Sunday, September 29, 2013

Book Review: God's Harvard

I thought when I began to read God's Harvard: A Christian College on a Mission to Save America, by Hanna Rosin, that I would be even more annoyed by it than I was by A Year of Biblical Womanhood, which I read in the same time period.  God's Harvard, published in 2006, is an in-depth examination of the politically active evangelical culture at Patrick Henry College.  Rosin, an Israeli-born Jew who writes about religion for the Washington Post, had unprecedented access to faculty and students during a controversy-laden turning point in the college's growth.  I expected what I've come to expect from members of the mainstream media, a bash-the-fundies, anti-evangelical diatribe designed to mock and belittle.  But to Rosin's credit, she unfailingly treats both faculty and students with respect and human decency while delivering well-written, thoughtful analysis of the not-quite-perfectly overlapping streams of Christian culture prevalent at Patrick Henry: homeschooling, fundamentalist legalism, political activism, and high academic achievement.  Gone are the days, thankfully, when the Washington Post pigeonholed evangelical Christians as "poor, uneducated, and easy to command."  This is still an outsider's view of the Religious Right, but Rosin made a more conscientious effort to understand the "opposition" than Rachel Held Evans (who is a liberal Christian herself) did in A Year of Biblical Womanhood.

I attended 3 different Christian schools; the one I graduated from was a "start-up" that no longer exists.  I went to a well-established Christian college. Both my sisters went to a "start-up" Christian college that no longer exists. I now teach at a school which started around the same time as Patrick Henry.  Before that, I homeschooled Daniel for a year.  All of this is to say, I have experienced first-hand the culture that makes up Christian schools and colleges like Patrick Henry, and the growing pains that every new institution of learning goes through.  There comes a point when the initial start-up enthusiasm wanes and members of the community realize they don't necessarily share the same vision; what happens next will determine the future of the institution.

In the case of Patrick Henry, the crisis point came at least partly as a result of the big personality of its founder, Michael Farris.  Farris, who came to prominence as a homeschool activist, wanted a contemporary Christian response to the apostasy of the Ivy League colleges; a Christian institution of the highest academic caliber that would turn out graduates well-prepared for careers in government and entertainment.  And to some degree, he got it.  Talented professors flocked to design courses with a God-centered focus; bright and idealistic young people, the majority of them homeschooled by devout Christian parents, raced to enroll and compete for various academic honors.  Conservative Republican leadership in nearby Washington, D.C. offered amazing opportunities for internships and political experience to PHC students.  The college filled an important niche -- more academic than the typical Bible college, but still a "safe" place to send sheltered children.  If you think there is not a demand for this type of school, you are out of touch with a sizable segment of American culture.

But Farris' vision for politically astute Christian activism conflicted with a tendency to over-idealize the Founding Fathers; his desire for a rigorous, classical curriculum conflicted with his own pietistic disdain for the pagans and their influence; and most interestingly (to me) his expressed desire for high-level Christian scholarship conflicted with his disdain for some of the highest-level Christian scholars, like Augustine and Calvin.  Calvinists and Anglicans are "supposed friends of religious liberty who are actually enemies," according to Farris.

The real heroes of religious freedom were the uneducated Baptists and Quakers, who wanted to engage with their Bible in their own way, unmediated.  "Me and God, that's where liberty comes from," said Farris... Now it happened that most of the professors on Farris's staff were Calvinists, and philosophers to boot.  (p. 120)
 It was at this point that I knew things were not going to end well.  Rosin tracks one professor in particular -- Robert Stacey, who by all accounts developed a remarkable and challenging course in government and political philosophy.  But he and other professors pushed perhaps a little too hard for a nuanced view of their respective subjects, and asked students to think about things that were uncomfortable for some.  Five professors, convinced their academic freedom was being hampered, resigned together in the spring of 2006.  Farris resigned as president and now serves as college Chancellor, with Gene Edward Veith, a leading thinker in the field of Christianity and culture, serving as Provost.  Unfortunately, Rosin's book ends before describing the changes that have taken place since that time.

Rosin spends more time describing the college from the students' point of view, and that's part of the appeal of a book like this.  Students have different concerns than the professors' for academic freedom -- there is a lot of recorded grumbling about rigid dress and behavior codes, including a culture of informing on other students who broke rules.  We get to go along the campaign trail with a carload of young campaigners, home for break to visit different families, inside the dorm wing where the campus rebels hang out, even to visit a few grads in their post-college jobs.

God's Harvard is of interest to any Christians involved in trying to build Christian institutions of learning and those who have a background in the culture wars.  It's also fascinating to see the picture of campus life at a Christian college, although perhaps a little disturbing for those of us parents who worry about sending kids off into that world -- no matter how sheltered the environment, there are dangers for the unwary.  It's certainly not always comfortable to read, and it could be criticized for more focus on rebels and naysayers than on more compliant students - although considering the access Rosin was given, she rarely takes a cheap shot even when there's a golden opportunity.  And she is quick to point out that the rebellious students at PHC would be model students anywhere else.  I loved the fly-on-the-wall picture of life at PHC and wish somehow I could read an update now, 7 years later with new leadership and a presumably more sophisticated vision for the future -- but this is the kind of book that can only be written once.

No comments: