Patrick Henry College—God’s Harvard?: Grayson’s Story, Part Two

Homeschoolers U

HA note: The author’s name has been changed to ensure anonymity. “Grayson” is a pseudonym specifically chosen by the author.

< Part One

Part Two

In retrospect, I wish I could say that PHC’s Western tunnel-vision restricts itself to its reading list. Unfortunately, I’ve sat in too many classes and winced at too many remarks to believe that Western classicism is merely an educational philosophy. I saw the looks of discomfort on classmates’ faces when Dr. Hake referred to the Muslim call to prayer as a “hellish sound,” or when he made a joke about Japanese people’s eyeballs quivering when they get angry, or when he referred to a particular race as the “Jews of Asia.”

“I feel uncomfortable being a woman,” my wife remarked after visiting one of my upper-level English classes.

These types of incidents are by no means isolated occurrences at PHC, and they go largely unremarked and unchallenged out of a sincerely-held desire to demonstrate Christian respect towards one’s teachers. To Dr. Hake’s credit, he apologized for several of his remarks (but only after I’d confronted him and he’d voiced PHC’s usual suspicion of political correctness). When I mentioned Dr. Hake’s comments to the Dean of Academic Affairs, Dr. Frank Guliuzza, he looked tired, shook his head, and told me wearily that lesser remarks would have been enough to fire a professor at most mainstream universities.

But PHC, of course, prides itself on not being mainstream.

As an incoming freshman, I found PHC’s sense of intellectual aloofness from mainstream intellectual culture confirming and comforting. After four years, the sense of heroism and “us vs. them” mentality merely looked childish. There is nothing inherently glorious about separating oneself from the mainstream. My wife’s experience as an English major even at a relatively small, unknown liberal arts college was not inferior to mine because she did not talk about Milton at the dining hall tables. It was far richer and deeper than mine, as I have (grudgingly) come to admit. Her professors were relevant intellectuals who published regularly in prestigious academic arenas. With their oversight, she had to opportunity to write a senior thesis publishable in mainstream literary circles. She read an array of literature that included the great classics of Western civilization, along with exciting voices (old and new) from around the globe.

I can say with confidence that her undergraduate education was superior to mine because I have since had the opportunity to take several classes with her former professors as part of my master’s program.

Last year, I wrote a paper about the influence of Japanese art on the feminism of the modern poet H.D., and I understood what I had been missing all those years. Writing that paper, the constant stream of reassuring rhetoric at every PHC chapel and every commencement (“You are receiving a world class education. You are the best of the best.”) suddenly seemed very empty. When my professor (a former chair of the William Carlos Williams Society not known for giving compliments) told me that my essay was good, it meant more to me than any praise I ever received in one of PHC’s intellectual echo chambers.

Lest someone should dismiss my account of being a Literature major at PHC on the grounds that “Literature is easy,” or that PHC’s literature classes are not representative of the school’s academics as a whole, I should mention that each of PHC’s degrees requires students to participate in two full years of core instruction, as well as several upper-level classes outside of their major. I think I am as qualified to comment on the strength of the core curriculum as anyone, since every student takes the same classes for two years. As for the upper-level classes, I was privileged to learn from professors outside my major like Dr. David Aikman. I never felt, however, that the caliber of the non-Literature upper-level classes varied greatly from what I experienced in the English department. As in every Literature class, a surefire way to get an “A” on a paper was simply to provide a well-written, biblical evaluation of a given historical, political, or philosophical concept. Very little original thought or soul-searching was ever required.

Of course, I cannot speak for every class offered at PHC—but then again, neither can anyone else.

As I have previously stated, I do not wish to imply that PHC has no competent faculty members. That would be a gross exaggeration. The kindness of professors like Dr. Gene Veith or the late Dr. Bonnie Libby managed to make my undergraduate experience not wholly unenjoyable. Dr. Veith was sympathetic to my criticisms of the English program, and Dr. Libby was probably the closest the Literature department came to a mainstream English professor (I hear her upper-level Novel class read Zora Neale Hurston). But the caliber of PHC’s faculty, with a few notable exceptions, simply cannot compete with the broader intellectual world it tries so hard to ignore.

In one of my final conversations with Dr. Hake before graduation, I told him bluntly that the way PHC had presented its academic opportunities was a misrepresentation of what it actually had to offer. When I asked him why he seemed to put so little effort into preparing for his English classes, he told me that PHC’s staffing shortages made it difficult for him and everyone else to find the time. I told him that I understood, but that I was disappointed at the experience all the admissions counselors had characterized as “God’s Harvard.”

He grew silent for a moment, and then told me quietly that perhaps PHC should have scaled back on some of the marketing rhetoric.

Rhetoric can be used to promote truth and beauty, as all PHC students learn. But when it plays off of ideological fears and cultural insecurities in order to reassure students that mainstream intellectualism is broken and that they are the last beacon of light in a darkening Western world, it creates an insulated atmosphere in which incompetence goes unrecognized, racism goes unchallenged, and snobbery goes unchecked. In one sense, I do not regret my years at PHC. They were full of learning experiences (although not in the way I expected), and remarkable friendships that I hope never to lose.

But for the most part, I look back at those four years with a sense of wistfulness at the opportunities I never had, and the education I never received.

As I stood in line with all the other graduates in my class, replete with all of our graduation regalia, I felt a tap on my back. “Congratulations,” said the fellow Literature major standing behind me, as he eyed the cords around my neck. “That’s pretty impressive, considering this is the hardest school in the country.” With a mixture of sadness and astonishment, I hesitated before saying anything. Clearly, he had heard the rhetoric and reassurances so many times over the last few years that he eventually believed they were true. Should I burst his bubble, just minutes before graduation? I wondered.

“Well,” I think I stammered, “I’m not sure that’s completely true, but thank you.”

For him and me, it was too late—but for hundreds of homeschooled young people around the country, it’s not. To any homeschooler or young person who may happen to read this, I simply say: You can never fully comprehend what you’re missing until you’ve missed it. If you’re bright and eager to learn, don’t limit yourself to an echo chamber. The mainstream academic world you hear so much (and yet so little) about is a big, beautiful place full of a deeper richness than you can imagine.

End of series.

10 comments

  • Such a gift for writing you have! I was fortunate to go to a small liberal arts college where all my classes were taught by full professors. The main theme in all my religion classes (my major but think theology not Bible) was learning to think for myself. In my first religion class I voiced an opinion about the liberation theologian we were reading and how all his ideas were great. The prof turned to me and said, “But why, Ms S, why?” I stammered my way thru to realizing I had no clue. I gained a skill that has served me well for over 30 years. That’s a world-class education. I’m sorry you were cheated.

    As a homeschool parent, I was lucky to not get sucked into that world but I think it was my undergrad experience that prevented it and made me question sweeping statements made by other homeschoolers. Thank you for writing a series I can point other parents to.

  • Pingback: Patrick Henry College—God’s Harvard?: Grayson’s Story, Part One | Homeschoolers Anonymous

  • I guess I’m a bit confused, “Grayson” seems to be suggesting that at least the English Literature program at PHC is not really “rigorous” (and perhaps by extension the other programs are equally un-rigorous) because it focuses almost exclusively on the Western Canon. A truly difficult program would, the argument seems to go, include both Western and non-Western literature.
    I think there are two problems here:
    First, PHC quite clearly bills itself as a Christian and Classical Liberal Arts school. I don’t know that it’s really just to charge such an institution with sticking to the Western canon. You might think that ALL such institutions are suspect, but then you need to be willing to include St. Johns, Hillsdale, and other Liberal Arts colleges in your criticism. I know that you didn’t go to those schools and that this blog focuses on homeschoolers, but it would seem that at least this part of your criticism would apply to virtually all similar colleges.

    Second, I don’t really buy the argument that programs which include a wider spectrum of viewpoints and sources are automatically more rigorous or more difficult than programs which focus exclusively on the Western canon. Again, it may be the case that PHC should widen its focus, but that’s not the same thing as saying that classes are too easy if it doesn’t. I’ve never taken an English lit class (or any other class) at PHC, but the claim that too much of a focus on the West makes things too easy highly suspicious–I would suspect that either the professors weren’t expecting enough from you, or you weren’t trying very hard.

    • Thanks for your comment, Vagabond. To answer your question, I didn’t intend to draw a necessary link between a classical focus and a lack of rigor. The downside of the classical focus is simply a lack of broadness, but several classes at PHC are still quite rigorous despite that fact. So no, I’m not indicting classical colleges wholesale. PHC has a real rigor issue that stands separate from its narrowness issue.

      • Thanks for the reply, Grayson!
        How, then, might PHC make it’s program more rigorous while keeping its classical focus? What should it do to make it’s coverage of Milton, Plato, et al more difficult and engaging for the students?
        (No malice intended in the question, I’m genuinely curious. The PHC students I’ve encountered–including those from the literature program–have been appeared pretty thoroughly educated, so I’d be interested to hear what changes you think should be made other than expanding beyond the Western Canon.)

  • ^ College is easy if it never challenges you to think outside your comfort zone.

  • Grayson- I too went to a small, highly conservative religious college.

    If I ever return to academia, it will be in part thanks to you.

    • So glad to hear it, Hattie — and I hope you do. I’ve enjoyed every moment of my academic experience post-PHC.

  • Homeschoolers and PHC grads never reference anything happening in the outside world such as international geopolitics, economics, civil rights or women’s rights. Nor do you talk about PHC’s science classes such physics, chemistry, astronomy and biology. Is the curriculum limited to classic literature?

    • Thanks for your comment, Imanningok. I wouldn’t say that PHC grads never reference anything happening in the outside world (although many of them do tend to be somewhat insulated in their exposure to particular ideas). As for the science side of things, I chose not to talk about PHC’s science classes because they simply aren’t worth talking about. The only science classes PHC offers are biology and physics (although there was one geology elective recently, I believe), and I’d include both of them in the “mediocre majority” I reference in the article. Biology in particular is one of the weakest classes in the core curriculum, but I hear the current Biology professor is moving on.

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