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.

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

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

One thing I’ve learned over the past few years is that you cannot truly judge an experience until it’s behind you.

It’s been over a year since I graduated from Patrick Henry College, and during that time I’ve gotten married, moved away from the Northern Virginia area, and entered graduate school. To say that my time away from PHC has resulted in a detached objectivity toward my undergraduate experience is surely an exaggeration; no one ever achieves pure objectivity toward an event so closely tied up with their most formative years. But distance has a way of putting things in perspective, and after time away from PHC I feel prepared to give what is at least an honest (if not infallible) view of the academic atmosphere at the tiny school that calls itself “God’s Harvard.”

I am not interested in offering my perspective on the non-academic aspects of life at PHC. Other students have already done so, and the remarkable similarities in many of their accounts have convinced me that my own social and spiritual experiences on campus were less isolated than they felt when I was a sophomore. Instead, I wish to address a discomforting trend that I’ve noticed in many of the stories submitted to Homeschoolers Anonymous. Most of the students whose accounts I’ve read (whether their attitude toward PHC is negative or positive) acknowledge that PHC’s academic program is intellectually rigorous. They may dislike the spiritual or political homogeneity on campus, but somehow their academic experiences mitigate (or at least balance) those negative factors. PHC, or so the story goes, is deeply flawed – but boy, are its classes tough.

I must confess that I find these accounts bewildering.

Of course, no student can offer a perspective from any major other than their own, but I find it difficult to believe that the quality of instruction varies so dramatically from major to major. Maybe it does – but if so, PHC is dealing with a radical imbalance between its political and classical liberal arts hemispheres. Like every other student at PHC, I completed its ponderous core curriculum which included classes from several of PHC’s most celebrated history and politics professors. A recent Facebook conversation called into question the rigor of Dr. Robert Spinney’s United States History class, but I respectfully disagreed. Classes like Dr. Spinney’s US History or Dr. Mark Mitchell’s Freedom’s Foundations (both student favorites) were objectively challenging and thought-provoking. No class is perfect, but theirs were the kinds of classes that have stayed with me since graduation. I have a feeling that most PHC graduates—even the most disaffected—would agree with me with respect to those two classes.

The point I wish to make is that classes like Dr. Spinney’s or Dr. Mitchell’s do not characterize the academic experience at PHC. Theirs are the classes visiting students are most likely to observe, but their almost cultish popularity (another interesting phenomenon that numerous students have noted) obscures a majority of academically mediocre—and in some cases abysmal—core classes. I am under no delusion that freshman or sophomore classes across the country have a universal wow factor, but the elite universities to which PHC likes to compare itself typically manage to maintain at least a measure of respectability. There are classes in PHC’s core curriculum (and beyond into its majors) that I can only laugh about in retrospect. To provide an analysis of these classes would probably sound distinctly uncharitable, and would grant them a level of seriousness to which they never aspired.

These classes—along with the mediocre majority—are the ones visiting students will probably not encounter on their overnight tours.

When you are a young stripling of a college, it is much easier to use phrases like “Classical college,” “God’s Harvard,” or “academically challenging” than to actually deliver an academic atmosphere that lives up to the astronomical hype PHC enjoys in homeschooling and Christian communities. For a college so young, PHC has achieved a remarkable amount of marketing success. To someone like me who grew up homeschooled, the “classical” moniker was enormously attracting. A classical education, PHC students hear over and over for four years, is an elite luxury enjoyed historically by only the most erudite people. At every convocation and every Faith and Reason lecture, the verbiage is the same: You are receiving a rare form of education that will prepare you to be the best of the best. You are. You are.

Around junior year, of course, the rhetoric becomes less and less comforting. Students begin to realize that the real world is approaching with inexorable speed, and that few people outside of PHC’s Georgian brick architecture care what “classical” means. The fact that a PHC diploma is a certificate of membership in an elite but largely imaginary caste of society becomes increasingly irrelevant as the doors beyond graduation begin to close to its non-regionally-accredited degree. The same history classes that looked so shiny on Admitted Students Day have conferred the realization that classical educations, historically, have been reserved primarily for white, upper class males with significant inherited wealth. By the end of four years, the sense of limitless opportunity that once accompanied the “classical” tagline has been replaced by the realization that a classical education is inherently limiting.

