The Dreadful Dangers of Learning to Think: A Cautionary Tale – By Jane Douglas
Last week, an article in the Washington Post reported on the 2012 platform of the Republican Party in Texas and, in particular, its scarily backward education agenda. In part, the platform statement reads:
“Knowledge-Based Education – We oppose the teaching of Higher Order Thinking Skills (HOTS) (values clarification), critical thinking skills and similar programs that are simply a relabeling of Outcome-Based Education (OBE) (mastery learning) which focus on behavior modification and have the purpose of challenging the student’s fixed beliefs and undermining parental authority.”
The GOP is right, of course. Teaching kids higher order thinking skills does empower them to challenge the fixed beliefs imposed on them through religious and parental authority. And so it ought.
Not so very long ago, but in a life far away, I was a Christian fundamentalist and homeschooling mum. No doubt that admission will conjure for you images of knee-length plaits, long skirts and minibuses ¾and you wouldn’t be far wrong. But imagining that I was also an entirely unintelligent religious redneck would be a mistake. Deluded is not the same thing as stupid.
In fact, I considered myself rather intellectually diligent; my faith and the lifestyle I had built around it were sustained by the belief that I had done a great deal of solid thinking about them both. I was a keen Bible student; I understood hermeneutical principles and was quite adept at using scholarly Bible study tools. I believed my views to be founded on solid truths that I had subjected to dispassionate reasoning before I’d embraced them. I could not see that my thinking was bounded by invisible stainless steel walls, that I engaged in rigorous intellectual wrestling only inside terribly narrow boundaries. The myriad assumptions upon which Christianity is based were simply invisible to me.
From where I now stand, I am able to identify some of the things that drew me into Christianity and caused me to cling to it as I did. I was not a loved child. This sad fact found me reaching young adulthood vulnerable and messy, my self-esteem negligible. I was ripe for the picking by the young evangelists I encountered at that critical time. I can remember experiencing genuine joy the moment I found I believed that despite the disappointments of my childhood I had a heavenly Father who had created me, devised a plan for my life, and – although he knew me intimately, faults and all – loved me unconditionally. I believed the Gospel message because I was primed for it since toddlerhood: I already knew that I was vile and unlovable, irredeemably broken. It was a small step to accept that I was in desperate need of a Saviour who could love me to wholeness. Christianity provided me with solace, comfort, and a powerful super-ally I could depend upon to help me make sense of a world where felt unaccepted and alone. I was just 19 when I converted. My new worldview came with a ready-made scaffold inside which I could build the safest of structures for myself, insulating me from the pain of the past, and rendering me unsusceptible to repeating the mistakes of my parents.
So there I was: love-bombed into the heart of a happy-clappy mega-church. I now think that it was this same desire for plug-and-play security that led me to increasingly legalistic sects as time went by. I came to believe that the Bible had something meaningful to say about every aspect of life, from contraception to politics. I imagined the Book to be God’s Word, revealing his mind on almost any matter for which you’d care to dig out an apparently applicable principle.
In the midst of all this, I married a man who would later train to be a pastor, began a family and set about homeschooling my children. I went on to have seven in all, and educated each but the last at home. My oldest son, who is currently studying at university, has never been to a regular school at all. Strangely, it was through homeschooling that the tentacles of Christian fundamentalism began to lose their grip on me – and on my children too. Unlike many fundy families who use ultra-religious programs such as ACE, we positioned ourselves at the admittedly socially conservative but rather academically inclined end of the homeschooling spectrum. One of the results of this was that I became convinced of the necessity to include critical thinking as well as formal and informal logic in our family’s educational program.
My insistence that these were essential subjects for study landed me in several heated disagreements with other Christians. Suzie, a floral-frocked ACE advocate, was particularly horrified at the idea. One Sunday she approached me with genuine trembling saying that if I taught my kids to question things, wouldn’t they someday, possibly, potentially question even (gasp) the Bible?! I held no such concerns and replied that there was nothing to fear; if the Bible was indeed Ultimate Truth, as I believed it to be, it could withstand the closest scrutiny. God, I said, was not one to be afraid of questioning.
