A readymade toolkit for institutionalised oppression

This is a guest post by Talen Lee, a former ACE student from Australia. This is his survivor story. Be warned, it contains unpleasant descriptions of corporal punishment.

If you’re a familiar reader of Jonny Scaramanga’s blog, you probably already know that the ACE system promotes false information as fact. These are glaring factual errors that honestly shouldn’t even be up for debate. When you’re talking about errors that run throughout the entire ACE system to this degree, you have to come down very hard on one side or another. Either you think it’s not acceptable to teach blatant falsehoods in an education system as facts, or you think that it is, and if you’re in the latter camp, I am comfortable dismissing everything you have to say about education at all. Bickering about  specifics like flipping mountains or universal floods or six day creationism is just trying to blow out matches while the house is on fire. I have no patience to deal with this penny-ante apologism, this horsecrap refining, where people want to argue how the precise details about some fossils may indicate a sort-of-weakness in evolutionary theory when we’re discussing a book that tries to tell me that the Loch Ness Monster is real.

There’s also a long discussion you can make about how its system is pedagogically useless. Repetition of simple exercises without complexity serves no purpose but to teach how to overcome those exercises, in the same way that memorising dates doesn’t actually make you a historian.

You could discuss the ACE system’s political indoctrination. I know that as an Australian consumer I wasn’t particularly keen on reading books that told me about how America was, in fact, the greatest nation in the world, and the only place where people were free. After all people weren’t free in America – if you wanted to buy one, you had to pay for it.

Rather than talk about the flaws in the ACE curriculum and the things it does badly, I want to talk to you about a thing the ACE system does really well.


I don’t think it’s unreasonable at the moment to say that Jonny Scaramanga is one of the leading voices about the ACE system. I’ve heard people try to devalue his experience because he spent ‘only’ two years in the ACE environment. He had other systems changing/influencing him, for example, or he had other, bigger problems going on. Well, I went through ten years of the ACE system, from kindergarten through to year nine. ACE was my foundational education. Of the twelve years I spent at compulsory school, all but three were in an ACE school that ran from kindergarten to year twelve, with a total school population of about thirty students.

In what almost every reasonable person considers a school, with a curriculum and with oversight and with staff, there’s this phenomenon of social collusion. Even if you don’t plan for it, most of the time, people observe work, and they observe students. Being observed influences how the students react, and the work being observed will shape in the mind of the teachers the ways to interact with those students. This is an ecosystem of attention, where people are disposed to pay attention to one another’s interactions, and where information passes from point to point without any deliberate design. Teachers in these contexts will see students as students, and they talk about them with other adults, often other teachers or professional educators of some stripe. In these systems, with information flowing from place to place as reports, double-checking or just plain gossip, make it hard to maintain a truly oppressive level of control.

The ACE system removes all those things. The ACE system does not need planning. The ACE system discourages planning. Give children PACES, it says. When they finish their work too soon, either give them more PACES, or encourage them to keep advancing in the PACEs they have. Crafts, sports, all that stuff can be filled in, if you must, but the bulk of education is through a blind, rote system that does not know the child, does not observe the child, and does not care about the child. The students do not interact with one another, meaning peers do not observe other children struggling, do not gain extra perspective on challenging problems – and the questions are sculpted to fit that. It does not need explanation, because the entire system is so simple that after a few months in almost all subjects, you will become proficient in how to answer the specific style of PACE questions. You could replace PACEs with Sudoku puzzle books for how they teach you – you become very, very good at answering the specific types of questions that the PACEs want to ask. Oh, as you grow older, you’ll have to write out larger sections of text, but you won’t ever have to engage with the question, just with the structure of a sentence.

Like cattle grids and fences, the ACE system is very good at managing a large group. Instead of needing a number of teachers for each group of students, there is a social order, a structure that people have to fit themselves in, like the Panopticon. If you differentiate, it will be seen. You can’t talk to someone, you can’t reach out. You will comply, you will obey, and you will conform.

Panopticon (wiki commons)

It is a readymade toolkit for institutionalised oppression.

Our school had a primary school teacher, four or five volunteer monitors, who were never present two contiguous days, and a principal who served as High School teacher. The primary school teacher was my mother; the principal was a man who hated my father, and, fearing him, took it out on my sister, my mother, and myself in that most masterfully passive-aggressive of ways. Starting from day one in this school, I became convinced I was a terrible student and a wicked child, because that’s what the system told me.

Every single day, I would receive the minimum threshold of demerits for detention. Every single day, even when the principal had almost no direct interaction with me, without fail. I didn’t really put it together, but it was pretty consistent. The principal would see a thing and make it a demerit offence. Even on the days where I had detention sufficient to not interact with other children, there’d be something. A dropped pen. Too many requests for bathroom breaks. Finishing my work early. The smallest slights turned without fail into detentions, every single day.

