ACE survivor becomes cultural anthropologist, dismantles curriculum

ACE survivor becomes cultural anthropologist, dismantles curriculum July 7, 2014

I am on holiday, so this is a scheduled post. So behave yourself in the comments, because I’m not around to moderate.

I recently had this great comment from an ex-ACE student who has since done a PhD in cultural anthropology. Their insights on ACE are lengthy but well worth reading. Unlike many of my guest posters (and me), Kachoukyori picks out positive parts from the ACE experience. This is something I’ll probably return to later. In order to understand why people turn to ACE, you need to understand what problems it is trying to solve.

If you search Google Images for “cultural anthropology” and choose only images that are free to reuse, this is the first result. No, I don’t know either.

This is a much-needed post, one I’ve circulated to friends over the years in trying to explain how global and curiously pervasive A.C.E. has become as a curriculum, adapting to shifts in contemporary fundamentalist culture, the growth of charismatic churches and aggressive right-wing politics linked to US hardline Christianity, and the anti-secular/social/government rise of homeschooling.

My father was a US military officer; we moved constantly. From the pre-K on I was enrolled in Baptist schools, by the 3rd grade I was placed in a school that used the ACE curriculum. I never experienced US public schools and was immersed in two peculiarly isolationist cultures: fundamentalist Christians and US military bases. What a combination, indeed! The Bible and the Sword.

I graduated at 16 years old from a school in N.J., having finished two years worth of work in one year–a frenzy of study compelled by an urgency to escape and save my life. I had to escape the educational, ethical, and social hypocrisy of the system I’d been raised in. A few days after turning 17 I began my college studies at a secular university. While difficult, it was a huge relief just to be released from the daily, grinding friction of the ideological war waged against young people at every turn in ACE schools.

My schools varied, as many other commenters have noted above. Leaving aside the intense bias of the curriculum itself, the school has some good qualities: inter-generational socializing (due to lack of class striation), self-motivated learning and control over work speed, low risk/consequence for failure due to being able to repeat units (PACEs), and dyadic learning with one-on-one work with a supervisor. Of course, this last is contingent on having a competent teacher. Many Christian schools in the US depend on an incestuous recycling of reproduced labor–graduates from the school go off to one of the major tin-plate Christian “universities” with their fraudulent claims to being centers of higher education, and come back to teach in their alma maters. Thus they reconstitute the same bad techniques, flawed logics, and reinforced notions of having a spiritual calling that magically endows their every word with divine force.

It is easy to dismantle the ACE system through its structures. To take on its ideology is the greater task, and perhaps more critical. As soon as I began to become politically aware at about 12 or 13, I started to question the constant assertion of a divine plan in everything. I graduate school in 1989, so the Social Studies PACEs were still furiously alive with anti-communist vomit. A key moment of realization was when I went to the base library to look up the history of the KMT as they fled mainland China from the “godless” communists. A counter-revolutionary army so vaunted by the scriptwriters in Texas was shown to be merciless, brutal, and capable of horrible massacres of native peoples in Taiwan. So this is how those blessed by God to face-off against the Commies do it: by soaking the ground red with the blood of those who are different and who made any assertion of autonomy. Once I’d punctured that little bit of historical revision, the whole manufactured universe of history quickly fell apart. Though I never encountered Howard Zinn, I basically took on the task of checking and then disputing nearly every major fact my school curriculum put forward as truth. I read voraciously, and this is how ACE served me best: by goading me through its arrogant lying into a campaign of self-education and fearless critical thinking. I began speaking out loudly in our weekly assemblies. At break time I spoke out about the iron rule of the Scripture that was being selectively applied to train us all as a class of mindless believers. I became a regular guest in the principal’s office for a while. When direct debate failed (and how could he win? Truth claims made on God’s Word are so much vapor) I was given regular detentions. Stand and face a wall for up to an hour at a time.

I learned how to teach myself and how to be ever-vigilant against easy assertions of truth. But at the same time I came to respect how Christians in these small, close communities took care of themselves and sought out ways to determine the course of their social and ritual lives and those of their children. In many ways they reflect back a stalwart kind of independence and it this experience I credit with turning me into an anarchist. These lessons came at the price of also enduring and undoing the ideological violence that undergirds this independence.

The trick here is to evaluate ACE for how it is flexible, how it can be creatively used as an educational model, but then work tirelessly in combating its ugly untruths and hateful claims to a particular vision of the good. It took me many years–well into college–to accept evolution (so tentatively and fearfully at first) and even more to admit my homophobia and begin work to dismantle it. These are the greatest wrongs that can be done a learning individual. To inculcate them with a view of the world so truncated and premised on correct ways to live within the body (and a hierarchy of “godly” bodies!) is the rawest kind of evil.

I’ve got a PhD in Cultural Anthropology. I’ve lived and worked in Asia for many years. The outsiderness I experienced both because I went to ACE schools and the alien identity I developed within their walls likely made me more capable in adapting to other cultures and worlds and gave me a patience to analyze and contemplate the social lives being enacted.

So, to this extent, I benefited from my fundamentalist education. It made a weird kid immeasurably weirder. But it also produced me as a fierce enemy of organized religion and especially the white-supremacist, homophobic, colonial, misogynist, and capitalistic champions who support, attend, and champion these types of educational systems as crusades doing “God’s work.”

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