Heartlessness and Hate, Part 2

In Christian homeschool speech and debate, we were told that we were learning logic and critical thinking. What we learned was a kind of feigned intellectualism, one that behaves under the pretense that the most reasonable reaction to anything is no reaction at all. Almost without fail, the winning competitors were charismatic and attractive, smooth and composed. We were masters of taking literally that it’s possible to kill with kindness, and our interactions were icy, yet diplomatic. We were generally expected to make friends with our rivals, so we relied on a competitive environment to form friendships with other kids who were being raised in the same isolated conservative world.

For many of us, debate tournaments were the highlights of our lives. At the time, I thought it was the best it could get. I looked forward to being able to see the other competitors. I realize now that this is because it was my only social life. Well, there were other things, but that was usually VBS, AWANA, or another Christian-led event. In our other activities, I was usually the oldest one there and was expected to help with younger kids. That was true of Christian homeschool PE, music lessons, co-op, gymnastics, AWANA, and the horse vaulting day camp we did in the summer. In debate, I had friends who were closer to my age. We could discuss our interests through our speeches, as long as they were political and Christian enough. Tournaments meant a taste of freedom. Home life was something we didn’t talk to each other about – that was disrespectful to our parents. But it was a relief from being home with our families all the time.

Speech and debate were two distinct categories, which is why I refer to them separately. All involved performance, but with speech, the competition was based on rankings from multiple judges, rather than a win or loss between debaters. In this way, we were able to discuss even more controversially taboo subjects without the problem that debate presented: forcing the other team to take a position that fell outside the bounds of conservative views. For instance, I could not argue that abortion is evil in a debate round, but I saw dozens of speeches in the category of “persuasive” on exactly why and how abortion is evil. It makes me laugh now to realize the irony that we had a speech category called “persuasive,” but there was no direct conflict with an opponent in that event.

What did I learn from debate? I learned the art of bullshitting. I learned how to feign confidence about positions I personally knew the evidence was weak for. I learned how to pretend my points were stronger than they were. I learned how to find quotations both for and against a case from a single article which, when read as a whole, had observed multiple angles of a situation or topic. I learned how to make my words sound as convincing as possible, to win the favor of a judge or sometimes multiple judges.

It was all about the act, the performance of it all, the presentation. During our debate club meetings, we’d get stern lectures about how “the judges are always watching.” This meant we had to be on our best behavior. At all times we were expected to dress up like politicians. Many teenagers were shamed for changing into more comfortable clothing if they didn’t “break,” or advance beyond preliminary rounds. My parents never forced me to wear dresses, but I certainly wasn’t allowed to change out of my “tournament attire” until the tournament was officially over.

“Ballot parties” were basically a way for us to torture fast food workers. After the tournament, we were each given an orange envelope filled with our ballots. Every judge had filled out ballots with our speaker point scores, wins and losses in debate, and handwritten comments and critiques all over them. Even though the tournament was over, we were expected to study each judge’s notes late into the night. By then it was usually past 9 or 10 p.m., when most restaurants were closed, so we usually settled on McDonald’s. Dad liked to say that we were “helping with business” so they wouldn’t mind about being swarmed just before closing. As a small business owner, he didn’t really understand how big corporations didn’t pay their workers any better based on the number of customers there were to serve.

Describing ballot parties is a shameful thing. We’d show up, over a hundred teenagers and their parents, dressed mostly in fancy suits, and line up at the counter, totally overwhelming and taking over the McDonald’s. The workers’ eyes would get huge as we poured in, and inevitably someone would try to call in another employee to manage all the orders. We often ordered something small and gathered around every table and booth available, unpacking our ballots like they were Christmas presents. This was how we’d know which preliminary debate rounds we’d won and lost, a detail that wasn’t revealed during the tournament itself. Sometimes we read judges’ comments aloud to each other, in a serious or mocking tone, depending on the contents.

The obsession with being “above feelings” and to embrace facts, evidence, and logic is a patriarchal, white supremacist idea. It is part of toxic masculinity itself, because it says that any reaction to violence is not valid. “Appeal to emotion” is designated as a logical fallacy. If you get upset, you’re appealing to emotion. If you talk about how people are hurt, you’re appealing to emotion. The whole activity was designed to make us talk about complex political issues without being properly informed about them.

