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Innocence and Ambition at Patrick Henry College

A review of God's Harvard. Also: sorting out the faithful in Catholic higher education.

What happens when a secular Washington Post reporter spends hundreds of hours hanging out with the students, faculty, and founder of a Christian college full of homeschooled students who aim to take America back for God? You might expect a hatchet job, but Hannah Rosin, the author of God's Harvard, produced a book about Patrick Henry College (PHC) that is a model of engagement between two worlds.

Rather than attempt to disguise her worldview, Rosin writes about life at Patrick Henry from a frankly personal perspective. Feminism is of the standards by which she measures the college and students. In the high value PHC and its homeschooled students place on traditional marriage and family roles, Rosin sees a system that marginalizes women and forces them to embrace motherhood at the price of their career ambitions. She sees a sadness in the lives of the PHC girls she studies. It's difficult to discern whether that sadness is really there or whether it is superimposed by her worldview.

Rosin also sounds a warning to the secular culture she identifies with: The kids of PHC are more sophisticated in their approach than earlier waves of Christian conservatives. The current crop of homeschoolers has been groomed to "take back the nation" and rescue "a lost and fallen world," she writes. She concludes, "If Christians want to take back the culture and shape the nation, this is the first generation that has a real shot at it."

Although Rosin seems alarmed by the bright and ambitious students of Patrick Henry because of their conservative agenda and Christian worldview, she is not sure she likes where mainstream culture is going. At one point, she describes a New York Magazine story about her old high school and "bi-queer, metroflexible friends." A girl from the school posed on the cover with "her lightly acned cheek on the chest of an obviously naked boy." Rosin is disquieted by the story and concludes, "Given a choice for my daughter, I'd take all-girl reading circles over that any day."

Rosin's ambivalence about the liberal edge of American culture shows up again in her reaction to abstinence. Though she makes it clear that she thinks sex before marriage is natural, Rosin seems to appreciate the preservation of innocence and wholesomeness among some of the Patrick Henry students.

Rosin retells the courtship story of PHC students Christy and Matthew. Matthew, who made the highest possible score on his SAT, wrote a long letter to Christy's parents explaining his desire to spend time with her. "My name is Matthew du Mee, and I was a good kid," he began. As a senior, Matthew drove to see Christy at her home over Christmas break. Matthew shaved and changed in a gas station, but showed up in a suit but no socks because he couldn't find them in his suitcase. He knelt in front of Christy and her family members and proposed. It is a love story, Matthew says, that God wrote.

Rosin also follows a young woman named Farahn, who is frustrated by the strictness of the dress code at PHC. Modesty is a big deal at PHC, and Farahn hasn't got the hang of it yet, despite her conservative Christian upbringing. Farahn goes to New York to try out for the Rockettes and look for other work that doesn't conflict with her values. Rosin writes, "New York is full of beautiful women, but Farahn in her white sundress and Southern innocence, stood apart like an angel floating above the grime."

Rosin's analysis is reminiscent of a passage from Abraham Kuyper's Stone Lectures at Princeton:

Even yet … you will find … entire social circles into which this worldliness is never allowed to enter, but in which the richness of human life has turned, from without, inward, and in which, as the result of sound spiritual concentration, there has been developed such a deep sense of everything high, and such an energy for everything holy, as to excite the envy even of our antagonists. Not only has the wing of the butterfly in those circles been preserved intact, but even the golddust upon this wing shines as brilliantly as ever.

Rosin reveals that life at Patrick Henry College is one of the places where it is possible for the golddust on the butterfly's wing to shine "as brilliantly as ever."

The Parallel World of Catholic Higher Education

The Cardinal Newman Society recently published a guide to faithful Catholic colleges and universities. It seems that Catholic schools, much like their Protestant counterparts, have a tendency to stray from the faith. The new guide represents an effort to make parents and students aware of the situation so that they can make informed decisions.

Joseph Esposito is the Cardinal Newman Society's director of research and a former deputy undersecretary for international affairs at the U.S. Dept. of Education. I interviewed him about the state of Catholic higher education.

