Photo by Jona Frank

God and woman at Patrick Henry

Education | An outsider offers a thoughtful look at a Christian college

Issue: "A mighty fortress is our sect," Oct. 20, 2007

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:

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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.


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