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Creationism, Accelerated Christian Education, and the Loch Ness Monster

Curiouser and Curiouser

Kylie Sturgess

June 29, 2012

An Interview With Jonny Scaramanga

A news report dated Sunday, June 24, in the Herald Scotland, revealed that “American fundamentalist schools are using Nessie to disprove evolution”:

These private schools follow a fundamentalist curriculum including the Accelerated Christian Education (A.C.E) programme to teach controversial religious beliefs aimed at disproving evolution and proving creationism…

…One A.C.E. textbook – Biology 1099, Accelerated Christian Education Inc. – reads: “Are dinosaurs alive today? Scientists are becoming more convinced of their existence. Have you heard of the ‘Loch Ness Monster’ in Scotland? ‘Nessie’ for short has been recorded on sonar from a small submarine, described by eyewitnesses, and photographed by others. Nessie appears to be a plesiosaur.”

Unfortunately, there are students worldwide who are being taught these lessons—it’s not just an issue for the United States. Fortunately, however, there are activists who are working to raise awareness about these Accelerated Christian Education programs and aim challenge what these programs provide in the name of “education.” One such person is Jonny Scaramanga.

Jonny Scaramanga is an independent musician, singer, songwriter, guitarist, and teacher in Bath. He once attended an A.C.E. school and questions whether the system has done the right thing by him and thousands of students worldwide, at “Leaving Fundamentalism.”

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Jonny Scaramanga

Jonny Scaramanga: I went to an A.C.E school as a preschooler. I was there when I was three. I remember absolutely nothing [from that time], but then I was there again from when I was eleven until I was almost fifteen. At the time, I was a fundamentalist myself and I liked it. People tell me, “Oh, don’t criticize the system just because it didn’t work for you.” If anything, I’m someone that it did work for, to an extent—at least to begin with!

Accelerated Christian Education is a fundamentalist curriculum that started in Texas, and now it’s used in more than 5,000 schools around the world. Australia is one of the bigger, busier clients for accelerated Christian education outside of the U.S. It’s not localized to the U.K., but I concentrate on what’s happening with it in the U.K. because it’s what I know about. They teach creationism as fact and many things of that nature.

But the thing that I really have a problem with…is the fact that the students have to work in silence in these cubicles that they make for them, and there’s no social interaction. I think that educationally it’s quite damaging. They’re not allowed to question anything. I think that the purpose of education has to be to learn how to find stuff out for yourself. You can’t do that if you’re telling children, “No, this is all that you’re allowed to know, and this is all that you’re allowed to think.”

Kylie Sturgess: It sounds like the students are undergoing battery hen-like conditions when it comes to their education. Was it like that for you?

Scaramanga: Yes, absolutely. They would say that 50 percent or 60 percent of the working week is to be completed in that way. Then you’d have I guess more typical education the rest of the time. But I struggle to see how you can have, really, a typical education half of the week and brainwashing the other half. It was very much like being battery henned. It suited me OK, because I like reading and working in silence. But there are other students that I knew that didn’t suit them, that couldn’t sit still because they’re the kind of students that need to be active to learn, like a lot of students are. They would just get beaten for disobedience.

Sturgess: Is your family particularly religious? Was that why they encouraged you to go to that school and attend the program?

Scaramanga: Yes, but I’m really super proud of my mom because she left a comment on my blog where she said, “I just completely renounce everything that Johnny was ever taught in that school and I should never have sent him there.” Most parents can’t admit that. Everyone else that I’ve spoken to that was involved in the system all still stick up for it rather than question that they may have done something wrong.

Sturgess: You’ve mentioned on your site that the school you went to eventually closed down, but obviously A.C.E. is still continuing, around the world?

Scaramanga: Well, it’s independent schools that use the system. In the U.K., for example, which is where I have the expertise, it’s not a recognized qualification. The Office of Qualifications and Examinations Regulation (OFQUAL) is the government body, which gives recognition to qualifications so that employers and universities know what they’re dealing with. They don’t recognize Accelerated Christian Education’s qualifications in the U.K. But a government body called the National Academic Recognition Information Centre (NARIC), which is responsible for judging the equivalence of international qualifications, has said that they do consider A.C.E.’s certificates in this country to be comparable with Alevels, which is what you would consider the equivalent of graduating from high school in the U.K.

That’s really bad news that NARIC has done that, because I think it’s a very illinformed decision that they’ve made. But A.C.E. in the U.K. are just crowing about it and using it to claim that they have recognized qualifications.

Sturgess: So why challenge them now? You’ve left school; you’ve left your religion behind and gone on to have a successful career. Why come back and start questioning what they’re doing?

Scaramanga: Well, I started writing a memoir just because I realized that people think that fundamentalism only happens in America. Every time I tell someone about my life when I was younger—which for years was this guilty secret, and I tried not to let people know about it, but I gradually started to tell people, “Hey, I used to be a fundamentalist, and you wouldn’t believe the stuff I used to believe.” People are fascinated to know that this happens in the U.K., and that actually it’s reasonably common the U.K. Then when I got to writing the parts about my education, I got to those as I was qualifying to become a teacher myself. When I’m not touring the world being an “intergalactic rock star,” I teach music at undergraduate level in the U.K.

I was learning as a teacher about what constituted a good education, and the more I learned, the more I realized that “This is exactly the opposite of how fundamentalist education works.” I think we can learn something more about good education by looking at what makes a bad educational experience. I think that there are still thousands of kids—there are probably 2,000 kids in the U.K. that are being educated with A.C.E., so it must be tens of thousands around the world, at least.

