the state school I went to previously, I was told I was no good and wouldn’t amount to anything. The teachers at the King’s School – in spite of some seriously crazy mistakes, not the least of which was the ACE system – told me continually that I could succeed if I put my mind to it. When I left the school, I was pleased with my GCSE results and they proved a great stepping stone into the next part of my education. So for me at least, things seemed to work out. On paper at least, The King’s School had taken a downtrodden, introverted child who had been constantly told he was a failure by teachers at his prior school, and inspired him to prove those naysayers wrong.
However, I must also say that my experience does not seem to be typical compared with that of my fellow guinea pigs from the same years. The King’s School in those days had an absolutely insane list of ridiculous and arbitrary rules that it was almost impossible to keep (no doubt adopted by the ACE system). After discovering this, I took great delight in making as much mischief as I could, as creatively as I could, because such pranks were a means of making school life tolerable – in spite of the punishments that inevitably ensued. I used to think that if you were going to get caned for something (yes our school used corporal punishment), it might as well be for something that gave everyone a good laugh. (By the way, for the record, I completely oppose corporal punishment in schools, so please forgive my somewhat cavalier attitude towards my own past. I know others who had corporal punishment inflicted on them in school were often left them with serious emotional problems. I don’t want to belittle such experiences.)
I should also mention at this point, in the interest of putting my experiences into perspective, that for the first seven years of my life, my parents belonged to an organisation that can at best be described as Christianity gone seriously wrong, and at worst a full-on cult. It was an almost unimaginably oppressive and hideously abusive environment, but I am not going to expound on that part of my life in this blog. Suffice to say, when said cult came crashing down, my betrayed and hurting parents found solace in Oxfordshire Community Churches – the organisation behind The King’s School Witney. Now some have suggested they simply switched one extreme cult for another, but believe me when I say the two were not comparable in any way. Compared with what I went through in the first seven years of my life (which is eye-watering stuff, believe me), The King’s School was a piece of cake.
Perhaps because I had already been through so much in my early years, I had a healthy scepticism for the ACE system right from the beginning. My parents shared my misgivings, though they thought my education would be better if I was placed in a Christian environment. Like the school itself, they saw ACE as a means to an end. I recall many occasions where we joked together about how ridiculous it was. Even at the age of 9, I could scarcely believe that characters like Ace Virtueson and Pudge Meekway weren’t meant to be satirical.
Let’s cut to the chase: the ACE system is an abomination. It is isolating, oppressive, racist, sexist, ill-informed and abusive. The overwhelming evidence indicates the ACE system is guilty of causing extremely serious problems in later life for those unfortunate enough to have it inflicted on them. The experience of sitting in those soul-destroying, sectioned off desks, of suddenly having to learn entirely by oneself (having previously been used to an open classroom), of having a list of inexplicable rules that rivalled the book of Leviticus, was a shock to the system to say the very least. As I have already stated, I tried to make the best of it, but the fact remains that ACE is a truly horrible, horrible thing to inflict on a child.
Perhaps that all sounds a little melodramatic. After all, ACE isn’t Nazi Germany. But I have now heard so many deeply troubling stories about what ACE did to others that I feel the time has come to add my voice to this. My main reason for doing so is I cannot help but feel extremely angry at the way the God I know and love has been so horribly misrepresented by the ACE system and by its adherents. Ironically, it is because of my “fundamentalist” views that I feel I must speak out.
You cannot brainwash children into becoming Christians. It simply does not work. Adherents of the ACE system argue that they are simply following through on Proverbs 22 verse 6, which says “Train up a child in the way he should go, and when he is old he will not depart from it”. But this verse is very broad, and does not in my opinion refer to schooling. It is addressed to parents, who, if they are Christian, will obviously share their worldviews with their offspring (as indeed I have). A child will always adopt the views of their parents to a certain degree, especially in early years, simply by osmosis and because it provides security. But in the end, children have to decide for themselves whether or not they will follow in their parent’s footsteps. To try and force them to do so, which is effectively what the ACE system does, is absolute madness and in my view un-Biblical – not to mention very likely to fail.