It shouldn’t be controversial to say that everyone deserves safety, shelter, nutrition, and healthcare. Humanity’s resources should be available to all who have need, regardless of their ability to convert their time into adequate profit to stay alive. This is clear to me now, but ten years ago, I was closed off to the realities of imperialism and racism, homelessness and hunger and poverty, and capitalism-based food and healthcare access. Simultaneously, I believed that I was engaging in reasoned thinking, logic, persuasion, and informed discussion of politics and philosophy.

Christian homeschool speech and debate is nothing more than bullshitting your way through being detached to human rights. Everything I learned from spending my time between the ages of 12 and 18 debating and performing speeches is something I’ve had to since question and unlearn. Many of my peers in the competitions will insist that we learned how to question through this activity, but I disagree. Those of us who did think critically were eventually ostracized for following logical conclusions. I had to recognize the basic fact that human rights are not up for debate. I don’t owe you a debate if you think otherwise.

Heartlessness and Hate, Part 1

Many people have asked me about speech and debate and whether it helped me with my communication and critical thinking skills. Now that a decade has passed, I can say with certainty that it did not. Years of frustration with speech and debate eventually led to some relative competitive success, but I had to sacrifice all other education for it in the end. I had no time left for trying to drag myself through basic pre-algebra. I took a “super senior” year, meaning that while most of my friends graduated high school at age 18, I kept competing until I was almost 19. Altogether, I would spend seven years competing in Christian homeschool speech and debate, from 2004 to 2011.

I’ve talked before about some of the indoctrination, like in my posts “My Patriotic Education” and “I’m not saying religion sucks, but it hurt me, okay”. I haven’t, however, previously unpacked this massive suitcase called debate and speech competition. For those who knew who I was before my blog was really known, you know that this is deeply intertwined with…well, every aspect of the identity that was projected onto me. For those of you who’ve been following me since my major pieces in 2014 and 2019, this may be difficult to explain to you.

My limited study time was almost entirely dedicated to preparing for speech and debate. When it came to general subjects like math and science, geography and history, I was taught practically nothing. I had an elementary understanding of these, and by the time I was a teenager, I was expected to spend “school time” teaching or reading aloud to my younger siblings. This was frustrating for all parties involved, and I regret being short-tempered.

The two leagues I competed in were called NCFCA and Stoa. The intention is to prepare children for public speaking and defending their positions with logic and evidence. The problem is that the parameters of the competition were limited to the confines of conservative Christianity. We could not discuss any matters of real controversy.

I knew a lot of other homeschooled kids from speech and debate, and some of them were getting thorough educations. For every 20 or so students that I interacted with, I’d say one of them was really hitting the books because of rigorous parents. This does not mean that they were having a superior experience of home life whatsoever – sometimes the more intelligent parents were more cruel. I’m not making a statistical claim without data, this is just my estimate based on interacting with hundreds of other competitors.

A Christian homeschool debate competition has a distinct atmosphere. It’s full of teenagers who are dressed in professional attire, in many cases deprived of socialization with children in other families except for these events. The competitive age range was 12 to 18, and we were not separated into smaller age brackets. I never learned how to count by grades because I didn’t take placement tests, or any tests at all. I didn’t have to, because my parents exploited a legal loophole that said they technically didn’t have to report any progress on the education they were providing to my siblings and me. As a result, I never knew whether I was doing well or not. I didn’t get grades or feedback very often, except for the results of the competitions.

Tournaments often lasted three or four days. The advantage of being homeschooled is we had the time to block out this much time in a week once a month or so. We weren’t missing school for it. It was considered an educational activity. The schedule was tightly packed and demanding: In a day I would have three or four debate rounds in addition to two or three speech rounds, each of which lasted between 90 minutes and two hours. We debated each other in organized formats with timed speeches and cross-examinations, finishing with final rebuttals.

One of the apparent advantages of debate was that we “learned to argue both sides” of an issue. This claim was technically true because every round had an affirmative and negative team. The administrators worked it out so everyone debated both sides the same number of times. The topic of debate was called a resolution. If we were assigned the affirmative side, we were supposed to defend the resolution, detailing how we planned to do so, and how the harms we presented would be solved by our proposed plan, and what advantages might be produced. If we were assigned the negative side, we were tasked with proving why the affirmative’s plan for change had flaws or would lead to disadvantages.