Sturgess: In fact you are so eager to find out what they’re saying you’ve been buying their A.C.E. packages and analyzing them. What are some of the messages that they’re telling young people?

Scaramanga: Well, they’re telling students that the world is 6,000 years old and that evolution is essentially a conspiracy. I think it’s fair to say the overall point that you get from their curriculum is that scientists know that this evolution business didn’t really happen, but they really don’t want to believe in God, so they’re all teaming up to argue for the sinking ship of evolution just so that they can deny the existence of God and not have to be Christians. That’s the kind of message they have about science!

The political course has a message too: that God is rightwing, and anything to the left of that is a rejection of God’s will. God wants low taxes; God doesn’t want health care; God doesn’t want free education. God doesn’t want any kind of welfare benefits for the poor, because that’s not the government’s job. God has apparently decided that the church should take care of that, but government should have nothing to do with it. Oh, and that Christians should get involved in politics.

Luckily, Accelerated Christian Education has such a small influence on education that it’s not having a huge impact politically outside of the Christian right-wing in America. But they’re encouraging, actively, their students to get involved in politics and push for this really extremeright agenda. All of history is told from this point of view.

There are, and I have talked on my website about racism within their program, but it would be inaccurate to say that they’re being deliberate or connivingly racist. I think that it’s written by ignorant people, and that’s obvious from their science curriculum and their politics curriculum. But we’re not dealing with people who really hate people of other races. We’re just talking about people that are just clueless about anything which isn’t Protestant America.

Sturgess: So everyone has to be on the same terms as teachers: “This is our curriculum. It includes A.C.E.; do not question it”?

Scaramanga: Yes, A.C.E. makes up pretty much the entirety of the curriculum. The children do tests based on Accelerated Christian Education, which make up the qualifications that they do instead of whatever the normal qualifications are in that country.

Sturgess: That’s astounding. So, essentially, a child is graduating with a different kind of high school qualification than every other student in the state system?

Scaramanga: Yes; it’s just ludicrous to say it’s equivalent to final year high school, because even if you take out the lies and misinformation in the A.C.E.s and just look at it academically... They could just put nonsense answers in the blanks they’re given in the packages, go up to the score station, find out the right answers, and memorize them. Then, if they memorize, by rote, without necessarily understanding anything, they will get 100 percent on the test.

Then that is the qualification they’re getting, which says they’ve had an education. It’s nonsense to say that that is equivalent to any proper qualification, because the child may have learned nothing, may have learned everything by rote, and their score would be the same as if they had learned everything perfectly. It’s not a meaningful system of assessment.

Sturgess: What happens to the students afterwards? Are they likely to get into university, into other careers? What sort of qualifications are they walking away with?

Scaramanga: In my view, it’s a worthless qualification. But the fact that employers are not going to have heard of it means that now that U.K. NARIC has said that this is equivalent to Alevels that’s more or less a lot of students who just walk in with their NARIC letters that says this is equivalent to Alevels. The employer, having no other knowledge of the system, is going to have to accept that. Many students in the U.K. have gone from Accelerated Christian Education into decent universities.

This is interesting, that certain students have gone on to university. Part of me wishes that universities wouldn’t take these students because it seems to give credibility to Accelerated Christian Education. But then, on the other hand, if a student has gone through that system and somehow still shows an academic promise at the end then they’ve been punished enough, really.

Sturgess: Have other science or rationalist groups shown any interest in helping you, like the British Humanists or any secular groups out there? This is clearly infringing on their territory as well.

Scaramanga: The British Humanist Association—people such as Andrew Copson have been great. When my Times Education supplement article appeared questioning A.C.E. first appeared, he wrote to U.K. NARIC every week for months hassling about it. He is still aware of the situation and he retweets my articles on the subject. So I feel I have an ally there.

Australia, out of all of the countries, showed the most resistance. It seems to have caved now, but in the late ’80s and early ’90s, there were even Christians, and not just secular educators, that were all trying to refuse registration for A.C.E schools in Australia. The best academic article I found about Accelerated Christian Education was by Cathy Speck and David Prideaux, who were at the University of South Australia at the time. Now, they are at Flinders University in Adelaide. If anywhere, Australia has shown the most resistance.

I am working on making a case for saying that it should be illegal. Now, obviously, I’m still researching this because there are big issues to do with religious and civil liberties that need to be considered. But I think that when you’re talking about lies being taught as fact to children, things that we know [are untrue] not things that we think are untrue. I’m not talking about the areas of belief, which may be debatable, but within A.C.E we’re talking about things that we know are untrue are being taught as fact. In order for that to happen, the scientific method is being entirely distorted. That’s not a science education.

I certainly think that there is a need for the regulation of education, saying, “If you’re going to have a lesson that’s called science, you have to teach science.”

Jonny Scaramanga’s website can be found at http://leavingfundamentalism.wordpress.com.

Kylie Sturgess

Kylie Sturgess is the host of the Token Skeptic podcast and regularly writes editorial for numerous publications and the Token Skeptic blog. She was the co-host for the Global Atheist Convention in 2010 and 2012. An award-winning Philosophy teacher, Kylie has lectured on teaching critical thinking and anomalistic beliefs worldwide. In 2011 she was presented with the Secular Student Alliance Best Individual Activist Award and presented at the World Skeptics Congress 2012.