Can you give our readers some of the relevant history of Catholic higher education in America and explain how it has led you to publish the Cardinal Newman Guide?

Many U.S. colleges and universities founded with a Christian mission have lost their moorings. This is reflected in both Protestant and Catholic institutions. Unfortunately, we have seen many colleges and universities which have deliberately sought to downplay their religious identity with the hope of attracting a wider array of students, appearing to be emphasizing "academic freedom," and chasing research dollars.

The decline in U.S. Catholic higher education began in the 1960s and has continued. Some institutions which grew to prominence thanks to their Catholic heritage have taken pains to emphasize a more universal appeal.

The good news is that several prominent colleges, as a result of strong new presidential leadership, have rebounded. Franciscan University of Steubenville is a prime example of an earlier turnaround; Catholic University of America is a more recent example.

We also have seen a wave of new Catholic colleges founded from the 1970s onward which emphasize their Catholic identity and commitment to the Catholic intellectual tradition. Several new and very impressive colleges have been founded in the last ten years, offering additional cause for optimism.

Our purpose in researching and writing this guide has been to provide a resource to Catholic parents and students who are looking for religious and intellectual nourishment. The group of 21 recommended colleges that we have presented represents a wide variety of styles—institutions which offer programs ranging from a Great Books curriculum to motor sports management. But all of them live their Catholic identity on a day-to-day basis. If that is what a student is looking for, he or she can profit from reading this guide.

Notre Dame doesn't make your list of recommended Catholic colleges. Why not?

Notre Dame is an excellent academic institution with a vibrant spiritual life. For most Catholic and non-Catholics alike, Notre Dame represents U.S. Catholic higher education. Unfortunately, the university has made a number of missteps which we feel have compromised its Catholic identity. These include matters of so-called "academic freedom" and speaker policies. Among specific examples are a history of performances of the lewd Vagina Monologues, homosexual programs, and faculty members who are critical of church teachings.

The situation at Notre Dame is complex. One eminent professor there told us, "a kid who is struggling with his faith will sink like a stone." That's a chilling comment. Notre Dame has many strengths, but its weaknesses suggest that many faithful Catholics should be wary of opting for it as an undergraduate institution. It is for that reason that we could not recommend it.

More News

Bob Jones University distances itself from chancellor's endorsement of Mitt Romney (Chronicle of Higher Education)

Scandal sends ORU's Richard Roberts into leave of absence (New York Times)

Texas Supreme Court rules state can't require Christian higher ed institutions submit to accreditation (Christianity Today)

Fired professors sue Ave Maria School of Law (Chronicle of Higher Education - subscription required)

Pepperdine University under alert for wildfires (Pepperdine University)

Hunter Baker is special assistant to the president and director of strategic planning at Houston Baptist University. You can email him at hunterbaker@gmail.com.

Related Elsewhere:

God's Harvard is available from Amazon.com and other retailers.

John Wilson reviewed God's Harvard for Books & Culture.

Previous Evangelical Minds columns include:

Do Children of the 'Unequally Yoked' Do Worse? | Plus: Ultimate questions about colleges' core curriculum and other news from the higher education world. (October 11, 2007)
Church, State, and the Founding of America | Plus: Studying pagans, humanities vs. religion, and more. (September 27, 2007)
Christian Smith on Why Christianity 'Works' | Plus: Baylor publishing woes, and other news from the higher education world. (September 13, 2007)
David Dockery on Christian Higher Ed's Key Challenges | Plus: Fearing secularization and "fundamentalization" and whether "Christian economics" exist. (August 30, 2007)
Why College Doesn't Turn Kids Secular | Also: Richard Land on the footbath controversy, Falwell's big Liberty gift, and other stories about higher education and research. (August 16, 2007)
Christian Higher Education Goes to Russia | Plus: One more argument against U.S. News rankings, and Silver Ring Thing goes to Harvard. (August 2, 2007)

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