Patrick Henry College—God’s Harvard?: Grayson’s Story, Part Two
HA note: The author’s name has been changed to ensure anonymity. “Grayson” is a pseudonym specifically chosen by the author.
< Part One
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.