However, learning to think, as it turns out, is a door that, once opened, cannot easily be shut. My faith began to erode as I gave voice to doctrinal difficulties and real-life concerns that had lain buried in some dark recess of my mind. I was further provoked by the many questions with which my now-thinking teenagers would pepper me. Then, when our family went through several back-to-back traumas that caused most of our Christian friends to drop us like warm dog shit, I started to realise that life wasn’t all that much tougher without them. Indeed, I was beginning to think that I actually had been managing more or less solo all along. I started to wonder whether those seemingly authentic, emotionally powerful ‘spiritual’ encounters with the Deity had been fabrications borne of my own desirous state of mind. Had any of it been real? The piercing glimmer of suspicion that I had fallen victim to a spiritual sleight of hand began to peep through fissures forming in the carefully constructed shell of my religious delusion. Little by little those tiny cracks widened and bright reason began to flood in.
Slowly, tentatively, I began to review my Christian life to see whether it had been built on any kind of serious, verifiable evidence at all. It seemed to me my intellectual integrity depended upon putting everything on the table for questioning – even the big, scary stuff. So I announced to my Christian friends that I planned to pull the whole lot out for scrutiny, to challenge even my most fondly held beliefs and just see where that would lead me. I thought it best to try and establish a position of relative neutrality to begin with. ‘Call it an experiment’, I said. So I stopped praying, reading the Bible, and going to church, and made a point of never referring to God at all, even in my mind. Because of this I made an interesting discovery: nothing happened. Ab-so-lu-tely nothing!’ Things were no worse and, as the fear, guilt and condemnation began to dissipate, actually in many ways they were very much better. I seemed to get the things was I hoping for about as often as ever I had. Life has just as many ups, and as many downs too. But now I was taking responsibility for what was mine, understanding where I ended and others began, making decisions by applying reason and good sense rather than by twisting my brain into knots trying to imagine what might be God’s will in every situation. I was discovering the joys of Living in Reality.
But honestly looking at the Bible and the Christianity that I was doing my darndest to live – and impose on my children – brought more surprises yet. My thinking – by the end – went something like this: Either God is real or he is not. If he is real then either the Bible is his book or it is not. If God is real, and the Bible is his book, I want nothing to do with the bastard.
My disenfranchisement with Scripture was not instantaneous, though it was very much helped along when several of my children came out as same-sex-attracted. In my view the Bible was clear about homosexuals: hellfire and damnation for the lot of them. Although I hadn’t realised until that moment, when it came down to a choice between God and my kids, I sided with my children in a flash. And once I was in disagreement with God on a biggie like that, my confidence that the Book was a text I could depend on got the wobbles and before I knew it, the house of cards began to topple. It wasn’t long before I came to believe the whole damn thing was one huge and horrible hoax.
My journey with my kids out of Christianity to a life that those who knew me before quite wrongly imagine to be bleak, meaningless and without joy was – and probably still is –widely discussed among my old fundy friends. One particularly toxic woman said to me recently, “Do you know how much we all used to admire you, to want to be like you, how we wanted our children to be like your godly children?…Do you want to know what everyone is saying about you now…?”
Our story had become the basis of a powerful cautionary tale: The Dangers of Teaching Your Kids to Think. But its moral is one I cannot gainsay. Just like the Texas GOP, my floral-frocked fundy friend had it right after all: you let your kids – and even yourself – loose in the wide-open space of Freethinking at your peril. Once you start looking for the wires, the performance appears as sparkling magic no longer, but is revealed as nothing more than cheap and tawdry trickery. The realisation is a shocking one but, oh the bliss, the indescribable bliss, of finally being the boss of your very own brain!