Many of my fellow Kings School guinea pigs went wildly off the rails in many spectacular ways after they left, as they were hopelessly ill-equipped to deal with the real world. Many if not most of them currently have no relationship with God or any kind of faith, which pretty much proves my above point. Conversely, one of my close friends growing up in Oxfordshire Community Churches was not permitted to go to the King’s School along with the rest of us, because his father was not a Christian and opposed his enrolment there. Yet this boy, in spite of the “worldly” education he received in a state school, remained a Christian throughout and still is to this day. He never got into any trouble as a teenager, never took drugs, never got drunk, and didn’t even go out with a girl until he met his wife. The ultimate irony is this boy is now the headmaster of The King’s School, Witney.
If I might reference Christian history for a moment, what the Romans couldn’t achieve by the persecution of Christians was achieved after the Constantine Reformation. At that time, all citizens were told they had to convert to Christianity – the new state religion. Thus it was suddenly “politically correct” to be a Christian, regardless of whether or not one had a personal relationship with God through Jesus Christ (which is what Christianity is – in a nutshell). One only has to study further church history to see what a complete disaster ensued. The ACE system is merely a relatively recent development of that disaster.
Another big problem with the ACE system is it completely fails to take into consideration that all children are different. The rigid, militaristic structure might appeal to a certain mindset, but what ACE generally does is crush all creative and independent thought. I might have been equipped to resist this, but many of my fellow guinea pigs clearly were not – including my own siblings, who all had a much harder time than me, particularly my youngest brother.
One of my pet peeves – not just in ACE, but in the church in general – is legalism. Let me be clear: I am, for want of a better expression, a Christian fundamentalist. And it is for that reason that I am also a liberal in the best sense of the word. If you call yourself a Christian, you are free to do whatever is not specifically prohibited within the Bible. Obviously the biggies – thou shalt not steal, commit adultery, murder, etc – are no-brainer rules. But the everything-fun-is-wrong brigade (of which ACE are card-carrying members) try to brainwash Christians into thinking many things are sins – from drinking alcohol to secular music, going to the movies, going to pubs and clubs, going swimming with members of the opposite sex, wearing sexy clothes, wearing make-up, smoking… the list goes on and on.
All such claims are false. None of these activities are sinful in and of themselves. Christians are supposed to navigate through areas the Bible is silent on through their personal walk with God. For example, there is nothing wrong with drinking alcohol, but if you are a recovering alcoholic, that’s obviously going to be a no-no. One of my great passions is movies (of all kinds). On many occasions I have rigorously defended horror movies as perfectly acceptable for Christians to watch, but at the same time conceded that they aren’t for everyone, Christian or otherwise.
So-called fundamentalists get themselves a bad name because they take a specific piece of revelation God has given to them then try to make a doctrine out of it. The horror movie thing is a good example. Let’s say a Christian feels horror movies are bad for them personally. Fair enough. But then they think that should apply this to every Christian when that isn’t necessarily the case. God has made us all different. Some of us have sufficiently robust temperaments to deal with horror movies. Others don’t. Unless you can point to a specific prohibition in the Bible, the “fundamentalist” position ought to be Live and Let Live on issues like this. (By the way, the verse God-bothering Christians always try and bash me over the head with on this one is the “noble, lovely and true” verse from Phillipians 4 verse 8 – but I consider many of the PG rated romantic comedies they watch to be far more spiritually questionable than any number of 18-rated/R-rated zombie bloodbaths that I watch, many of which have very noble messages behind them if you can get past the blood and guts).
The reason people slide into legalism is it is actually so much easier to have a hard and fast list of rules and regulations, because then you don’t have to deal with the pesky business of actually maintaining a relationship with God. But in having such a list of rules, the entire point of the Christian faith is missed. A proper examination of the Bible, taking everything in context (include the notorious book of Leviticus that so often gets quoted out of context) reveals that actually God greatly dislikes unnecessary and burdensome rules and regulations. He’d much rather only have those that were absolutely essential, and even those can be misused (see for example Jesus berating the Pharisees for their misuse of the Sabbath commandment). I could say a lot more on this, but I won’t go into a big theological study in this column, as I feel I will be exceeding the mandate Jonny has given for this post.
In conclusion, I can only reiterate my utter opposition to ACE for all the reasons listed above and my suspicion of Christian education in general. I don’t think it always follows that Christian schooling is bad, but anything that adopts the ACE system, in part or in full, should be avoided like the plague.
That. Was. Awesome! Simon is also an author; check out his blog.
More Christians who oppose ACE: