Brainwashed Shock Troops

HA note: The following is reprinted with permission from Libby Anne’s blog Love Joy Feminism. It was originally published on Patheos on July 17, 2013.

Michael Farris, founder of the Home School Legal Defense Association and probably the most visible Christian homeschool leader, is fond of calling his generation the Moses Generation and my generation the Joshua Generation. Christian homeschooling parents, he says, removed their children from the perils of Egypt (aka the public school system) and educated them in the wilderness (aka homeschooling them) in order to send them forth to conquer Canaan (aka take America back for Christ). This really is the entire point of Christian homeschooling (as opposed to homeschooling done by those who may or may not happen to be Christian but do not have religious motivations for homeschooling). This is also why Farris’s daughter started NCFCA—to train Christian homeschool youth in argumentation and debate in an effort to prepare them for their assault on “the world.” In that light, I recently saw an interesting comment left on a Homeschoolers Anonymous post:

The idea that someone thinks that they can find really bright young people, teach them exceptional skills of debate and argument, and then unleash them upon the world as adults while still controlling their thoughts and attitudes is nothing short of insane. Young people have been growing up into adults who reject the authoritarian views imposed upon them for literally centuries. Why does this group of fundamental Christians – who often behave abusively to that self-same group of bright young people – think that they are exempt from the questioning and breaking away process that all young adults do as they grown into independence?

Because they believe they have completely brainwashed their young people into absolute loyalty to The Party as part of their training/indoctrination. Like the Uruk-Hai coming from the spawning pits below Isengard, they were raised and indoctrinated to be living weapons and nothing more.

Why do they think they are exempt from their best and brightest living weapons breaking away? Divine Right, of course.

My father spoke at my graduation. It was a homeschool graduation held at a local church, of course, and each father presented his son or daughter and gave a short speech. I was preparing to begin university the following fall. In his speech, my father said that many people had questioned his wisdom in sending me off to a secular university, asking whether I was ready for that. His response, he said, was that the real question was not whether I was ready to attend that university, but rather whether that university was ready for me. His confidence in my performance disappeared over the following years as I did indeed become “corrupted” by my time at university, and halfway through college my father launched into a tirade against me in which he brought up his remarks at my graduation and told me, his voice full of emotion, that those who had warned him against sending me off to a secular university had been right, and that he wished he could go back and undo that.

What happened?

Put simply, the commenter quoted above is right.

It is completely unreasonable for Christian homeschool parents to think that they can train up ideological clones whom they can train in debate and argument and then unleash upon the world without at least some of them going rogue or asking questions they shouldn’t. If these parents limit their children’s interaction with the world outside of their religious communities and avoid teaching their children critical thinking skills, creating ideological clones is simpler. But if you’re going to train them in argumentation and debate and then send them out into the world to wage ideological war on your foes, well, that’s more complicated. My parents equipped me with the very tools that ultimately led me to think my way out of their mindset, and meeting and getting to know people in “the world” meant that I realized the portrayal of “the world” my parents had given me growing up was wrong and extremely backwards. The system my parents constructed around me, in other words, was built with an internal weakness.

Why, then, did my parents have so much confidence? The commenter quoted above does have a point when referring to divine right—my parents believed that they were right, that their ideology was sound and true and demonstrably so. They therefore assumed that if they equipped me with Truth, that would be enough.

That I might grow up to disagree with them on what is true and what is not wasn’t really a concern, because they believed that the truth of their beliefs was completely obvious to anyone with eyes. When they would talk about people who “left the faith,” they would always attribute it to some sin—the person just wanted to have premarital sex, or to be able to be selfish and not care about others, or what have you. In their conception, it was never a disagreement about fact that led people once saved astray, but rather fleshly desires—because the truth of their beliefs, they were certain, was manifestly obvious to anyone and everyone.

There was something else, too, something more related to Christian homeschooling. My parents believed they had hit upon the perfect formula for raising children who would never fall astray. They believed this because this is what they were told by the books, magazines, and speakers of the Christian homeschool world. And they had done everything on the list from keeping me from friends who might be bad influences to teaching me with curriculum that approached each issue from a Christian perspective. This, quite simply, is what I consider the number one reason my father said what he did at my graduation. He was convinced that he had produced a culture warrior, following the proper formula and all of the proper advice, and that I was, in a sense, infallible—that I couldn’t possible go wrong.

But what was I, really?

I was chock full of apologetics arguments and conservative talking points, but utterly without lived experience or any real understanding of the arguments against the ideas my parents had taught me. After all, I’d never really interacted with people with different ideas or beliefs and my parents provided me only with straw man versions of opposing arguments in order to then knock them down. I’d grown up in an echo chamber and was happy contributing to that echo chamber, but I had no experience stepping outside of it.

I wasn’t a culture warrior. I was a teenage girl who thought she knew everything and wanted very much to please her parents.

