It’s a Tuesday afternoon, and my eleventh-grade students are booting up the computers in my school’s computer lab to begin research for a recently assigned paper. They chat with one another casually as they log in and open their Internet browsers to begin work. I marvel as I watch them swiftly maneuvering through websites, online databases, and the school’s word-processing program with ease. As they open and minimize multiple screens to copy and paste text into three separate documents, they don’t think twice about what they are doing or how they learned to do it. Impressed as I am with their skills, I expect nothing less of them when assignments ask them to utilize technology.
Most elementary schools have been offering some sort of computer instruction since the late 1980s; however, during my own elementary school years in the early 1990s—a period of great advancement in technology—the strictly religious Pentecostal private school I attended forbade the use of computers. Year after year, students would graduate from our small school and pack their bags for university or look forward to beginning first jobs—but quickly realize that because their church had forbidden them access to computers, they lacked a skill necessary for success in academia or the workplace. Many of these students eventually dropped out of college and, feeling defeated, returned home to take low-paying part-time jobs or to marry. Others found themselves struggling to adapt to a world that demanded experience with technology; all too often, these students missed out on important opportunities because of their limited experience.
Computers—and computer programs, especially—have presented me with unique challenges in recent years when I’ve been asked to write research papers in Microsoft Word, create presentations in PowerPoint, or make spreadsheets in Excel. I still struggle with adapting to new technologies, and I can’t help but wonder if this is because my church’s private school never provided me (or my classmates) with computer instruction. Parents and teachers in Pentecostal churches and other private schools that still do not provide computer instruction must understand that as their children and students move on to universities, two-year colleges, trade schools, or careers, they will be asked to utilize technology in their work. By avoiding the so-called worldly and tempting computer, institutions like my Pentecostal church school are placing significant limitations on their students’ ability to succeed in a technologically driven world.
Learning the Rules
Whenever someone joined my church, he or she had to begin abiding by certain rules. As a woman, I could not cut my hair because it served as a covering for my modesty; I could not wear makeup because it belonged to the world, and I needed to maintain my purity; I could not wear jewelry because such unnecessary adornment was a product of vanity; my skirts had to pass my knees. Pants and shorts were not allowed because such garments belonged to men; my shirts could not be sleeveless lest I draw lascivious attention to my body. Granted, these rules applied to the entire female congregation, not just to me; we were all expected to follow them or else God would demonstrate his displeasure. The men had a separate set of rules concerning dress, and there were other rules the entire congregation had to follow.
Televisions were not allowed in members’ homes. With its images of sinful premarital sex, violence, and fast lifestyles, television could influence the mind and tempt the faithful toward a damning lifestyle. To have a television in one’s home suggested that a family engaged in loose behavior, what the church called “living in the world.” If a child played at another family’s house and noticed a television, that shocking fact would most certainly be revealed to the visiting child’s parents, and the accused family would become the source of nasty church gossip.
Movies—regardless of content—were also off-limits. For reasons similar to those for the ban on television, movies were considered to be of the world, tempting the viewer with sexual acts, ungodly decisions, and violence.
The church deemed computers the gateway to sin because they linked the user to the Internet. The twisting avenues of the web could not be trusted except to tempt the faithful at every turn. Of course, computers could also be used to play computer games, many of which portrayed (or even celebrated) violence. These were definitely nothing a godly family wanted its children experiencing, even in the virtual realm.
As noted, then, computers had no place in the small private school associated with my church. If a family in the congregation had school-age children, it was strongly suggested that its children attend the church’s private school. While some families chose to send their children to public school, those families were frowned upon and, like television-owning families, became the subject of harsh gossip.
Into a Sinful World
When my parents divorced in the summer after my fifth-grade year, my mother moved with my brother and me, far away from the reaches of our Pentecostal church. While my mother remained a faithful Christian, she could no longer tolerate the severity and rigor our old denomination required. Breaking with the church (to say nothing of moving) meant breaking from its private school. My mother enrolled us in the local public school system. She did this early in the summer, and as the summer waned I grew increasingly anxious about having to attend a “worldly” public school. I worried that I would not fit in, that the other students would regard me as a foreigner, that no one would understand my shyness and resistance to wearing blue jeans, putting on makeup, and watching cartoons.
Thankfully, my childhood sensibilities were still elastic, and I adapted to my surroundings. I overcame the shock of seeing girls wearing pants and makeup and a television in every classroom and hearing curse words pouring from the mouths of almost every student as though their use was an occasion for pride. After a week, I felt that I could settle into a comfortable routine at the school; that is, until one embarrassing day in the computer lab.
During the second week of sixth grade, my Social Studies teacher marched a class into the only computer lab on the sixth-grade hallway. Our assignment for that day was to open Word and type up a small project she had given us the night before. I took my seat in front of the black screen and stared at the contraption in front of me. I had never seen such a machine in my entire eleven years! A flush crept up my cheeks as I realized I would have to ask someone how to turn the thing on and use it.
While the computers of the students around me whirred to life, my classmates chatted quietly. As the room settled into a quiet hum of work, I fidgeted in my seat and wondered what I should do. Finally, I leaned toward the girl seated next to me and whispered, “How do I turn it on?”
