Patrick Henry College—God’s Harvard?: Grayson’s Story, Part One
HA note: The author’s name has been changed to ensure anonymity. “Grayson” is a pseudonym specifically chosen by the author.
One thing I’ve learned over the past few years is that you cannot truly judge an experience until it’s behind you.
It’s been over a year since I graduated from Patrick Henry College, and during that time I’ve gotten married, moved away from the Northern Virginia area, and entered graduate school. To say that my time away from PHC has resulted in a detached objectivity toward my undergraduate experience is surely an exaggeration; no one ever achieves pure objectivity toward an event so closely tied up with their most formative years. But distance has a way of putting things in perspective, and after time away from PHC I feel prepared to give what is at least an honest (if not infallible) view of the academic atmosphere at the tiny school that calls itself “God’s Harvard.”
I am not interested in offering my perspective on the non-academic aspects of life at PHC. Other students have already done so, and the remarkable similarities in many of their accounts have convinced me that my own social and spiritual experiences on campus were less isolated than they felt when I was a sophomore. Instead, I wish to address a discomforting trend that I’ve noticed in many of the stories submitted to Homeschoolers Anonymous. Most of the students whose accounts I’ve read (whether their attitude toward PHC is negative or positive) acknowledge that PHC’s academic program is intellectually rigorous. They may dislike the spiritual or political homogeneity on campus, but somehow their academic experiences mitigate (or at least balance) those negative factors. PHC, or so the story goes, is deeply flawed – but boy, are its classes tough.
I must confess that I find these accounts bewildering.
Of course, no student can offer a perspective from any major other than their own, but I find it difficult to believe that the quality of instruction varies so dramatically from major to major. Maybe it does – but if so, PHC is dealing with a radical imbalance between its political and classical liberal arts hemispheres. Like every other student at PHC, I completed its ponderous core curriculum which included classes from several of PHC’s most celebrated history and politics professors. A recent Facebook conversation called into question the rigor of Dr. Robert Spinney’s United States History class, but I respectfully disagreed. Classes like Dr. Spinney’s US History or Dr. Mark Mitchell’s Freedom’s Foundations (both student favorites) were objectively challenging and thought-provoking. No class is perfect, but theirs were the kinds of classes that have stayed with me since graduation. I have a feeling that most PHC graduates—even the most disaffected—would agree with me with respect to those two classes.
The point I wish to make is that classes like Dr. Spinney’s or Dr. Mitchell’s do not characterize the academic experience at PHC. Theirs are the classes visiting students are most likely to observe, but their almost cultish popularity (another interesting phenomenon that numerous students have noted) obscures a majority of academically mediocre—and in some cases abysmal—core classes. I am under no delusion that freshman or sophomore classes across the country have a universal wow factor, but the elite universities to which PHC likes to compare itself typically manage to maintain at least a measure of respectability. There are classes in PHC’s core curriculum (and beyond into its majors) that I can only laugh about in retrospect. To provide an analysis of these classes would probably sound distinctly uncharitable, and would grant them a level of seriousness to which they never aspired.
These classes—along with the mediocre majority—are the ones visiting students will probably not encounter on their overnight tours.
When you are a young stripling of a college, it is much easier to use phrases like “Classical college,” “God’s Harvard,” or “academically challenging” than to actually deliver an academic atmosphere that lives up to the astronomical hype PHC enjoys in homeschooling and Christian communities. For a college so young, PHC has achieved a remarkable amount of marketing success. To someone like me who grew up homeschooled, the “classical” moniker was enormously attracting. A classical education, PHC students hear over and over for four years, is an elite luxury enjoyed historically by only the most erudite people. At every convocation and every Faith and Reason lecture, the verbiage is the same: You are receiving a rare form of education that will prepare you to be the best of the best. You are. You are.
Around junior year, of course, the rhetoric becomes less and less comforting. Students begin to realize that the real world is approaching with inexorable speed, and that few people outside of PHC’s Georgian brick architecture care what “classical” means. The fact that a PHC diploma is a certificate of membership in an elite but largely imaginary caste of society becomes increasingly irrelevant as the doors beyond graduation begin to close to its non-regionally-accredited degree. The same history classes that looked so shiny on Admitted Students Day have conferred the realization that classical educations, historically, have been reserved primarily for white, upper class males with significant inherited wealth. By the end of four years, the sense of limitless opportunity that once accompanied the “classical” tagline has been replaced by the realization that a classical education is inherently limiting.
No one, I think, experiences this realization more profoundly than Literature students. That is not to say that every Literature student comes to this realization—in fact, many of my English peers probably disagree with my assessment. Others do not. Literature, after all, is about broadness. Not in a superficial sense, of course—but the act of reading is an inherently broadening act. Studying literature forces the reader to empathize with people from diverse time periods and backgrounds with whom he or she may not actually agree. It opens the reader to a multiplicity of personal beliefs and opinions that are all inescapably authentic and honest despite the fact that most of them contradict each other. It is in this mysterious, impalpable intersection between diverse personal experience and abstract truth that the English major finds meaning in what will otherwise prove to be a life without high-paying jobs and social prominence.
The difficulty is that PHC’s classical education simply does not lend itself to the kind of broadness that ought to characterize an English education.
When I first met Dr. Steven Hake (the chair of PHC’s Classical Liberal Arts Department and director of its Literature major) on a campus visit, he assured me that “We read everything.” This, as I came to find out, is not even remotely true. What he meant by “everything” was that PHC prides itself on its willingness to read philosophers like Nietzsche. What he did not mean by “everything” is that PHC enthusiastically explores many significant literary works written after 1960. Granted, there are the inevitable forays into C.S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia, and sheepish, half-hearted expeditions into the jungles of contemporary feminist or queer theory. What PHC entirely lacks, however, is an open-minded willingness to engage with contemporary works of literature.
As a homeschooled senior in high school raised in an insulated classical environment, the prospect of PHC’s self-avowed chronological bias toward a very narrow definition of the Western canon did not bother me as much as it should have. As a graduate student several years later, I compare the books I read in college to the books my wife read in college with no small degree of sadness. Her list, as an English major at another small private school, includes books like White Noise by Don DeLillo, The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold, and Beloved by Toni Morrison—along with Nietzsche and all the other Western classics I read at PHC.
Her list also includes a level of cultural diversity that I never encountered as a Literature major. I read Socrates and Plato; she read Socrates and Plato and Lao-tze and Confucius, along with a number of post-colonial (a term you will not encounter often at PHC) authors like Salmon Rushdie, Jean Toomer, and Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o. The closest I ever came to a literary treatment of colonialism was Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, which I read in PHC’s now defunct Distance Learning program. Incidentally, the colonial implications of the novel never even came up. (I think the going consensus was that Heart of Darkness is about man’s inherent sinfulness—an absurdly reductionist interpretation that nevertheless characterizes a substantial portion of PHC’s literary “scholarship.”)
At PHC, the acknowledged assumption is that anything outside the established Western canon is of dubious merit, a “guilty until proven innocent” mentality that severely limits intellectual exploration.
Part Two >