HA note: The author’s name has been changed to ensure anonymity. “Nikki” is a pseudonym specifically chosen by the author.
< Part Two
After freshman year, I got pretty distracted. I started dating my husband.
He headed off to bootcamp shortly after we got together and wouldn’t live near me again for the next two years. I took up 18 credit hour semesters, a waitressing job, moot court, and mock trial. My biggest problems stemmed from my parents, who did everything possible—including blackmail and false imprisonment—to try and put my freed mind back under their control. Why? I had told them that I and I alone would choose who I would marry.
Despite the debacle that was my family situation, I wasn’t one of the “problem” kids. I never once got called in to Student Life for the “talk” so many of my peers received. Neither RD paid any attention to me, as far as I could tell. My RA chided me once, during my entire time at PHC, to tell me that I couldn’t come back at 6 in the morning during one of my (now) husband’s rare visits. (Yes, I ignored her.) I was never dress-coded (a fact that I now realize is remarkable). I didn’t go out drinking, go to clubs in DC, or hang out with those who did.
I was, all in all, an extremely boring person.
But I stilled witnessed controversy after controversy, saw first-hand PHC’s sexist culture, and sat under professors who pushed a right-wing agenda rather than the elite academics I had been promised. I’ll describe some of these events here.
One of my best friends was sexually assaulted freshman year. Her story, and how Dean Corbitt blamed her for the assault, was covered by Kiera Feldman in the New Republic this past spring. Current students like to claim the New Republic article is a hit piece. I lived through those events. I remember the perpetrator stalking my friend in the weeks after the attack, while the administration took no action to protect her and threatened her with expulsion for reaching out to the other students for help.
Freshman year Michael Farris, the school’s founder and chancellor, started a group called Tyndale’s Ploughmen. It was explicitly labeled “leadership training” for would-be politicians. Participants got to meet political leaders of the Religious Right in order to receive instruction and advice from them. I applied.
At my interview, Farris asked if my parents would be okay with me having a career, explaining that he would not want me to participate in anything my parents would find unsuitable for a girl.
I was too young and naïve to realize how inappropriate that question was, as if a 19-year-old woman’s participation in a school-sponsored program should be limited by her parents’ religious beliefs. A few weeks later, I discovered that I was the only woman among a dozen or more men who had made it into the program. We got to meet with individuals like Donald Hodel (Reagan’s Secretary of Energy and a huge supporter of PHC), Steve Largent (former Republican Congressman from Oklahoma who sponsored Farris’s first parental rights bill back in the ‘90s), John Ashcroft (George W. Bush’s Attorney General), and a large Republican donor who fed us on gold-rimmed plates and showed off his collection of Confederate relics.
It’s hard to put into words what it was like to be the only female student on these trips.
My gender was somehow always a topic of conversation. I couldn’t just be. I was surrounded by male students who I considered my friends but who would not let me forget for a moment that I was different. Even Farris joined in on it, in a way that was both flattering (he was the chancellor of the school) and disconcerting.
I could only hear him tell me that my boyfriend had made a good choice because I was the same height as Mrs. Farris so many times, without starting to feel uncomfortable about it all.
Sophomore year, my roommate was locked in the j-lab with Walker (PHC President), Sillars (journalism professor), and Veith (PHC provost), along with most of the journalism students. For over an hour, Walker interrogated the students, did not allow any of them to leave, and threatened them all with expulsion. At one point, he even said that he would sue them for slander. Their crime? One journalism student had found this L.A. Times article about Dr. John Warwick Mongtomery, at that point a recently hired theology professor at the school, and shared it with a few friends. The news article described Montgomery as a bigamist and a wife batterer.
My favorite professor, Travis Moger, left under mysterious circumstances not too long after—the fourth professor to leave in a year (and yes, these departures were in addition to those who had left in the Schism of 2006, which others have described; it was a huge turnover for the tiny school, and those four were some of the best teachers remaining at the school). A vocal critic of the administration, Moger had supposedly confronted Walker about this blatant bullying of the journalism students. I recite that statement with a bit of hesitation, however. You see, no one knew for sure why he suddenly left. We were all warned to keep quiet because Walker had threatened to revoke Moger’s severance pay if people “talked.”
We mourned Moger’s leaving by watching Dead Poets Society, a fitting tribute to a professor who had challenged us to question the approved narrative and to seek out our own truth.
Many PHC students, past and current, like to claim that PHC provides a rigorous, liberal arts education. Maybe it once did, before the Schism. But it did not during my time there. There were a few outstanding classes, taught by Moger, King, and Smith, all professors who left a year or two after the Schism amid whispered murmurs about the lack of academic freedom.
