Monday, December 20, 2004

"Caryan" Brotherhood; or, Getting Medieval

So this Christian school got exposed for employing materials in the classroom that defended Southern slavery. (It was reported in the Raleigh News & Observer, but I’ll include this link because it will last longer.)

I never heard of Cary Christian School before, despite its being not more than 15 miles from my house. When I first heard this story, I thought there might be mitigating circumstances here. Parents in Cary regularly have gripes about the county public schools, and some of those gripes are reasonable. Cary’s population is booming at an unbelievable rate, they can’t build schools fast enough to keep up, so every year there are problems with overcrowding and children being involuntarily re-assigned to different schools to shift the population load.

This could fairly be described as “busing,” so use your imagination as to some of the Cary parents’ gripes that are less savory.

Where parents are chronically unhappy, private and charter schools will sprout up at a rapid rate. I have heard and read stories about disorganization at some of these new schools—inexperienced teachers, half-baked curricula, and so on—and I wondered if adopting a pro-slavery pamphlet might have been an honest mistake. In other words, I started out looking to give the Cary Christian School some benefit of the doubt, and perhaps learn that the story wasn’t as bad as it first sounded.

The lesson, as always: I’m an idiot. On closer examination, the story is just as bad as, maybe a little creepier than, it first sounded. Cary Christian School is a freaky scary fundamentalist place. When the bad publicity hit, the school did pull the offending pamphlet from use, but the statement currently on their website doesn’t seem very contrite about the whole thing.

My notion of Cary is that it’s full of technology workers. I guess it’s quite possible to have a narrow-minded troglodytic worldview and at the same time have the skills to build routers for Cisco Systems. Anyway, I feel there IS a line somewhere between, on one hand, religious families with legitimate concerns about the quality and climate of their public schools, and on the other hand, xenophobic bigot assholes. This was my initial interest in this story. Well, it turns out the school falls squarely into asshole territory, but I became morbidly interested in the creepy ideology this school subscribes to.

In its statement about the slavery hub-bub, the school uses Biblical arguments, some of which Jefferson Davis would recognize. Funny thing about Saint Paul, he was really clear that slave trading was wrong, but much iffier on the subject of slave ownership per se. If you’re a pedantic literalist who refuses to let your mind be tainted by any hint of historical interpretation, this is a problem. So their statement is rather sophistical (“the logic of the Great Commission requires the eventual death of slavery”) and in the end, it seems that slavery loses on a technicality. But CCS’s reading of the Civil War is that, like all revolutionary approaches to social change, it was unnecessary. (The Holy Spirit works like yeast through a loaf, it never manifests itself violently.) Exactly how slavery would have ended without a war is never addressed. But it matters little. Apparently, the reason it is important for our kids to study arguments for and against slavery, is as intellectual calisthenics, a warm-up for the really important social struggles of our time: against abortion and homosexuality.

Cary Christian School is a leading member of the Association of Classical and Christian Schools. The ACCS is based in Idaho (I can’t resist reporting this factoid), and its website is a family-sized Planters sampler of mixed wingnuttery. It is slick and erudite and hair-raising all at the same time. Here is an excerpt from one of its position papers:

[A]s Christians, we reject the follies of ancient paganism, while seeking to appreciate what God gave them through common grace. As classical Protestants we affirm that the Protestant Reformation was a glorious recovery of the truth of the gospel, and was not an unfortunate mistake. As medievalists, we affirm that the soul-destroying Enlightenment was an unfortunate mistake. As private educators, we affirm that the growth of government education in America cannot be understood apart from the war and its aftermath that established a centralized state in our nation.

I assume that last sentence refers to the Civil War and Reconstruction. So to sum up, Catholics are bad, the Enlightenment was a big mistake, and government schools are linked to the sinister tyrannical after-effects of the Civil War and Reconstruction. (By the way, these guys are relentlessly consistent in referring to public schools as government schools. Newt Gingrich would be proud. Hell, Goebbels would be proud.)

Clicking around these sites for the ACCS and its member schools, you find something for every prejudice. Sure, there’s rhetoric to appeal to the freaky Randy Weaver style Christianist true believer, but the schools also push the buttons of the less extremely conservative parents—run of the mill curmudgeons with their knee-jerk complaints about the public schools. The emphasis on a classical curriculum connotes a tried-and-true Eurocentric approach—a rejection of multiculturalism and trendiness. Whole-language is out; rote memorization of grammar and spelling is in. Centralization and bureaucracy are out; parents-as-customers are in. There are codes of conduct and codes of dress that enforce civility, unity, and respect for authority. Cellphones and iPods are banned from school grounds.

Something else I find intriguing is that one of the foundational texts of this “classical education” movement is “The Lost Tools of Learning” by Dorothy L. Sayers. I think of the late Ms. Sayers as a sweet English lady who wrote whodunits. It turns out she’s a more interesting figure than I realized: a vicar’s daughter, a scholar of theology and the classics, an early feminist of sorts, an associate of T.S. Eliot and C.S. Lewis. She was a serious critic of modernism: her horror of Freudian thought shines through particularly in this lecture. But I’ve got to think Sayers is doing subterranean somersaults at the way these Idaho spuds are using her. She champions the classical trivium in education (grammar, logic, and rhetoric) as a tool of free intellectual inquiry. But by linking her trivium with Biblical literalism, the ACCS beats Sayers’s plowshare into a sword.

The ACCS opposes school vouchers: a devil's bargain, they believe. That government money is like crack cocaine, and before you know it you'll be allowing all kinds of infernal things, like mandatory buggery in the hallways. The ACCS is also an ally of the home-schooling movement, which I posted about once before. Homeschoolers are not the isolated screwballs I’d once thought they were. Every new thing I discover about their networking and coordination worries me, including this little tidbit: "we homeschool because we don't want our kids to be socially bonded to their peer group. We want to keep the hearts of our children where they ought to be, with their parents, until it is time for them to marry and leave home."

[UPDATE: Sorry, the Cary Christian School took down their position statement about the Biblical view of antebellum slavery. Fortunately, I have my hard copy! If you're curious, let me know.]

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