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A Conservative Twist on Higher Ed

An evangelical Christian school meets with success—including White House jobs

By Travis R. Kavulla

Patrick Henry College (PHC) is totally unlike the typical conception of a university. Its president, a long-time political activist involved with the recent surge in homeschooling, was mentored by Tim LaHaye, most famous for his evangelical Left Behind series of books. Janet Ashcroft (John’s wife) holds the office of secretary on the school’s Board of Trustees. Public Displays of Affection, with the exception of hand-holding, are entirely forbidden. Its spring formal, the Liberty Ball (to which I was invited but could not attend) was summed up as “gentlemanly.” And PHC’s quiet campus is close to Washington, D.C., where so many aspirant students wish to end up, but far enough away (10 minutes from the nearest Starbucks by car) to enjoy a cloistered feel.

PHC and a cadre of other conservative colleges of various religious affiliations—Hillsdale, Grove City and the anticipated Ave Maria College—are challenging the very foundation of higher education in America. PHC’s benign-looking website displays a resolution adopted in September 2002 that begins with the unambiguous statement, “The College is, and shall always remain, a Christian institution dedicated to bringing honor and glory to the Lord Jesus Christ in all of its activities,” and is followed by 10 articles of faith to which all students, employees and officers of the college must swear. The trustees were even kind enough to apply their “Statement of Biblical Worldview” to popular culture’s hottest topics: “Creation,” equality, sexual conduct and even private property are all explained by the Board of Trustees’ lengthy statement.

If this ideological framework sounds scary to the typical religiously ambivalent Harvard student, there’s still more to frighten. PHC’s students are exerting an immense influence in Washington circles. Out of the 100 interns working for the White House this semester, The New York Times reported, seven hailed from PHC, which has a mere 240-member student body. Their politics might help them win the jobs, but their SAT marks (a school average of 1320, significantly higher for such interns) are nothing to scoff at.

My own experience with PHC students—limited to a few weeks face-to-face while in Israel attending a conference about terrorism—was extremely cordial. (One of them attempted to trace the precise footsteps of Jesus and a handful of saints. The other attempted to win me over, with grace and charisma, to evangelical Protestantism.) They were both homeschooled, as is a good majority of PHC’s student body, but were surprisingly worldly. Beyond that, they seemed as competent as a typical Harvard student and lacked the smarminess that sometimes comes along with a crimson pedigree.

In many ways, these conservative colleges and their devoted students are fighting an impossible battle. Don’t look for their graduates to enter into academia—its terribly unlikely that any PHC undergrad will have much luck in getting into an elite Ph.D. program. (On the other hand, it’s possible to spot B.A.s from the more mainstream Hillsdale College in respectable professors’ academic histories from time to time.) Whatever inroads have been made, it’s unlikely that the monopoly on knowledge that Harvard, Yale and the other Ivies retain will ever slough off to schools with such bias.

But rather than attempting to contribute to what PHCers might consider the seamy ideologies that plague academia, the school’s self-professed goal is to “lead our nation and shape our culture.” The new Strategic Intelligence Program—one of the concentrations in the school’s government department—provides a trade school approach to an increasingly important sector of the government. Classes in “Empirical Research Methods” and “Intelligence Research and Analysis” coalesce with a liberal arts core (Western history, Western literature, plus theology, or “Biblical reasoning”) to provide students with all the credentials of a prospective modern-day crusader.

It’s unknown whether government agencies (as opposed to political parties) will bite on PHC’s attempt at vocational intelligence training. But beyond the possibility of conservative-trained students taking over many of those government jobs appointed by right-wingers, PHC’s success speaks for itself. A mere seven years old, it has managed to make good on a promise to remain debt-free (in accordance with biblical teachings, the college’s president explains) and not to take any government funding (whether federal bureaucrats would give any to PHC is another question). More than that, whereas home schooling in a traditional formula used to end at high school graduation (or even earlier, after elementary or middle school, so that students could get the hang of social life outside the home), PHC’s mission seems merely to extend homeschooling in order to connect that brand of education with the real world.

For a long time, conservative parents have been uneasy about sending their children—morally upstanding, as they were—to a college with any vestige of modern-day liberalism or secularism. Yet the parochial thinking of higher education has been: If a smart kid (or his parents) hopes to make a splash, he or she is unlikely to do so at a small liberal arts college—particularly if that institution is so unambiguous about its political leanings and its adopted dogma. The jury’s still out, of course, on PHC students’ viability in the job market. But if students’ attractiveness as employees is at all akin to college officials’ predictions and the White House Internship Office’s numbers, we can only expect PHC and other colleges to fill what is an immense demand for a higher education with a conservative bias.

Travis R. Kavulla ’06 is a history concentrator in Mather House. His column appears on alternate Tuesdays.

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