The topics we debated are notable because they were always carefully chosen from among subjects we conservative Christians could all agree on. The idea was that we shouldn’t force our opponents to take a stance that wasn’t morally defensible. For example, because we all agreed that abortion is evil, making the argument “abortion is evil” would be an inappropriate, underhanded move competitively. The opposing team couldn’t disagree and still hope to win the favor of the judge, who was almost always another conservative Christian homeschool parent, whose children were rival competitors. We did our best to recruit “community judges” to come and watch our tournaments, but it was difficult to convince people to volunteer. As a result, we were stuck in the frustrating position of crafting speeches and debate points catered to the biases of a specific group of people.

My first year, we debated US dependence on foreign oil. While we regularly made arguments about how it would be bad to rely on Saudi Arabian oil, it was frowned upon to run any environmental advantages. So for instance, drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge was a very difficult case to beat because no judge would vote for a team arguing for the livelihood of the wildlife. My second year, we debated medical malpractice law. Instead of learning about how broken the American healthcare system is and discussing ways to fix it, our cases promoted plans like forcing traumatized patients into mandatory mediation with their negligent providers. This provided economic advantages for the legal system. My third year, we debated illegal immigration. Rather than learning about the human rights abuses under US immigration policy, we had cases promoting ways to crack down on employment verification. The year we debated about Russia, I learned practically nothing about the complexity of the large country.

Overall, we learned to discuss political and philosophical topics in a heartless way. We debated issues without considering the real-world implications of the policies we were promoting. The tone of each debate round was one of detached discussion supporting conservative ideology. There was little consideration for human rights and injustice. In this way, the activity served as another form of indoctrination for conservative Christian homeschooling parents. This was subverted with co-opting free-thinking terminology like “arguing both sides,” “critical thinking skills,” and “learning how to think, not what to think.” However, it was merely a way to keep us from considering things that were too controversial, while thinking we were addressing the crux of these topics. I want to warn people of the danger in this activity because it desensitizes young people. We learned how to talk callously about human beings and their struggles, as matters of debate, not care. This is my first of two blog posts on the subject. In my second post about this, I’ll talk more about the culture of debate and its approach to emotional appeals.

I am an Ignorant Adult

I was severely unprepared for adulthood in every way. I had been indoctrinated to view the entire world through a religious lens. This meant that I thought the world was small. I lacked (and still lack) the professional and social skills needed to attain and maintain gainful employment. I also lack the skills needed to learn in a formal educational setting, as my abysmal college GPA shows. It’s been ten years since I took the SAT and “finished high school,” just before I turned 19. I never got a diploma and I wrote my own transcript, but I had a graduation party and my parents made a speech about how proud they were of my accomplishments. I would remain at home with my parents for another two years while struggling with higher education.

The only things I learned at home revolved around my assigned role as a daughter and future wife under the Quiverfull patriarchal movement. That is, I learned how to change a lot of diapers, wash a lot of dishes and laundry, and supervise a lot of children. My work experience was in the family business, so I knew a very specific niche (curriculum for homeschool Christian speech and debate competition), but it failed to give me adequate skills to qualify for other jobs.

My parents didn’t care whether the children assigned a daughter role went to college. I wanted to be a journalist, but my closest sibling had no interest in college at all. The first classrooms I sat in for a full semester were in college. I didn’t know how to study, and didn’t have time to study anyway because of my responsibilities at home. I was used to trying to study with a child sitting in my lap and five more piled on my bed. I didn’t know what a scantron was, and I didn’t know the answers from my attempts to learn. I dropped out because I knew better than to keep trying to win a game I couldn’t figure out how to play.

Socially, I was praised as a child for being able to converse so well with adults. I was considered “wise beyond my years” and knew better how to talk to adults than to kids my own age. I miss social cues every day. Jokes and trivia go right over my head, along with common knowledge about history and geography. I often find myself missing whole chunks of conversations with my peers because I don’t understand what everyone else is talking about. I have accepted that this is a normal experience for me because it’s better than singling myself out by asking. Not only was I deprived of a normal education, but I missed most of the entertainment of the 90s and 2000s, because most things including television weren’t allowed. Some things were considered too secular, others too satanic. As the years passed and my parents had more and more kids, they relaxed a little and let the kids watch movies throughout the day.

My professional track record is a mess. My only desk job was one I got through my parents as a reference, and I was lucky to keep it after I blogged about my parents’ abuse. After that, I realized that what I’d learned had not given me what I needed to stay in the white-collar workforce. I knew how to watch kids and keep a home, so I became a nanny and then a summer camp counselor. After that I washed dishes in a restaurant, then worked as a deli clerk at a grocery store. I was a line cook after that, then I worked at a call center. Between 2019 and 2020 I went back to a grocery store deli, and I’ve been working for myself thanks to Patreon since March 2020. I don’t know how I would attain meaningful income otherwise.