The school promised great results with ‘discipline problem’ children, taking on students who had been expelled or marginalised in other schools for behaviour or learning problems. This meant that the school had a ready supply of older bullies who would quite happily beat the living heck out of a kid just because they were bored. It didn’t take long for them to realise that they could beat me up with almost no consequence. Routinely, when attacked, the principal would break it up – eventually – only to give me demerits because ‘you must have provoked them.’

When I crossed from primary school – my mother’s control – to high school, it became even more persistent. The school practiced corporal punishment for almost no students except for myself, and that became an additional component of my days. There were days I limped home from school having taken a beating from a bully, been awarded a demerit for my part in the violence, taken to the pastor’s manse, beaten again, then sent home with blood under my clothes and a note from the principal, to my father, outlining some wicked deed I’d done that day – slapping a table, poking my tongue out a monitor, yawning in assembly, humming a pop song – and my father would double the punishment with a flat length of wood.


From the ACE Procedures Manual, 1998 (ACE guidelines now discourage corporal punishment at school, though not at home)

I spent ten years in this situation, during which one man, more or less completely unchecked, with no oversight, terrorised and abused my sister, my mother, and myself, with the moral authority of a church behind him. I was threatened with expulsion, and I would burst into tears at the possibility of it. This was, after all, a safe school, a godly school – if I couldn’t do well here, what dreadful things would await me at public school?

There are some anecdotes about the abuse, about the permitted horribleness. While those things add lurid depth to the pain I – and others – experienced in this environment of control, and the dehumanising ways women and the abnormal were treated, they aren’t necessary. Ask me in private some time. Or better yet, don’t. I’d rather not remember.

I have spoken to educators about this scenario, since leaving it. The response is almost always horror, which makes sense because it was a blatantly abusive, corrosive environment. But the other thing that constantly comes up is that that sort of thing can’t happen. It’s not possible, in any system like this, for long-term child abuse, certainly open like this was, to pass without notice, unless there’s something strange going on.

Thunder and rain

There was something strange going on. I realised that when as a seven year old, when I was stuck at the score-key, looking at my PACE with concern. The question stalling me had been a two-blanker (quite advanced, I felt). The question was – for example – something like “ _____ and ______ happen during thunderstorms.”

I had written rain and thunder. The score-key said thunder and rain.

When I finally cracked and called for a monitor, seeking their judgement, I watched a grown man, his moustache twitching, consider very, very carefully the words before him. The answer was an obvious one, wasn’t it? The answers were effectively the same. I had internalised the concept. I understood what the question wanted to know, but I hadn’t answered it in precisely the way it had wanted. A teacher would, in this situation, probably let it go, or, at the least, provide me with a reason to change it.

Eventually, he shook his head, defeated by the challenge of it. “Mark it wrong,” he said. “Go back to your desk and fix it.”

That was this environment. There was no questioning authority over you; you obeyed it. Even when your own common sense indicated otherwise, you had to be able to tell that there was something strange going on.

Schoolwork was easy, but boring. It was tedious. Over the years and subjects, I grew sloppy. I’d use synonyms as a point of pride. I’d avoid filling in the examples, because they were already filled in. And when I was in year six, the Principal dredged up every PACE I’d done, and went through them all, marking them one by one. Every synonym, every unfilled example, every slip, every mistake, every single page over the years was treated as an individual instance of cheating. I was sent home that day with a detention slip that merely listed ‘cheating x 348.’

My father did what my father always did, and I went to school the next day to deal with the aftermath.

Taught not to think

The Pastor had decided that there was a problem I – and a few others – had. He took us from our PACE work and sat us down in one of the church halls, before a blackboard. There, he stood up and wrote sequences of sums and sentences. 2+2=5. GUD BETER BEST, WE WILL NEVER RESST. A B C D E Q F. Our lesson for that day – and for the whole day – was to sit down, and write, on blank pieces of paper, exactly what we saw on the board.

I was there with a dyslexic student. I’d never felt so humiliated as when that student was told he had it ‘right’ and was allowed to return to his studies.

The whole day, I sat there, trying to write out what the Pastor wrote, one by one. I just didn’t see his errors. GUD BETR BEST he wrote, and good, better, best I wrote. I realised perhaps it was the capitalisation? GOOD BETTER BEST? No. Still wrong. Still wrong.

I was literally sat down in a room and told to copy out wrong sums in order to teach me to not think.

The finale of these exercises was a mangled, incorrectly spaced and spelled edict of Proverbs 3:5 – Trust in the LORD with all thine heart; and lean not unto thine own understanding. I don’t remember all the errors. I do remember that it incorrectly labelled it as Psalms. I hadn’t worked it out, by that point. I hadn’t gotten it. And what’s more, it was The Bible. I knew the Bible. My father taught the Bible. Surely it was a worse sin to misquote the Bible?

