This past week, The Federalist (a conservative/libertarian-leaning website) published a piece about Classical Conversations’ on-going harassment by atheist trolls that sort of freaked me out.
First, some background on Classical Conversations.
Classical Conversations is a popular curriculum arrangement with classical homeschoolers. Classical homeschoolers focus their studies on the western canon and teach their kids Latin and/or Greek. It is my understanding that the Classical Conversations program has over 100,000 homeschooled students enrolled.
The program has a “co-op” structure, meaning it consists of small groups of homeschoolers that meet – usually at a local church – for traditional classroom instruction and group projects every week. The remainder of the kids’ education takes place at home.
A financial/business structure has evolved to make these activities possible:
Some host facilities are financially compensated for maintenance costs associated with hosting a CC homeschool community. Communities are overseen by a CC-licensed director (an adult CC family member). Children break into age-appropriate learning groups each led by a qualified parent tutor, where they recount lessons of the previous week and learn new concepts to be studied at home. During the rest of the week, parents have sole responsibility for their child’s use of CC materials.
Each family pays the campus director for each child depending on the child’s developmental stage, to cover facility maintenance, instructional supplies, and tutor costs. Although curriculum and supplementary, CC-copyrighted materials are sold on the CC website, families purchase these directly as needed or desired.
Classical Conversations is not without its critics in the homeschooling community (to the extent such a thing even exists – homeschoolers are hardly a monolithic group anymore). In fact, many homeschoolers who subscribe to the classical education philosophy do not like the program. Most of the complaints I have heard about the program pertain to the curriculum authors’ rigid “our way or the highway” attitude. That is, you have to use their materials and follow their system exactly. It’s basically an education franchise attempting to guarantee a uniform experience.
Although we are classical homeschoolers, I never seriously considered Classical Conversations for this reason when we lived in an area with a CC group. I like homeschooling because it gives us the flexibility to choose the very best content for every subject and content that would appeal to our daughter specifically. While I like the socialization aspect of co-ops, I doubt I could ever trust another homeschooling parent to teach our daughter. It’s just not my style. But it doesn’t bother me that other families do choose to use this model, much like some families choose to send their children to university model schools. What works for one family may not work for another – that’s the beauty of school choice.
So back to The Federalist article. I had heard over the past few years about churches that were receiving threatening letters for hosting Classical Conversations groups. But I had no idea how pervasive and downright creepy it was:
Robert Bortins, CEO of Classical Conversations, said he became aware of two versions of an anonymous letter that were claimed to have been sent to “approximately 2500 host churches” nationwide in early 2019. Both letters began with the salutation, “Dear Church.” The first closed, “Former CC Families,” the second, “Concerned Christian Citizens.” (An organization named Concerned Christian Citizens sent an official statement to Bortins reporting that they not only did not send the letters, but expressly support both CC and its host churches.)
The first letter attempted an informational tone and contained internet addresses for a number of articles referencing ways various states regulate interactions between churches and for-profit businesses. A second letter sent several months later took a more strident tone. It identified the writers as “a group of Christian parents who are very concerned about the business practices of this company” and was accompanied by a “comprehensive list of issues that former Classical Conversations families have compiled.”
The four-page list documented nine “Issues With Classical Conversations,” which continued the tax-exempt theme, but added complaints about the culture of the organization and comments from its founder judged to be political “rhetoric.” Several of the complaints referred to a five-page anonymous blog post under the guise of a ‘product review.”
This blog, written by a person who “spent a year in Classical Conversations,” devoted many paragraphs to whether CC is “classical” or “neo-classical” in nature before charging it is “not an inexpensive program,” not Christian enough, too centered on memorization, and the structure was “inflexible and taxing for my family.”
In other words, the complaints at core don’t really seem to be about CC or any host church’s compliance with the law. That’s just a stick the letter writer (or writers) are using to beat up a company the writer dislikes, rather than just taking her business elsewhere and letting other people freely associate as they choose.
It’s clear after reading the blog post associated with the anonymous letters that the writer or writers have an ax to grind with CC and wish to use the threat of state action to coerce compliance with their philosophy of education. This isn’t a surprising situation. Too many people today seem perplexingly ill-equipped to dislike something without attempting to force others to dislike it too, and much of these fights hold both Christianity and education at their centers.
After receiving these letters, some church leaders have chosen to close their doors to CC programs they’ve hosted, in some cases for years, stranding enrolled homeschooling families. This is a more than inconvenient outcome that should not occur. Fortunately, some churches are inviting CC families back after additional research
It is hardly unprecedented to find people trying to weaponize the federal tax code or federal bureaucracy to injure Christian groups. Before Classical Conversations, something similar happened to Abeka (formerly A Beka Book), which produces high-quality, accredited educational materials for thousands of Christian private schools and homeschoolers. (Abeka materials are so top-notch that even a lot of secular homeschoolers use them. I can’t think of a better phonics and reading program in this country.)
Abeka was founded in the early 1970s and is affiliated with Pensacola Christian College in Florida. The publisher had tax-exempt status until 1996 because its profits were reinvested in the college. In 1995, Bill Clinton’s IRS determined the publisher could not maintain its tax-exempt status and, in fact, needed to pay nearly $50 million taxes retroactively on all of its earnings to that point. (Consider it a precursor to Obama’s IRS harassing Tea Party members, which ended up costing the US Treasury tens of millions of dollars in settled lawsuits.) It was an explicit attempt to put a popular Christian education program out of business for the sake of being Christian. It failed, as the university and publisher eventually raised the money.
The harassment by government agencies did not end there, however. In 2008, the University of California rejected Abeka courses for qualification to attend college there for literally no other reason than their education materials include introductory material situating the subject-matter in a Biblical context. Again, these are objectively high-quality materials academically, but they do mention God and that’s unforgivable to secular academics in California. This action resulted in a lawsuit, see Association of Christian Schools International v. Stearns. A federal judge and then the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals – a liberal stronghold before Trump became president – sided with the University of California.
The significance of that case is that it gave the University of California an opportunity to reject applicants that attended private Christian schools as this curriculum is used by most Christian schools – this amounts to millions of people nationally. The education materials were a useful proxy for religious discrimination. If you want to know why Christian universities are such big-money operations, this is why. It’s not difficult to fundraise in such an environment, where threats to religious liberty are quite real.
After reading The Federalist piece, I decided to do some research of my own into these Classical Conversations letters and what people were saying about the program online. It quickly turned into a rabbit hole of hate and bigotry. Some of these people clearly need professional help.
Among the strange folks I encountered was a blog devoted to hate-reading books by Christian authors. I can’t say I have ever seen a book club for reading books you don’t like so you can criticize and make fun of them, but apparently such a thing exists among atheist groups. They’ve turned hating Christian groups who likely don’t even know they exist into some twisted hobby.
I guess I should not be surprised such things exist, as Evangelicals in particular have seen a wave of religious defections where popular pastors and Christian writers have decided to denounce their faith and bash their former congregations for social media glory. Many of these sites complain about what they call “spiritual abuse,” which as far as I can tell is merely the experience of having belonged to a community one now disagrees with. These are the folks who seem to have some powerful but inexplicable obsession with Classical Conversations.
I thought about linking to them and posting screenshots so everyone could see the level of psycho behind this harassment, but then it occurred to me that these folks are probably quite dangerous in real life and I probably should not be inviting them to stalk me online.
I know many of these churches have shrugged off the letters, but having seen all these sites, I am not sure that’s a good idea. These are clearly disturbed people, and they should probably turn the letters over to law enforcement. They should probably also contact the Home School Legal Defense Association to evaluate what they can do to keep these people away from their congregations.