Her eyebrows rose to the top of her forehead. “You press the power button, dummy,” she said before turning back to her own work.
But I still didn’t know what to do. I agonized over whether or not to bother the girl again. Finally, I tapped her shoulder and asked, “What does the power button look like?”
She sighed and reached over me to press a large gray button on the bottom of the computer. Exhaling loudly, she drew back toward her own computer.
I smiled my thanks at her. She rolled her eyes. (We never made friends that school year.) Once the computer came to life, I still didn’t know what to do. I mashed some buttons and moved the small device attached to the computer around, but it didn’t accomplish anything.
The end of the period came quickly. I had never gotten past the opening screen. When my teacher a
sked me why I didn’t have an assignment for submission, I flushed with embarrassment and shrugged my shoulders. In that moment, I was sure she had labeled me, normally a straight-A student, as a lazy degenerate. The bottom line was that I didn’t know how to operate the computer, and I couldn’t type. Tasked with my simple assignment, I had no idea how to use technology to create the final product. With shame, I accepted the very first zero I had ever received in my young life.
Eventually, my teachers realized I knew nothing about computers. The school provided me with a peer tutor who kindly walked me through basic functions. Over time, I learned that I could teach myself how to operate many programs on my own by just manipulating them. Still, no matter what I did, I was slower on the computer than my classmates. This slowness in mastering new technologies has never gone away. As a teacher and now as a returning student in a graduate program, I still struggle with my feelings of frustration at this slowness.
Learning from Related Experiences
While I was struggling to learn a new computer program for my current teaching position, I wondered if any of my fellow students at the Pentecostal private school had had similar experiences. I got back in touch with as many former classmates as I could and was able to conduct several interviews. Out of respect to those individuals who spoke with me, I have changed their names; in addition I withhold the name of the church because many whom I interviewed are still members of the congregation.
“Gareth” is still a member of the church, and he will enroll his daughter in the church’s kindergarten program in the fall of 2010. He said he is untroubled by the church’s refusal to allow students to use computers: “I’m not that worried about it. Granted, I had to struggle a little bit when I went off to college to learn some of the computer programs, but learning to use a computer wasn’t something that I found impossible.” He continued, “I completed K–12 at the church’s school, and I made it through college and got a decent job. I’m not saying that it wasn’t a struggle sometimes, but I’m not willing to allow my child to have access to some of the filth available on the Internet today.”
Gareth understands the possibility that his daughter might see something he does not approve of, online or off-line, without his knowledge. “I know I can’t monitor her every minute. However, by not having her exposed to [access to computers], it greatly lessens the chance of worldly influence. And when she does need to learn to use a computer, hopefully she will be older and mature enough to make Godly decisions.”
“Shauna,” also still a member of the church, was more critical of the school’s stance toward technology: “As a college student, I constantly have to use the computer to write papers and to create presentations. I felt like an absolute idiot going to my roommate my freshman year and asking her, ‘Hey, how do I open a Word document?'” I couldn’t help but nod my head in agreement as she continued, “I don’t understand why the school still refuses to update their ideas about computers. If a child is going to succeed in the business and working world, she needs those skills.” While Shauna still attends the church and abides by its other ideals—she dresses church-appropriately, and she does not own a television set—she did not hesitate to share her regret concerning her own education.
“Corey” no longer attends the church but echoed many of Shauna’s opinions. “By not giving children and young adults the tools they need to succeed, the church is really just holding these kids back. My opinion is that children need to learn how to use technology when they are young; otherwise, the acquisition period for learning how to adapt to such tasks will quickly pass by.” During our discussion, Corey drew on examples of his own struggles with adapting to new technology: “I honestly think that by not being exposed to computers at a young age, I learn more slowly than a person who did use computers as he or she grew up. Do I think it’s unfair? Absolutely! Unfortunately, the blame falls not only with the church but with the parents. I would hope that as adults, the parents of these children would see how much this could harm their technological development. I would hope that parents would want their children to have the same opportunities as other kids.”
When I contacted the school’s current principal—who directed me not to use his name—he detailed the school’s reasoning for continuing to deny students access to computers: “The school understands that students are being asked to use technology in the university system and the workforce. But as young people, their minds are still malleable and easily influenced. Once they become responsible adults and strong members of the church, they should be able to better handle such temptation.” I asked him if the school had ever considered providing students with a stripped-down computer with no Internet access and only Microsoft Office programs, since if students were expected to succeed in college or the working world, they would need some knowledge of these programs. Surely students could be spared temptation if not faced with the Internet! His reply was shocking: “We have had several parents ask the same question, and my response has always been the same. Even with such pared-down programs, children can utilize the programs to create inappropriate letters and pictures. If a parent wants his or her child to be exposed to such things, then he or she can send the child to a public school where the child will have to constantly face worldly temptation.” With that statement, he ended the call with polite coldness.
Warning for Parents
Of course, individuals have the absolute right to believe as they wish; however, in our increasingly plugged-in society, what draconian Pentecostal parents and educators must grow to understand is that limiting our children’s access to technology—tools they will inevitably need in order to succeed in secondary education and the working world—limits their potential. While my experiences within one school are representative of only a small percentage of the student population, all students should have the opportunity for success regardless of the size of the school they come from or percentage of the population they occupy.