I spent a lot of time writing that verse.

When I was thirteen, the church started to fall apart. It seemed that over ten years, the pastor of this authoritarian place had been embezzling money from his congregation to prop up failing business ventures. He didn’t apologise or make excuses; he just announced he’d been doing it, then that he was leaving, and that was that. People risked losing their homes. The principal, beholden as he was to the pastor for authority, made his own excuses, and fled at the end of the year.

I wasn’t sure what was going to happen to me. My father had finally discovered that all of the narrative I’d been trying to impress upon him about the unfairness of the principal, about the unprovoked attacks, about the bruises and bloodstains, and on literally the last day that man was present, came to the school to confront him. I had no idea what was said. My father told me afterwards that if anyone laid a hand on me that day, he’d be bringing the police to arrest the Principal on charges of criminal neglect.

It’s not really a very heartening thing, though. After all, he’d won for ten years but for one day.

Moving to a normal school

We moved a year later, my sister having graduated. We went to a university town to the south, where my parents had grown up. My sister’s educational qualifications were laughed at by the university – even with an SAT score that she had studied quite hard for, the ACE system was considered not a school by the university. Thankfully she was able to catch up and learn fast. Me, I was dropped from ten years in the ACE system into another school – still a Christian school.

The first class of the first day was science. The teacher walked in, and drew a circle on the board, then two smaller circles next to it, and drew lines connecting them. Then, he labelled the smaller circles H, and the larger circle O.

“Okay,” he said. “Let’s start off a new year with an easy one.” He pointed at the O in the circle. “Who can tell me the valency of this.”

What the heck is a valency

What is that thing he’s looking at

Why does everyone get this

What the hecking heck is going on oh dear oh no oh

In one year, I had to learn everything.  I had to learn basic chemistry and physics. I had to learn historically accurate information about scientific figures. I had to learn the age of the earth, the mechanisms of evolution, the value of data. I had to learn how to listen to a teacher, and more intimidatingly, I had to learn how to talk to a teacher. I had to learn about lying, and the times it was okay to lie – like drama class. I had to learn how to write an essay, something the ACE system had trained me to believe was just about ten or twelve lines of text on a page, and, crucially, something that the score key could not help me learn to do.  All of this was while I was learning things like swearing, singing, friendships and how to interact with people who weren’t white.

I didn’t manage it.

My School Certificate and Higher School Certificate – the standard certification we use in Australia – both came back abysmally low. I graduated school in 2000 with a 53% total.

The foundation of my education was the ACE system, and it had left me utterly unprepared not just for the real world, but for education itself. I was ashamed and humiliated, despairing and depressed – I was in every way I could understand it, a failure, and there was no more school to go back to.

Even that great question you’re asked so often in your last years of high school – what do you want to do with your life? Was a question that I thought of in ACE terms. What was the blank? I want to ____? What… what could I do? Where was the text I had to read that would tell me? Nobody could help me. Nobody could answer it. I did not know what I wanted to do, nor did I imagine I’d ever work it out.

That was a long time ago. In 2013 I finally mustered up the courage to attempt university education. I had to do a quick access program, because I was, to put it mildly unable to prove any form of educational qualification. But when I sat down to talk with my tutors for my first year subjects, we’d talk and have an interesting chat… whereupon I’d almost always get asked the same question.

“When are you finishing your thesis?”

I didn’t really understand what it meant. Finally, one teacher took me aside and privately asked me, “look, when you’re considering for your PhD –“

“PhD? I’m… I’m not doing a PhD?”

“You’re not?”

“No. Um.”

“Aren’t you a third-year student?”


“What are you, I mean, where are you in your degree?”

“This is my first semester.”

It was a nice little ego stroke. I mentioned it to my mother, and she nodded. “Well, we always knew you were smart.”

“We did?” I blinked.

“Oh, yes, of course. It was what [Principal] was so worried about. He talked to me when you started school there, you know. ‘This boy is a genius.’ You could read before you started school.”

I remember feeling a bit numb then.

“He said it was very important we make sure you don’t realise that. Otherwise you might become arrogant.”

And my mother nodded and sipped her tea. With the best of intentions and with a smile on her face, she had agreed with a man who hated her husband, to quietly gaslight me. To ensure I was humble, instead of arrogant. Better I be a failure than proud.

I’m not saying these sorts of abuses couldn’t happen in other schools. I’m sure they do and can. But I am absolutely, ironclad certain, that the ACE system served as a magnificent tool for this oppressive environment. Nobody had to question anything. Not the teachers, not the monitors, certainly not the students, not my own mother. The teachers knew their job was to trust the system, obey the system’s rules, and everything would work out. Just trust and obey.

Trust and obey.

Because there’s no other way to be happy.

Just trust and obey.

Check out Talen’s blog at http://press.arts-eclectic.com/

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