I believed that things were not as they are. I thought I was supposed to demonstrate god’s goodness to the people I encountered. Worse, I thought I was succeeding in doing so. I saw myself as a prophet, someone who was chosen to do the work of god. I fully trusted that my parents had expertly prepared me for this purpose. I was wrong about everything I thought I knew. This ignorance made me believe I was informed when I wasn’t. It went along with naivete and bigotry.

All of this hardly scratches the surface of how significantly my life was impacted. I am so many years behind my peers, and while I can patch my education in ways, I can’t get those years back. I spent my school years doing my parents’ work for them. I worked at home and for the family business. My childhood was exploited for labor instead of cultivated for learning. The result is that all I can do to get by is keep unpacking what I went through in my writing. I am ignorant about everything except the oddity of my own experience.

Homeschooling as Indoctrination

The prevailing myth surrounding homeschooling is that it is a superior form of education. The problem is that homeschooling is such a broad and vague categorization. A wide variety of experiences exist. Furthermore, it is difficult to objectively judge one’s own quality of education. I know because when I first “graduated,” I believed that I had received a better education than my peers. The truth was that I had been indoctrinated with propaganda to interpret everything in the world through a lens of fundamentalist teachings. Part of what I had to believe was that I was highly informed and educated, and the rest of the world was in fact being misinformed and indoctrinated to believe in falsehoods, like evolution.

Homeschooling is as unique as any family might be who uses the term to identify their educational style, or lack thereof. For some, it indicates specialized emphasis with the help of teachers or tutors to thoroughly educate the children. For others, it swings to the opposite end of the spectrum, sometimes referred to as “unschooling,” that is, nothing resembling schooling happens at all. For me, schooling meant religious indoctrination, pro-US propaganda, and competitive speaking to defend what I’d been taught.

From early childhood, what I had to learn was centered around religious beliefs. I memorized verses from the bible before I could read, learning that Jesus had died for me because I was sinful. Every time we “did school,” bible study and prayer was prioritized, sometimes after singing some worship songs and pledging allegiance to the American and AWANA flags. Most of our curricula was written and published by Christians, so even seemingly unrelated subjects used biblically based examples. Everything I knew about the world was interpreted through a religious lens – science existed to magnify the creation of god, and the course of history had the clear influence of providence.

My mom’s idea of teaching us history was to read historical fiction aloud to us according to the time of year. For instance, we spent every November listening to her read a book called “Stories of the Pilgrims” by Margaret Pumphrey from Christian Liberty Press. This book followed children whose families were being persecuted for their secret church services in a time of hostility to true Christianity. It followed their daring escapes to Holland and then the new world. From there, it told how several indigenous people including Squanto helped them survive. There was a good deal of miserable talk about the harsh conditions that led to many white deaths, but none about the impact colonization has had on the indigenous people of this continent. While there’s nothing wrong with thematic reading, it’s not a substitute for actual history, and there was none. The only history textbook I remember was for third grade, and it was called “Our American Heritage,” published by Abeka. It had short descriptions of famous American founders from a Christian perspective.

Science was a subject that was the same every year. We learned about our bodies and about the world as creations of god. We would color in simple pictures of the body parts with crayons while Mom read from a book called “More About My Magnificent Machine” by William L. Coleman. Google describes this book as “an explanation of basic human physiology interspersed with Biblical references and related religious thoughts and prayers.”

For me, high school was focused around speech and debate competition. I have so much to say about how debate was used as a tool of reinforcing indoctrination, I’m saving it for multiple chapters on the subject in my book. In short, conservative Christian homeschool speech and debate has specific parameters defined by a political and religious viewpoint. Our parents had disagreements among the many denominations they adhered to, but they could all agree that abortion was inappropriate to bring up in a debate round. They say their children are “learning how to argue both sides” through debate, which is perfectly logical if you believe that there are no two sides to abortion. There was only the fact that it is wrong, and therefore bringing it up in a debate round is unfair to the opponent. I was also told that I was making friendships that would last a lifetime with the other homeschooled kids who were my competitive rivals. For that matter, my only friends were the children of my parents’ friends, the ones who shared their ideals about family and homeschooling.

The result of my education was that I was prepared to approach my college campus as an evangelist. I wanted to “reach out” to the secular world with the message of Jesus. I joined demonstrators opposing abortion. I campaigned for republicans and worked undercover to try and catch democrats and LGBTAIQ allies in acts of corruption. I thought I was a prophet with a mission from god himself. All these delusions were carefully sown and tended and protected from the invasion of alternative perspectives.