No one, I think, experiences this realization more profoundly than Literature students. That is not to say that every Literature student comes to this realization—in fact, many of my English peers probably disagree with my assessment. Others do not. Literature, after all, is about broadness. Not in a superficial sense, of course—but the act of reading is an inherently broadening act. Studying literature forces the reader to empathize with people from diverse time periods and backgrounds with whom he or she may not actually agree. It opens the reader to a multiplicity of personal beliefs and opinions that are all inescapably authentic and honest despite the fact that most of them contradict each other. It is in this mysterious, impalpable intersection between diverse personal experience and abstract truth that the English major finds meaning in what will otherwise prove to be a life without high-paying jobs and social prominence.

The difficulty is that PHC’s classical education simply does not lend itself to the kind of broadness that ought to characterize an English education.

When I first met Dr. Steven Hake (the chair of PHC’s Classical Liberal Arts Department and director of its Literature major) on a campus visit, he assured me that “We read everything.” This, as I came to find out, is not even remotely true. What he meant by “everything” was that PHC prides itself on its willingness to read philosophers like Nietzsche. What he did not mean by “everything” is that PHC enthusiastically explores many significant literary works written after 1960. Granted, there are the inevitable forays into C.S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia, and sheepish, half-hearted expeditions into the jungles of contemporary feminist or queer theory. What PHC entirely lacks, however, is an open-minded willingness to engage with contemporary works of literature.

As a homeschooled senior in high school raised in an insulated classical environment, the prospect of PHC’s self-avowed chronological bias toward a very narrow definition of the Western canon did not bother me as much as it should have. As a graduate student several years later, I compare the books I read in college to the books my wife read in college with no small degree of sadness. Her list, as an English major at another small private school, includes books like White Noise by Don DeLillo, The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold, and Beloved by Toni Morrison—along with Nietzsche and all the other Western classics I read at PHC.

Her list also includes a level of cultural diversity that I never encountered as a Literature major. I read Socrates and Plato; she read Socrates and Plato and Lao-tze and Confucius, along with a number of post-colonial (a term you will not encounter often at PHC) authors like Salmon Rushdie, Jean Toomer, and Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o. The closest I ever came to a literary treatment of colonialism was Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, which I read in PHC’s now defunct Distance Learning program. Incidentally, the colonial implications of the novel never even came up. (I think the going consensus was that Heart of Darkness is about man’s inherent sinfulness—an absurdly reductionist interpretation that nevertheless characterizes a substantial portion of PHC’s literary “scholarship.”)

At PHC, the acknowledged assumption is that anything outside the established Western canon is of dubious merit, a “guilty until proven innocent” mentality that severely limits intellectual exploration.

Part Two >

PHC Independent Review Committee Releases Final Report and Recommendations on Campus Sexual Assault

patrick henry college

By R.L. Stollar, HA Community Coordinator

Earlier this year, on February 17, Kiera Feldman wrote a revelatory piece for The New Republic detailing how Patrick Henry College (PHC) has handled sexual assault cases. Feldman’s story, entitled “Sexual Assault at Patrick Henry College, God’s Harvard,” caused an uproar among homeschool alumniPHC graduates, and others. (Though it was not the first time someone publicly mentioned sexual assault at the so-called “God’s Harvard.” PHC alumnus David Sessions had already mentioned the fact the previous year, saying “Girls have been raped while attending Patrick Henry College: girls who I sat next to in class, by men who I sat next to in class. Other women I know were at different times mercilessly harassed, stalked and frightened—all on the campus of Patrick Henry College.”)

A day after Kiera Feldman’s piece was published, PHC fired back with a “Statement by Patrick Henry College to concerned alumni and students about article in The New Republic.” The college’s statement was disseminated that same day to alumni and a day later to PHC’s general student body (where it was met with student applause). The statement, which you can read here, claimed that, “PHC earnestly sought to do the right thing in each instance, did not attempt to cover-up any sexual crimes, and did not seek to blame women for the improper behavior of male students.”