But the majority of my coursework was mired by an ever-present fear of “liberal academia.”
Trumpeting the Christian conservative message was key to most of my professors; everything in class had to be tied, in one way or another, to their theme that Christianity was best, liberals are dangerous, and atheists are sinister. I’ll provide one example of how this type of thinking played out in class. Dr. Darrel Cox teaches theology at PHC and has since 2006. I had the displeasure of taking three classes with him: Theology I, Theology II, and Principles of Biblical Reasoning, all of which are mandatory courses. He was a poor lecturer, rarely covering the material in anything resembling a direct fashion and often wasting the entire class time with spurious stories or jokes about why St. Augustine was wrong about sex.
As you can imagine, it’s decidedly uncomfortable, as a freshman living in the midst of a slut-shaming purity culture, to hear a father of 7 discuss the beauties of his sex life in almost every class session.
His classes were also agonizingly simplistic.
I well recall that one question on a midterm required us to draw a picture of an iceberg. Another question required us to remember that he frequently used the term “mouseness” in class. At first, a few of us fought back when he said something particularly outrageous. After awhile, some realized that he was docking their grades. We compared exams when they were returned and realized that some outspoken students had given the same answer as quiet or favored students but hadn’t receive credit for it. If you need good grades to get into grad school, constantly fighting back doesn’t seem worth it anymore. So when, at the end of the semester in Principles of Biblical Reasoning, he assigned John Glubb’s “Fate of Empires,” I don’t remember anyone even protesting. In most classrooms today, Glubb’s work would be presented as an interesting but unfortunate piece describing the xenophobic and sexist beliefs of British colonial thought. Cox presented it as accurate and useful.
The text we were given is available here. To give you an idea of its content, here are a few quotes:
Grubb argues that immigrants destroy empires (from page 15):
Second- or third-generation foreign immigrants may appear outwardly to be entirely assimilated, but they often constitute a weakness in two directions. First, their basic human nature often differs from that of the original imperial stock. If the earlier imperial race was stubborn and slow-moving, the immigrants might come from more emotional races, thereby introducing cracks and schisms into the national policies, even if all were equally loyal.
Second, while the nation is still affluent, all the diverse races may appear equally loyal. But in an acute emergency, the immigrants will often be less willing to sacrifice their lives and their property than will be the original descendants of the founder race.
Grubb claims that giving women rights is a sign of the end of an empire (from page 17):
An increase in the influence of women in public life has often been associated with national decline. The later Romans complained that, although Rome ruled the world, women ruled Rome. In the tenth century, a similar tendency was observable in the Arab Empire, the women demanding admission to the professions hitherto monopolized by men. ‘What,’ wrote the contemporary historian, Ibn Bessam, ‘have the professions of clerk, tax-collector or preacher to do with women? These occupations have always been limited to men alone.’ Many women practiced law, while others obtained posts as university professors. There was an agitation for the appointment of female judges, which, however, does not appear to have succeeded.
Soon after this period, government and public order collapsed, and foreign invaders overran the country. . . .
When I first read these contemporary descriptions of tenth-century Baghdad, I could scarcely believe my eyes. I told myself that this must be a joke! The descriptions might have been taken out of The Times today. The resemblance of all the details was especially breathtaking—the break-up of the empire, the abandonment of sexual morality, the ‘pop’ singers with their guitars, the entry of women into the professions, the five-day work week.
What does anything in this reading have to do with Principles of Biblical Reasoning, the subject of the class? To this day, I don’t entirely know. Whatever it was, Cox’s treatment of the subject was not worthy of the terms “ivy league,” “liberal arts,” or “rigorous.” Students can say what they want about how “hard” their schoolwork is, but PHC doesn’t challenge them by presenting fair and well-argued examples of liberal arguments. PHC doesn’t even let them listen to liberal speakers on campus—the administration has yet to host one, in the school’s 14 years of existence. What PHC does do is allow professors like Cox, who routinely engages in outrageous personal attacks on former students via social media, to wax on about the wonders of John Glubb without a single countervailing voice on the faculty.
A few years after this episode, Eden Troupe (PHC’s student-run theater club) decided to put on The Crucible, Arthur Miller’s celebrated play about the Salem witch trials. A school that prides itself on being “God’s Harvard” should embrace academic freedom; it should certainly encourage its students to perform a classic piece from the canon of American theater. But it seems that PHC’s administration, under the leadership of Graham Walker, cares more about preserving a pristine Christian image than providing a well-rounded liberal arts education.
The administration tried to kill the project.
They called the play a direct attack on the school, and several school officials refused to come see it performed—at a campus where the president, provost, and other administrative officials routinely go to all of Eden Troupe’s performances. In the end, Eden Troupe could not even perform the play on campus. They had to contract with a local public school to use its facilities.
To outsiders, it probably seems strange that The Crucible would elicit this reaction. After all, there is no dispute that the Salem witch trials did happen, and the play is a fictionalized but realistic depiction of those events. There’s also neither nudity nor profanity in the piece.
But the Puritans are idolized at PHC.
Dr. Stephen Baskerville (who you may remember delivered the shocking Faith and Reason last year that denounced domestic violence laws) spent weeks describing their god-fearing, pro-family virtues in his Freedoms Foundations class (which I took in 2007-2008). Dr. Robert Spinney, a favorite history professor at the school, has his US History I students write a book report on Worldly Saints: The Puritans as They Really Were by Ryken Leland. Current or recent students who have taken his (mandatory) class say that re-imaging the Puritans is one of Spinney’s “pet projects.” His goal is to make Puritans seem less legalistic—or not legalistic at all. (Redefining legalism is another project of his, as is, for those who are noting the patriarchal assumptions of even the best members of the PHC faculty, advocating for strict modesty standards, as seen here and here). The PHC faculty routinely holds the Puritans up as an example of a community that rightfully obeyed God’s directed order when designing their own polity. Depicting the Puritans in a negative light, as The Crucible rightfully does, contradicts PHC’s own goal to produce Christian leaders who will use Puritan (or Puritan-like) theology and political theory to reform the United States.
That’s why the play, despite being an American classic, is an attack on the school.
I realize this post has been a hodge-podge of many aspects of my time at PHC. So many different events contributed to my disaffection with the school, it’s difficult to synthesize them. A single post, or even a series of posts, can’t begin to describe them all. Still, I’d like to close with a final example from my senior year.
Every year, the student body president gives a speech to the incoming freshmen class. In fall 2009, the student body president included this quote from Tony Campolo in his challenge to the class:
I have three things I’d like to say today. First, while you were sleeping last night, 45,000 kids died of starvation or diseases related to malnutrition. Second, most of you don’t give a shit. What’s worse is that you’re more upset with the fact that I said shit than the fact that 45,000 kids died last night.
President Walker’s reaction was swift and severe—and, ironically, only proved the aptness of the quote. In an effort to keep a semblance of student control over student government, the student senate brokered a compromise with Walker with the help of a professor. If the student senate passed a resolution calling for the student body president to resign, the student senate could sit on the resignation for 30 days, vote it down, and then Walker would be placated. The student senate then passed the resolution, many senators voting this way only because of the compromise. The student body president then refused to resign.
Walker responded by prohibiting him from exercising his duties as student body president and issued this memo.
Quite the uproar ensued.
In the days that followed, Walker agreed to host a town hall where students could ask him questions about his behavior. I, with many others, attended. I remember asking him, point blank, why Dr. Montgomery (you’ll remember him as the bigamist from the L.A. Times article) could call a student an “inconsiderate wench” in front of his whole class and never have to offer so much as a sorry for it (an incident from sophomore year), but our student body president couldn’t quote a famous preacher. Walker dismissed the comparison. Before the evening was over, he had publicly claimed he had the power to unilaterally remove any student from student government or a campus club, or impose any other penalty listed in the student handbook if, in his belief, the student’s behavior had harmed “the integrity of the college,” a power he also claimed to have in the aforementioned memo.
Looking back, I’m primarily struck by the pettiness of it all.
Here’s a school that claims to be creating the next generation of great Christian leaders, but the administration wastes time and political capital to crack down on the public use of a Tony Campolo quote.
The same administration that ignored a pig’s head on a stake outside my dorm window freshman year thinks that publicly saying “shit” is a danger to the integrity of the school.
Is it any surprise that so many alumni hold Walker and those who support him in so little esteem? Walker and company are so busy policing the minutiae of student conduct, according to a behavioral code that turns the hierarchy of what matters and what doesn’t on its head, that things like protecting students from sexual assault and providing a rigorous liberal arts education get pushed to the side.
I’m pretty sure that by the time I stood up in Nash Auditorium and asked Walker about his double standard, I was already lumped in with the “bitter” upperclassmen. The younger classes wanted us to sit down and shut up, just as the younger students today want the same from PHCs critics. It’s as if they think we want PHC to be a failure, a giant lie.
But I’m not one of the bitter alumni because I revel in cynicism.
I’m a bitter alumna because I watched what happened at PHC day after day for four years and slowly realized that the shiny promise we had all been offered was an illusion.