The Heritage Foundation and the Cato Institute: NCFCA and Growing Up in a Conservative Bubble — Libby Anne’s Thoughts

The Heritage Foundation and the Cato Institute: NCFCA and Growing Up in a Conservative Bubble — Libby Anne’s Thoughts

Libby Anne blogs at Love Joy Feminism on Patheos.

As I prepared my debate briefs, scouring the internet for evidence, there were two places I always looked first—the Cato Institute and the Heritage Foundation. A good quote or two that could be applied in argument against a given plan was generally sufficient for my purposes. I filed my briefs carefully in my box and prepared for competition.

I honestly think my participation in NCFCA, known colloquially as “homeschool debate,” was the best thing about my high school years. I participated for four full years, attending debate competitions across my region. I loved it—the buzz of people, the feeling of purpose, and the heady rush I got when stepping up to speak.

Homeschool debate was one of the social highlights of my high school career. At the time, my main socialization events were church, AWANA (bible club), and a weekly arts and music co-op. Homeschool debate gave me one more weekly opportunity to see friends (or at least, the ones who were also in our local debate club) and, wonder of wonders, an opportunity to meet people outside of our local social circle. Debate tournaments were amazing—they served as the gathering points of dozens or even hundreds of homeschooled teens just like me, comprising the largest gathering of young people I found myself in outside of our annual homeschool convention.

And here is where we come back to the Cato Institute and the Heritage Foundation. Homeschool debate was an approved activity for me and many other teens like me because our parents considered it safe. Homeschool debate was founded by Christy Shipe, the daughter of Michael Farris, founder of HSLDA. The goal of homeschool debate was to train up a generation of young people for public speaking and political involvement in an effort to restore America to its Christian foundation. We were those young people.

NCFCA was unabashedly Christian. To participate in homeschool debate, we had to sign a statement of faith. This meant that the teens filling the halls of a given debate tournament were, like me, growing up in Christian homeschooling families. They were there because they shared the mission and vision of NCFCA. They too were being trained to be culture changers—they too were being brought up to embrace their parents’ vision for the restoration of a Christian nation.

As I’m sitting here, all my memories from homeschool debate are pouring over me. There were the long car trips in which we carpooled with others in our club and spent hours singing, talking, and playing games. There were the hotel stays where we congregated with the other debaters late into the night, sipping hot chocolate in the hotel lobby and swapping stories about tournaments and life. There were the times when we stayed with host families and made new friends in the process. There were the tournaments where disaster struck—a car problem, an illness—and memories were made. There were the times I stood up without a shred of actual evidence and used simple logic to overturn the other team’s carefully laid plan, basking in the heady rush I felt as I did so. The conferences, the tournaments, it all comes rushing back, along with the time spent on the homeschool debate forum cracking homeschool jokes with other debaters (When can the principle kiss the teacher without facing a harassment lawsuit? When you’re homeschooled, because your father is the principle and your mother is the teacher!).

And once again I’ve lost track of where I started this essay—with the Heritage Foundation and the Cato Institute. My parents and the parents of the other students in homeschool debate thought they were preparing us to go out and take on the world, but they had a curious way of doing so. Namely, homeschool debate was like having pro-lifers debate each other about whether abortion should be legal. One year the topic was protectorates, and my partner and I created a plan to get rid of the D.C. gun ban. Watching the other team when we got up and presented our plan was always amusing. After all, how could they argue against the second amendment? They couldn’t! Not only would it be hard for them to argue against their principles, but also the judges were generally chosen from among homeschool parents and their church friends, meaning that the audience was one-sided as well. Generally, the other team would get up and argue that because of a case currently working its way through the courts, our plan was not inherent—in other words, the problem was real but was already being solved.

And beyond just this, we all knew that the best sources to use came from the Heritage Foundation and the Cato Institute. If you quoted one of them to back up a point you were making, you were golden. In college, I learned something I hadn’t known before—that those centers leaned right and were generally taken with a large grain of salt. In homeschool debate, no one was going to argue that. In homeschool debate, no one knew that. We accepted the Heritage Foundation and the Cato Institute as fair and balanced and objective—and our coaches weren’t about to challenge that. The same was true of just about everything about homeschool debate.

Homeschool debate took place in a bubble. Within that bubble, it was great—I learned a lot about rhetoric, logic, and argumentation—but it was still in a bubble. You can’t raise a group completely outside of a culture and then send them out into it expecting them to change that culture without even accurate knowledge about that culture. Individuals raised in a bubble like we were are simply not equipped to do that—and indeed, our understanding and perspective was limited because we were never encouraged to really question and think outside of the box.

It’s funny, I actually think homeschool debate is what started me thinking my way out of the entire belief system. The introduction to argumentation and logic that I received during my participation served me well once I got outside of the bubble and subjected it to questioning. It was that very foundation in argumentation and logic that kept me going, somehow naively unafraid of what I might find or where my questions might take me. I suppose I might say that homeschool debate gave me the tools I needed to think myself out of the bubble, but that I had to recognize the existence of the bubble before I could do that. But of course, none of this is what my parents intended when they involved me in homeschool debate, eager to train me as conservative culture warrior.