Patrick Henry College (PHC), located in Virginia some 40 miles west of Washington, is one of American evangelicalism's recent success stories. It opened in 2000, became known for placing interns in the White House and other strategic spots, and in so doing became an object of intense media interest. When a group of professors resigned in spring 2006, charging the college with restricting their academic freedom, press ears perked up again.
Over the years Time, The New York Times, and many other publications have run largely superficial stories about PHC. One writer, Hanna Rosin, formerly of The Washington Post, went deeper. She embedded herself at the college for a year and a half and witnessed tumult among both professors and students. Her new book, God's Harvard: A Christian College on a Mission to Save America (Harcourt), shows the curiosity of an Israeli-born, Jewish New Yorker asking, "What does it mean to keep up a running conversation with Jesus in your head, and at the same time to function in the modern world?"
Christians in academia will find the book valuable for its insights into debates within evangelical higher education. Rosin told WORLD that she has not been back to Patrick Henry since the book's publication, but she did stop at The King's College in the Empire State Building for a chat with King's professors. Here are some of the questions and answers:
Q: What surprised you the most in what you saw at Patrick Henry?
A: I'm too young to have been at college during the '60s, but . . . the intensity of the arguments is very reminiscent of what people call the "Peace Corps" generation in the sense that here was a place where people (students and professors) take ideas incredibly seriously.
Q: The Post and other newspapers often throw together Christian fundamentalism and Islamic fundamentalism. After being embedded at Patrick Henry, do you see more distinctions between the two?
A: At Patrick Henry they would never be caught making one of those crazy rants about gay people causing September 11th. I mean, they're much more sophisticated than that . . . they've absorbed this notion that it's just as sinful to be homophobic as it is to be a homosexual. . . . Part of growing up for these kids is going to be realizing that marriage to the Republican party just doesn't make sense on a lot of issues.
Q: You seemed to appreciate at times the kids' generally non-ironic sensibility. You seem almost wistful . . .
A: I'm this really ironic person, I mean I . . . went to high school several blocks away from here . . . and I'm ironic in the way journalists are.
Q: You write about the desire at Christian colleges to protect students . . .
A: In some way at Patrick Henry there really was a palpable fear about handing over of the knowledge without tightly controlling it. . . . There were kids who went through what I called "the intellectual equivalent of a cocaine binge," which is that they started reading Nietzsche and Kant and they suspected that maybe they liked it better than they liked reading their Bible. And this was this temporary phase, they really all did stay Christians, but it did feel dangerous. . . . Nietzsche's a beautiful, compelling, mad writer, and so these things really did feel moving and compelling to them in a way that was scary.
Q: You write about the pressures on young women . . .
A: I stopped working at the Post, I now write for magazines, because I have two little kids and it's a more flexible job, and I like to be home with them more. . . . The urgency and the pressure on the Patrick Henry women on both sides is much stronger than it is on me. . . . The tug on one side, "you have to achieve the mission," was extremely strong, and the tug on the other side, "you have to quit and raise your kids as soon as you have them," was incredibly strong.
Q: Who deals better with the sexual issues?
A: There was a cover story in New York magazine, while I was at Patrick Henry, about my old high school, Stuyvesant High. It was horrifying. My daughter's 10 years away from high school, and it was all about the ambi-flexible God-knows-what culture of Stuyvesant and how they would dive into "cuddle puddles." I couldn't even read to figure out what those were. . . . I loved Stuyvesant High. I have great memories of it. Now would I want that, or would I want a courting culture for my daughter? I'd have a hard time choosing. . . . They're complete extremes.
One strength of God's Harvard lies in its striking profiles of some PHC students who break down liberal stereotypes of cookie-cutter evangelical students. Rosin describes one student as "funny . . . adventurous . . . a terrific writer . . . an astute judge of character with an introspective side. Sometimes in the mornings I'd find her upstairs in her bed, reading her Bible and taking notes. 'If they're all like this,' one of my friends said, 'we're in trouble.'"
One weakness, but it's an honest weakness, is Rosin's determination not to be moved from her current positions: "Much as I marveled at the Patrick Henry students, I doubted that any of them-not even the most rebellious of the campus rebels, not even the least conservative kid there-would ever moderate their views enough to win my vote-not for president, congressman, or even city councilman. . . . I remained constitutionally incapable of the modern conservative Christian's brand of certainty."
God's Harvard usefully raises questions about both curriculum and organization. Some Christian academic leaders look upon liberal arts study as useful for gleaning "common grace" insights from non-Christians, and others as a way to discover the weak points of secularistic culture. Organizationally, new Christian colleges often grow out of the vision and determination of skilled social entrepreneurs like PHC's Michael Farris-but such individual leadership clashes with professorial culture.
Rosin describes PHC as an experimental community and notes that these "almost always implode. One faction wants to hold on to the purest version of the mission while another begs for a little fresh air." But PHC seems to have rebounded from the trauma of spring 2006, and other colleges may be able to avoid civil war if the factions within them recognize that they are made up of arms, legs, heads, and trunks, each-as Paul in his day wrote to the Corinthians-essential to the body.
One irony in Rosin's title, God's Harvard, is that the founders of the real Harvard (and the founders of Yale, Princeton, and many other schools) viewed their creation as belonging to God. Those institutions all headed down a slippery slope, and one challenge for administrators and professors of God's new colleges is to keep history from repeating itself.