Sunday, November 18, 2007

Reactions to God’s Harvard (Part I)

I’m currently in the process of reviewing Hanna Rosin’s new book God’s Harvard for PopMatters. I think Rosin is an insightful reporter (see my previous post), and her study is an important one considering its subject matter. As a private college in Purcelville, Virginia with a student body of around five hundred, Patrick Henry College (PHC) targets evangelical homeschoolers with high scholastic potential; the average SAT score range that Rosin cites is 1230-1410, on par with the University of Virginia and Rice (46-47). Michael Farris, a constitutional lawyer and conservative political activist, founded the school in 2000 with the intention that the school “would enlist the purest of born-again Christians in a war to ‘transform America’ by training them to occupy the ‘highest offices in the land’ ” (3). To fulfill this goal, PHC’s curriculum is primarily designed to prepare students for political and cultural leadership roles, with the first two years focusing on classic liberal arts (literature, philosophy, history), and the second two years involving government and political science courses, internships, and a senior research seminar.

Despite PHC’s size and newness, Farris’ overarching vision has, in some ways, been quite successful to date. Rosin finds that out of roughly one hundred White House internships that are available yearly, PHC has “taken between one and five of those spots in each of the past five years—roughly the same as Georgetown” (47-48). Many other students have landed internships with Congressional Republicans, and graduates have worked for the White House, FBI, CIA, and various conservative think tanks. Liberal critics have interpreted these accomplishments (particularly the White House internship rate) as a dangerous alliance between church and state. It’s not an accident that out of the several anti-religious right books released in 2006, more than one discussed how PHC is 1) evidence of 1) how certain evangelicals and fundamentalists seek to conquer American government; and 2) the intellectual tragedy that occurs when PHC students are indoctrinated into an overly certain and narrow worldview.

In contrast, Rosin relies on her thorough research—which included extensive observations during the 2004-05 and 2005-06 academic years—to present a more nuanced (and more plausible) picture. True, there is some corroborating evidence in relation to the studies cited above. For example, she notes that PHC students “generally cleave to [the] orthodoxy” of the religious right, and that the campus newspaper “almost never deviated from the White House position” (5, 105). In her profile of Derek Archer (who was a freshman when she began her reporting at PHC), she describes his encounter with an upset deacon while helping younger kids distribute flyers in a church parking lot for Republican gubernatorial nominee Jerry Kilgore. As Rosin writes, “It had never really occurred to him that a church would consider campaigning and worship to be at odds with each other; in his mind, they served the same purpose. Now he could see, ‘it’s rather controversial’ ” (157). Finally, she notes at the end of the book how the imperative to take back the nation “haunts” graduates “even more strongly than it did while they were in school,” and expresses her doubt that any of the students “would ever moderate their views enough to win my vote—not for president, congressman, or even city councilman” (273-274).

Yet Rosin also documents the cognitive dissonance and agency among the PHC students, and the extensive time she has spent with them has helped her delineate between Farris’ dreams of creating incorruptible culture warriors and their own personal goals for the future. Girls in particular struggle with campus rules that are skewed against them (such as a dress code that monitors bare midriffs and exposed bra straps) and the traditional gender expectations that are placed upon them (including chastity and what is known as complementary gender roles, which emphasizes gender differences and male leadership within relationships). Farahn Morgan’s efforts to counter these forms of inequality are particularly noteworthy. Rosin writes that although she shares many of the conservative characteristics of her peers, “Farahn seemed highly conscious that she was blooming in a very tight space”; her acute sense of fashion and “innate fatalism” (where she describes herself as a “Christian nihilist” and life as a “tragedy”) are certainly at odds with what Farris intends (149-150). Even more conventional female students recognize the difficulty of planning their career ambitions within what is basically an environment of institutionalized sexism, and their small forms of resistance—particularly moving off-campus—become symbolically significant.

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