Monday, August 15, 2011
Book Review: God's Harvard
by Hanna Rosin
For those not aware, God's Harvard profiles Patrick Henry College, a Christian college in Purcellville, Virginia, founded by Michael Farris. Patrick Henry College in many ways grew out of the classical Christian homeschooling movement and its founder is the head of the Home School Legal Defense Association(HSLDA). Its stated purpose is "to prepare Christian men and women who will lead our nation and shape our culture with timeless biblical values and fidelity to the spirit of the American founding." Though I did not attend the school, I've known several who have and all report receiving a very rigorous education with a strong biblical foundation. From what I've seen and read, Patrick Henry graduates the sort of men and women many Christian parents I know would love to see their children become.
Because I find the school interesting and because I have seen how God has worked in the lives of some of its graduates, many of whom go on to state and federal government service all over the country, I was very interested to read this book. And it is a good read once one gets past the very obvious bias of its author. The author, Hanna Rosin, spent over a year embedded at Patrick Henry and in her book she writes about her interactions with faculty as well as following the student careers of several who attended the school.
On the one hand, one has to admire Rosin for being honest. She is not Christian, and she admits up front that she does not agree with the belief system of the students she encountered. However, this proves a weakness as well. Rosin's lack of understanding of the worldview of those she profiles causes her sometimes to oversimplify people she analyzes. Too often, her descriptions of the school make students and administration sound painfully naive and unable to cope with the moments where their religion intersect with popular culture whether it be modern novels or politicians with whom they do not agree.
In addition, while Rosin gets that students at Patrick Henry are driven, she doesn't seem to really understand what drives them, and I think that's because she does not understand their faith much beyond a rather superficial level. She sees the academic accomplishments of students and remarks on their exposure to high-level government jobs and coveted internships, but she seems at times to see the school and its students as almost freakish. One also gets the sense that the book is meant to be a cautionary tale of Christians living out their beliefs as some dangerous phenomenon infiltrating the United States but even with this tone, I found myself intrigued by the programs the school offers and inspired by what I saw happening with some of the students in the book.
To be fair to the author, while I think she oversimplifies at time, Rosin doesn't make all students sound the same and she does profile the occasional rebellious student. Not surprisingly, she fairly openly sympathizes with the student and professors who revolt even slightly against the school's rules or stated mission. However, the remaining students not only appear very cleancut in her portrayals, but also by turns pitiable or vaguely creepy as she compares them to "mainstream" non-Christian peers. I don't know any of the people profiled personally, but from what comes through of their personalities, I didn't see these students as out of touch at all. More than a few of them seemed smart, articulate and possessed of leadership ability that I predict will take them far in the future.
As I've mentioned, one gets the sense that the author does not like the school's mission or its founder, but she seems to like at least some of the students. As I finished the book, I found myself wanting to know what happened to many of the students such as Sarah Chambers, or Derek Archer, or Aaron and Elisa Carlson after they graduated. I also found myself admiring the school's mission and wishing I could have had so solid a classical Christian education in college. If one can move beyond the occasionally heavily drawn perspective of the author, this book is a very interesting profile of a school of the sort of college that I would love to be involved with and that I think will shape Christian higher education.