But For One Mistake: Samael’s Story

CC image courtesy of Flickr, Ryan Hyde.

HA note: The author’s name has been changed to ensure anonymity. “Samael” is a pseudonym.

My homeschooling experience was fairly positive, almost in spite of itself. My sister, who had long since moved out and was working on her doctorate by the time we started homeschooling, voiced concerns at the time, and when I look back, I too can hardly believe that it all turned out reasonably well. One of my parents was abusive, and the other either didn’t understand what was happening or else was simply too apathetic to do anything. I was socially awkward before we started homeschooling, and the isolation resulting from the switch only exacerbated the problem. And yet, I came out the other end with some of the best friends for whom I could ever ask and a truly world-class education (along with a host of personality and mood disorders, but that’s another matter). This submission is not about any of that. Instead, I should like to examine for a moment what I would call simultaneously the best and worst thing about my homeschooling experience: a truly unfortunate curriculum choice on the part of my mother.

I’m sure that many of you are familiar with David Quine’s Worldviews of the Western World curriculum, but I shall try to summarize briefly for those who are not. At its core, WotWW is a three-year course (four years if, like me, you also take Starting Points, which inculcates you with what Quine insistently calls the “Biblical Worldview,” though to my mind it is more akin to “Biblical Idolatry” and lacks any real support in the Christian Scripture) in intellectual history, beginning in pre-Classical Greece and ending in Postmodernity. It chews through a prodigious amount of Western literature, philosophy, and history, pointing out what is wrong with each work and why it is wrong.

There are a whole host of criticisms I could make about this curriculum—not least of which is its airy dismissal of anything not European in origin as not even worth mention, let alone study—but I should like to focus particularly on the concerted effort it makes to close the minds of pupils to anything outside the (militantly Calvinist) form of conservative, Evangelical Christianity that it espouses.

It must be said for this curriculum that it does involve the pupil reading books with which he or she disagrees—indeed, books with which the author of the curriculum disagrees—which makes the use of this curriculum marginally better than outright book-burning, but the way in which it guides the pupil to read them is highly problematic, and, what is worse, it creates a habit in the pupil of continuing to read everything that he or she ever reads in the same way (I still catch myself doing it now and again). Quine’s curriculum tells the pupil that he or she already possesses all the Answers to the great questions of life (prime reality, human nature, ethics & evil, etc.) and then instructs him or her to read these works to figure out why the Answers that the works provide are Wrong.

To put it in simple terms, Quine teaches pupils to see the devil in every human thought or word (excepting, of course, Quine’s own interpretation of the Holy Writ).

But this does not only color the pupil’s interactions with new media; it affects how he or she relates to fellow students and even professors when he or she attends university. He or she seeks to proselytize the other person, to convince the other person that his or her Answers are absolutely and totally correct and that the other person’s pre-existing Answers are absolutely and totally incorrect—except insofar as they coincide with his or her own Answers.

He or she does not wish to exchange with other people, to swap information and refine his or her own Answers in light of new data (and hopefully help the other person refine his or her Answers as well).

In essence, such a person becomes impossible to teach or reason with. Unless. Unless something intervenes somewhere along the way and causes the pupil to suspect that they may only be getting part of the story, that the facts touted to them by the curriculum may not be entirely accurate or the interpretations thereof may reflect no more than a surface understanding.

Looking back, it’s really quite a minor thing. The curriculum got a date wrong. A date I had known from previous study. It told me that the Filioque clause was officially added to the Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed in the See of Rome in 1054, but in fact, that had already been done in 1014 (1054 is the year that the Pope and Patriarch excommunicated one another over, among other things, the Filioque, so the mistake is at least somewhat understandable).

But all of a sudden, I was forced to admit the possibility of an error in what I had been taught: either my prior knowledge was incorrect or Quine was incorrect.

As it turned out, I was correct. And I wondered: “What other errors have I been led to believe?” Possessed of a, frankly, prodigious intellect and a powerful thirst to know, I almost immediately set about a lengthy program of doing my own research into all the historical details and making sure to read everything that the Quine curriculum “helpfully” summarized in their syllabus, rather than asking that I read (not to mention quite a few works not even mentioned in the curriculum). More importantly, though, I read them with an eye to find the truth, not with an eye to find lies.

A year later, the curriculum had me reading Camus’ The Plague, a work which the curriculum claimed to center around the question, “How ought one live in a world without God?” (While this question is certainly found in the book, to say that it is the sole focus of The Plague is a grave insult to the book itself and to the author). The curriculum also tried to tell me the answer to this question, namely, “This question is stupid, because God does exist.” But that is to entirely miss the point. Even if God were to exist, that wouldn’t invalidate the question. I myself believe that God exists—and that Jesus of Nazareth was and is the Incarnation thereof—but I learned a great deal about ethics and human nature from Camus, lessons I do not believe I could have learned without considering the hypothetical and (in my belief, anyway) counterfactual question, “How ought one live in a world without God?”

In the end, this curriculum is responsible for giving me a better education than I expect I could have gotten at any “regular” institution anywhere (and I lived in one of the best school districts in the country); my father (who was never quite on board with the use of the Quine curriculum anyway) saw my frenzied attempt to supplement the Quine curriculum and decided henceforth to buy me as many textbooks or other books as I desired and leave me to my own devices to read and learn from them (being available to help, of course, if I ever got stuck, which did happen at times). But sometimes I consider how close I came, and it frightens me terribly.

But for one error—indeed, an error which could plausibly have been no more than a misprint—I could have had my mind completely closed by that curriculum.

Indeed, it remains an arduous task, trying to keep my mind from ossifying, and the balance between holding true to one’s convictions and bearing in mind that one might be wrong is a very difficult one to strike (but absolutely essential if one wants, as I do, to engage in an exchange of ideas rather than a war). It took me an embarrassingly long time to get my head screwed on straight about some things. But though I remain Christian, it is a very different sort of Christianity than the one my parents and their peers tried to force on me, and many of them have levelled accusations of heresy or apostasy, but I’m no longer afraid of that. I’m learning, and I’m going to keep learning, as much as I can, whether they like it or not.

One comment

  • Quine…gag. His books were the source of many tears and frustration (I did four years of it as well). I remember staying vehemently to my parents over and over that Quine’s children had to be the unluckiest people in the world to have to live with someone so pretentious and stupid. He ruined for me what might have been classics that I’d’ve enjoyed; someday I should go back and read them. Anyway, kudos for making it through those.

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