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.

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.