Saturday, October 12, 2013

MY CHRISTIAN EDUCATION


I attended Battle Creek Academy, a Seventh-day Adventist school located in, yes, Battle Creek, Michigan, from 1st grade through high school.  Earlier this year my BCA classmates and I celebrated our 50th year reunion.  There were only 16 in our graduating class, and 3 of those have since passed away, but happily a majority of us still around made it to the reunion in April.  We had a great time recalling our experiences together.  At the time some of those escapades were frankly embarrassing, but from a distance of 50 years it becomes a lot easier to talk about them and to laugh off that embarrassment.  

One of the comments that I have heard over the years from some of my fellow classmates is how thankful they are for the Christian education that they received at the Academy.  I can’t share that sentiment.  In fact, I still get upset when I think about my educational experience there. 
I don’t blame my parents for sending me to the school.  They were just doing what they thought was best for me and my sisters, who also attended the Academy.  Perhaps I should put some of the blame on myself for not recognizing the inferior education that I was getting.  My excuses are that I wasn’t in a position to make those decisions, after all I was just a kid; that I didn’t have direct knowledge of the secular education that I was missing; and that, given how shy I was, I would have been fearful of going to a new school where I didn’t know any of the other kids.  (I have a lot fewer excuses for why I continued attending an SDA institution, Andrews University, for college, but that’s another story.)

So why do I get upset?  There are two primary reasons.  First, the education I got was, by most accounts, simply inferior to the quality of education that I would have received at the local public school.  Second, the education was distorted by the school’s pervasive religious orientation.

My complaint that my education at BCA was inferior is perhaps a bit unfair.  It’s tempting to compare the education that I got to the education that my children received.  The schools that my children attended are in what is considered one of the top school districts in Wisconsin.  The quality of the schools is driven by the fact that most of the parents are middle class professionals who understand the advantages of a superior education and have insisted that the schools reflect that goal.  Moreover, they generally have instilled that attitude in their children, many of whom had received a good deal of supplemental education through their families and were driven to excel academically.  It’s also true that the curriculum available to my children was substantially more advanced that the one that would have been available to me.  For example, my son was able to take an AP U.S. history class his sophomore year in high school, something that simply would not have been available in the public schools when I was growing up.  

Having said that, though, by all accounts I believe the education that I received at BCA was significantly inferior to that I would have received in the local public schools.  To some extent this was the consequence of the limited resources available to the school and faculty.  For grades 3 through 8, I was in a classroom where two grades were being taught.  That is, grades 3 and 4 were in the same classroom taught by the same teacher.  The same was true for grades 5 and 6 and for grades 7 and 8.  A single teacher had to cope with two separate curricula being taught to 30-40 students at a time.  They had their hands full just maintaining discipline and teaching to the middle range of students.  The idea of providing supplemental education to the better students simply would have been out of the question.  In high school there were literally only a handful of teachers each of whom had to teach a wide variety of courses, regardless of their educational training.  Thus there was a single teacher who was expected to teach all of the math and science courses, that is, general math, algebra, geometry, biology, chemistry, and physics. One teacher.  And as to math specifically, the only classes offered were general math, algebra, and geometry.  No trigonometry, no algebra II, no calculus (though I presume that last would have been a stretch in any public school in the 1960s).  And while most of my classmates took algebra, my recollection is that there were only about half a dozen of us in my geometry class.  As to the general math class, the overwhelmed math/science teacher wound up asking me to handle the teaching of the class the second semester of my senior year.  Good for me, not good for the students.

But as poor as my general academic experience was, I get even more upset by the manner in which it was distorted to focus on a curriculum centered on Christianity and in particular the SDA brand of Christianity.  Every year from 1st grade through high school a portion of each day was spent in religious devotional activity, including prayer, singing of hymns, and religious indoctrination.  What I don’t recall is whether the school day was extended to accommodate these religious activities.  If not, then precious time that could have been spent in better general educational activities was instead wasted on religious indoctrination.  Perhaps even more disappointing was the fact that one of the academic classes each year was spent in religious instruction.  Here, for example, are the religion classes I took in high school:  9th grade--Old Testament; 10th grade--New Testament; 11th grade--Youth Problems (focusing on the writings of Ellen White, the SDA prophetess); and 12th grade--Bible Doctrines.  Again, this was precious time that could have been spent in broader academic pursuits, if nothing else, perhaps on an introduction to world religions or ethical systems.  

Compounding this was the fact that the teachers were forbidden to cover certain academic areas.  Of course, evolution was never mentioned in biology, since it was considered incompatible with the church’s doctrines on creationism.  And because Ellen White had declared that Shakespeare’s plays, if not outright sinful, were dangerous in the ideas they espoused, we never dealt with any of them.  The same could be said for fiction generally.  Ellen White considered novels to be a dangerous waste of time, so while our counterparts in public school were working their way through some of the literary classics, we were laboring through inoffensive poetry and nonfiction prose.  And while it’s true that I wound up finding my way to a lot of literature on my own, I never had the advantage of teachers who could help me with context and analysis.  Moreover, whatever reading I did was undisciplined--I never had to learn the material for a test.  I know that’s lame, but that’s my excuse for not having the sort of firm grounding in literature that many of my adult friends have enjoyed.

Finally, and probably most importantly, education was approached from the perspective of respect for and acceptance of authority, not from the point of view of openminded individual inquiry.  Perhaps even more critical than learning a body of knowledge, school is a place to learn how to think about that knowledge.  And in my opinion BCA got a failing grade in that subject.  Having said that, I do feel that this is one area in which I escaped the limitations of the the school’s authoritarian worldview.  And for that I am thankful.  

