HA note: The author’s name has been changed to ensure anonymity. “Nikki” is a pseudonym specifically chosen by the author.
It’s hard to capture Patrick Henry College in a blog post.
You could fill a book describing the campus culture. Its students are mature yet naïve, well-read yet inexperienced, good-intentioned yet self-absorbed. To understand PHC, you have to grasp the cognitive dissonance of a student body that steadfastly believes it will change the world but fears standing up to the administration, that touts academic freedom yet mocks dissent, and that champions liberty but despises human rights.
It’s hard to know where to start. Readers will need a foundational understanding before I can even launch into my own story. So I’ll begin with something that underlies all the experiences I’m about to share with you: the perpetual friction between those who steadfastly (sometimes blindly) believe in the institution and those who don’t.
Many PHC students have a strange response to criticisms of the school, even when current or former students are the source of the criticism. It’s strange because humans are, as a rule, petty and selfish beings. They like to get their own way, even if they have to hurt others to get it. So it shouldn’t surprise anyone that individuals at PHC, like every other institution, have at times been petty, selfish, and desperate to get their own way.
It should surprise PHC students least of all, since PHC’s classes are saturated with the doctrine of original sin—the idea that all humans, even babies, are innately sinful.
A student body that reads Montesquieu, Locke, and the (much revered) “Founding Fathers” also understands that while power corrupts, absolute power corrupts absolutely. After all, “[i]f men were angels, no government would be necessary”—a quip by James Madison that I saw again and again in the student papers I edited during my time as a student.
PHC students love this principle so fiercely that many are Tea Party advocates.
They believe that you shouldn’t give anyone, least of all the government, too much power over your life. PHC actively supports these political beliefs, teaching its students that government power is innately dangerous, if not evil. Since almost all PHC students analyze politics through this lens, it’s understandable that Michelle Bachmann is revered by many (if not most) of the students. In fact, not that long ago, the current student body president posted a picture of herself with Bachmann. The caption read: “Today we had the honor of welcoming Congresswoman Michele Bachmann onto the campus of Patrick Henry College! She’s long been a hero of mine, and it was such a blessing to meet her!”
Ken Cuccinelli, Virginia’s recent attorney general, is another hero among PHC students. He spoke at graduation a few years back, and students campaigned for him in the Virginia governor’s race last year—some at the explicit request of current Associate Professor of Government Michael Haynes. (In case you were wondering, yes, Bachmann and Cuccinelli are typical of the guests who speak at the school, and no, Democrats don’t speak at Patrick Henry College. You would be hard pressed to find a single person, whether among the students or in the administration, who voted for Obama in the last election.)
Most of us probably don’t want to be held accountable for the candidates we supported during college—I certainly don’t. And professors have been steering their students to support their pet issues since . . . always. Rather, I mention the political bent of the student body to point out a strange fact:
To the majority of PHC students, individuals in power are inherently dangerous—unless they are PHC administrators, PHC professors, church leaders, or parents.
Somehow, critiques of PHC by current and former students have proven impervious to both the doctrine of original sin and the obviously cherished belief that absolute power corrupts absolutely. Instead, their response is “Chancellor Michael Farris couldn’t have done that,” “President Graham Walker wouldn’t be so heartless,” “Dean Sandy Corbitt is such a nice person”
. . . you get the idea.
To the majority (but not all) of PHC students, criticisms are the result of bitter, disillusioned, unsafe people who are bent on destroying a wonderful, godly institution, one of the last citadels of Christian academia. It’s a doe-eyed naiveté that has been a large part of the student body ever since I joined the PHC community in 2006—and yes, I was doe-eyed and naïve too. Once students become alumni things often change. Some grow out of it completely. Some partly grow out of it, recognizing that some parts of the PHC experience are harmful while failing to see the school’s larger, institutional problems. And some never grow out of it at all.
So when you read about PHC, know several things.
First, people’s impression of the school often changes dramatically. It’s called growing up.
Second, there is a chasm between the majority of current students and many alumni, a chasm I doubt we’ll ever bridge.
The “bitter” alumni are condemned by many current students as angry people acting on irrational hatred for the hard-working, god-fearing administration and faculty, an interpretation of reality that is actively promoted by Student Life under Dean Corbitt’s leadership. The “bitter” alumni, in turn, are frustrated by their detractors’ naïve belief that the administration and faculty are innocent. We don’t want to tell current students that they are too young and inexperienced to see what’s happening—because we hated being told that when we were students, and no one is wholly blind. But at the same time . . . when you have compiled eight years of incidents (in your own personal experience alone) where the administration misbehaved, it’s hard to take freshmen or sophomores seriously when they assure you that “such things never happen at PHC anymore.”
Mhmmmm. Right, kid. I used to think that too.
This is why writing about PHC is hard. There is constant friction between those who trust in the institution and those who don’t, leading to multiple interpretations of the same events. You’ve witnessed that over the past several weeks, as current students provided glowing reports of the school while alumni shared a different tale. Then there is a whole new culture to explain—after all, where else would your RA tell you that you have a “heart problem” because you wore jeans 10 minutes before dress code expired? And then there are so many possible topics, from the students’ arrogant belief that PHC provides a better education than the Ivy Leagues, to the school’s systematic adherence to traditional gender roles. So many daily indignities occur and the students are fed so much misinformation, it’s hard to know where to start.
So after sifting through a lot of topic possibilities, I decided to explain how I joined the “bitter” alumni.
Part Two >
“The Authoritarians” by Bob Altemeyer might be helpful in sorting out the self-contradictory mindset at PHC.