It would take years to get through to me that reality was not what I had been told to believe it was. I was influenced by the people I encountered who were LGBTAIQ and who didn’t share my religion. I fought to hold onto all I’d been taught, slowly losing my grip with each thoughtful conversation these people patiently had with me. Questioning everything took time, but the foundations of the system I was raised to defend crumbled under scrutiny.

My Homeschool Transcript

I was taught primarily for religious and political purposes, not to prepare me for independence in adulthood. My high school transcript, and the fact that I wrote it myself, demonstrates how little I was taught. For me, being homeschooled meant that my access to information was severely limited by what my parents thought was true. It meant that I was expected to teach my younger siblings at times. It meant such ignorance that I could not identify the subjects I had and hadn’t been taught. There was nothing to measure my knowledge against but my only teachers, my parents. They believed they could teach their children everything they would need to know, which is an arrogant thing for any one or two people to assume. The result is that I entered adulthood with incredible ignorance, naivete, and bigotry.

I’ll talk more about the years leading up to high school in another post, because I want to focus on what I learned as a teen as I discuss the transcript below. In short, we learned a great deal of religious and politically conservative propaganda. Once I got to high school age, I started Saxon math books and competing in speech and debate. Math was a textbook with the answer book so I could check my own progress and teach myself. The only measure of success my parents seemed to care about was whether my siblings and I did well in speech and debate competition. Because of this emphasis, our education was warped to form around an extra-curricular activity. There was no foundation in core subjects like math, science, and real language skills. For this reason, my siblings and I struggled to compete against other homeschooled teens in an informed way. Debate was full of big words we didn’t understand and often couldn’t pronounce, and speech was a time to be as performative and we could possibly be.

Below is the actual high school transcript that I designed and wrote myself based on a template I found on Google, and asked my parents to sign. The first thing to note is that I had never been graded on anything, and knew only that I needed to be realistic while getting as close to a 4.0 score as possible. When I presented it to my dad, he asked why I hadn’t put down 4.0 in everything, and I said it didn’t seem realistic to me. I knew I hadn’t taught myself math very well, though I’d tried to work my way to the answers on my own. Every grade is not even a guess, but a blatant lie, because I never had grades. I just needed to write something that looked like I had.

The subjects themselves are odd: I list bible, debate, sewing, piano, and hunter’s safety for my first year. I also listed my debate resolutions as subjects: immigration policy, environmental policy, philosophy, and foreign policy. What I counted as “biology” and “chemistry” were religious devotionals about the human body, butchering animals on occasion for meat, and cooking.

Piano was taught by a homeschool mom, and I never got rhythm or sheet reading down after several years of lessons. Physical education was a Christian group that got together weekly to play simple games in groups, like dodgeball. Business was an important subject to include because I was learning about it through working for the family business. “Current events” was code for a speech event called extemporaneous speaking. This involved limited time to prepare a speech about events in the news. Apologetics was in the same “limited prep” category of speeches, but instead of the news, it was about theological questions. I read a lot, so I figured that counted as studying literature.

In my junior year, I wrote that I did a “publishing internship.” This meant that my dad decided to demote me from a paid position in the family business to an unpaid intern. That summer, several other high school students became unpaid interns, too, and my dad’s reasoning for demoting my sister and me was “so my kids don’t get special treatment.” I also wrote in my senior year that I had been a volunteer child counselor, which meant that I’d worked briefly at a Christian day camp in the summer to help children with performing tricks while riding horses.

Ultimately, what I was learning was how to be overwhelmed with too many responsibilities around the house. I worked for my dad and my mom, who each had to-do lists for me. I wrote this transcript to try and show that I had done schoolwork I hadn’t done. Most of my work was spent looking after the family and family business. So it was that I got into college making a poor case for my k-12 education. Once in college, I failed in many ways because my education had been inadequate. It would take several more years for me to gain the experience necessary to look back on my education with some perspective.

What I know now, looking back, is that I shouldn’t have had to write my own transcript at all. This shows how hands-off my parents were about my education, expecting me to figure it out myself. I didn’t figure it out, I ended up being underinformed about the world and frustrated with myself for not being autodidactic. I still don’t know what a normal transcript should look like, or what I might have learned if I was taught real scientific subjects. Instead…I know a lot of bible verses I wish I could forget.