© 2013 John M. Phillips

7 comments:

  1. I agree! Respect for authority placed above openminded individual inquiry did not give us the tools to think for ourselves. Fortunately I had parents that were willing to expose us to those elements unavailable in church school. We visited the Willard library every week, we saw Shakespeare's plays and read widely. My first 4 years were spent in public school because my Dad was afraid we would get an inferior education in the little church school that was available. Even the Bible says, come and reason. Truth can stand alone...every question should be asked and investigated to find what is true and what is false. And we don't all agree on truth, but it is part of the process.

    That being said, I did love the community of friends and the support from many of my teachers. It in many respects was a nurturing environment... especially if you played by their rules. I guess that is what brought you back for the 50th...and it was really good to see you again!

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    1. Lisa,
      Although I am upset about the quality of the education that we received at BCA, I really did enjoy the fellowship that our small class sizes afforded us.
      As I said, my biggest complaint was with the approach that relied on authority rather than on rational inquiry. As I have stated elsewhere, our understanding of the world has advanced to the extent we have chose the path of free inquiry over reliance on authority. Rather than starting with the premise that scriptures must be correct on an a priori basis, we need to start with the premise that nothing is assumed to be true, and verification needs to come from all information available and from the testing of hypotheses.
      I did have a great time at the reunion. I just wish we could do one every year.

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  2. I am looking back on my days at BCA and do appreciate the teaching of the Scriptures. Even though I an not a SDA or ever will be again, Through BCA, I have learned to love the Scriptures.

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    1. Wanda,
      Part of my complaint was that only Christian scriptures were taught, not those of other religions, such as Hinduism or Buddhism. Nor were we taught the great myths of other cultures such as the Greek and Roman myths. In addition, with respect to the Christian scriptures, we were taught that they were infallible, but we skipped over a lot of those that were inconsistent with the SDA faith or were inconsistent with other scriptures.

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  3. I too have felt the frustrations of what we were “not taught” at BCA. I know so little today about so many things that most people take for granted knowing. I'm even embarrassed to play Trivia Pursuit!

    I've often thought about our school library being so limited. I was rarely exposed to anything beyond what was being taught at school, and God knows I needed to spend every free moment I had trying to understand my math and science classes!

    John, a distinct memory I have during Academy days is someone telling me that you read science fiction books at home. This seemed so worldly and wondered at your parents allowing you to do such a thing. I was very curious though and wanted to ask you about what you read.

    To have had an outlet of reading something even as simplistic as a novel at that time would have made my life so much richer & fuller. To this day, I love getting lost in a good novel!

    As for our biblical teachings, I couldn’t get enough learning & hearing about Jesus and his love! I needed this in a big way! Though there was much dogma emphasized in the scriptures and in E. White teachings, I was able to weed out enough to come up with what I was personally coming to know about the character of Christ.

    It would have been helpful to have been taught about what others believed. We were mainly taught that SDA’s were the only ones with the truth! What an eye-opener as I grew older to learn that no one has all the answers and that there are still new truths to be found on every level.

    Along with Wanda, I am glad to have been given the basics of the scriptures. This provided me with a platform from which I was able to spring into a more open-minded understanding of those scriptures. It wasn't easy though. For years, on into my earlier adult life, I felt like a prisoner with no hope because of the erroneous interpretations of the very same words that eventually gave me hope and set my spirit free.

    As far as friendships made during our Academy days, they are never to be forgotten. It was wonderful to see and catch up with those who attended our reunion. To think that the majority of us were together since 1st grade, and are still interested in each other’s lives is in itself quite a great testimony to a small school.

    To be honest, while I still feel cheated about not being given the opportunity to learn some of the things those in public schools took for granted as a matter of their daily teachings, I can't help but appreciate that for someone like me, there was a certain level of protection that came from the confines of having been placed at a small school with Christianity as it’s backbone.

    I try to think back at BCA with a thankful heart. Sometimes it just doesn't work! (You'll remember how hard it was for me to finally agree to go back for our 50th reunion!) At other times I am thankful that those 12 important years of my young life were spent where I felt everyone was, if not a close friend, at least a safe friend.

    Truly, being at school was my greatest joy because my friendships were like a lifeline for me. Also, I was given enough basic biblical teachings to introduce me to a loving God that would never leave me. This might not sound very important to many, but this was exactly what I needed most at a very vulnerable period in my life, and I believe that God knew it.

    I am so glad that you convinced me to attend our 50th! Though I did not look forward go going back to the school, it was wonderful seeing all my friends. (I even felt at peace being back in the Tabernacle. This was quite a pleasant surprise for me as well!)

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    1. Gerrie,

      Thanks for what are obviously your heartfelt thoughts on the education we received at BCA. I guess there was a trade-off between, on the one hand, the possibility of a broad education that would have been available at a public school, and, on the other, the potential fellowship that was available because of the small size of the class at BCA. I will say that there are downsides to attending a small school also. If you are not part of an "in" group, there is a danger of feeling isolated and friendless.

      When our kids were growing up we considered sending them to the leading (nonsectarian) private school in town, but we live in a community with an excellent public school system and decided to save our educational dollars for college. I think we made the right choice for our kids.

      I did do quite a bit of science fiction reading when I was in high school and for a number of years subsequently (though I don't read much science fiction now). Gee, I guess I didn't realize that anyone else was paying attention. In any case, I give my mother credit for being tolerant of my reading choices, though maybe I read what I wanted despite her disapproval; I can't quite recall now. But I am ever so grateful that I managed to read what I did. I simply wouldn't be in the same place today if I hadn't read beyond what we were admonished to read at BCA (as well as at Andrews U).

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