PHC also stated that it had “commissioned a specialized legal firm to undertake an audit of our sexual harassment policy and procedures, both to review past events and to recommend further improvements.” In response to both the New Republic story as well as PHC’s statement, the college’s official alumni organization — Patrick Henry College’s Alumni Association (PHCAA) — issued their own statement to the college’s Board, Faculty, and Staff. As I reported at the time, “PHCAA said it condemned all acts of sexual abuse and harassment and ‘categorically rejected’ any form of victim-blaming. Without commenting on the particulars of the recently publicized sexual assault cases in Kiera Feldman’s piece in the New Republic, PHCAA stated that (1) it is a fact that students have experienced sexual mistreatment and (2) the college needs to provide better victim care.”

PHCAA also requested the college be “far beyond reproach” by allowing “an independent review of the New Republic incidents, and those propounded by any other past allegations of sexual assault, either in this audit or a separate one.” The college agreed to this request; on February 19 the PHC Independent Review Committee (IRC) was commissioned. The IRC consisted of 8 PHC alumni: Chair Megan Kirkpatrick, Jenna Lorence, Daniel Noa, Matthew Roche, Lindsay See, Holly Vradenburgh, Brian Wright, and one additional member “whose employment prohibits disclosure” (according to the IRC). The IRC later added one final member, Jordan Wood Benavidez.

Several days ago, on August 1, the IRC privately released their final report and recommendations. Today that report and recommendations were distributed to the PHC alumni community. You can view the “Final Report” here and the “Recommended Sexual Misconduct Policy” here.

The final report — addressed and sent directly to PHC Chancellor Michael Farris — reveals disturbing facts. Some of these facts include:

• The college administration tried to stonewall the IRC’s investigation:

“In early March, the Chair asked to interview College officials about past policies and instances of alleged sexual misconduct. On March 26, the Chair received an email from Dr. Walker directing theChair to abide by certain guidelines for the interviews. The same day, the Chair objected via email and provided a list of possible parameters for the interviews. According to Dr. Walker, College staff refused to be interviewed unless the Chair agreed to refrain from asking questions about the New Republic article and the incidents detailed therein.”

• There are serious discrepancies between the administration’s claims about the number of reported assaults and the students’ own claims:

“Dean Corbitt responded in writing on May 1, indicating that there had been only four (possibly five) instances of alleged sexual misconduct at PHC between 2006 and the present, along with brief answers to the other questions. On April 23, the Chair sent the College a survey for distribution to current students… The survey responses revealed a radical difference between the allegations of sexual misconduct that students and alumni claimed to have reported and the small number reported by Dean Corbitt on May 1.”

• The majority of the current PHC student body, as surveyed by the IRC, does not understand sexual assault:

“50.5% of respondents agreed or were neutral to the statement that someone has to fight back or tell someone to stop for a sexual encounter to be non-consensual.”

• At least 28 alumni — 2 of which were minors at the time — have been sexually assaulted or harassed during their time at Patrick Henry College. (Furthermore, this number only includes incidents from 2006 on. The college was founded in 2000.)

“28 respondents said that during their time at PHC, they were sexually assaulted or harassed in some way (including but not limited to stalking, harassing emails/phone calls, inappropriate touching, groping, being recorded/photographed without consent, and rape), and 2 respondents said at least one of the persons involved were under the age of 18.”

Again, you can view the “Final Report” here and the “Recommended Sexual Misconduct Policy” here in entirety.

Update, 08/06/2014: You can read PHC Chancellor Michael Farris’s response to the report and recommendations here.

Homeschoolers U: A Call for Stories about PHC

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By R.L. Stollar, HA Community Coordinator

It’s been called “God’s Harvard” by some, “Homeschool Harvard” by others. Still others find those nicknames either laughable, insulting, or downright silly.

Whatever you want to call it, Patrick Henry College is arguably the finishing touch to the culture wars waged by many movers and shakers within the Christian Homeschooling Movement. However, with the recent allegations of the administration’s mishandling of sexual assault cases and an ongoing definitional debate about whether or not the college supports “Patriarchy,” it is obvious that even those who have attended the college have widely different perspectives about their alma mater and its impact.

For our next open series, Homeschoolers Anonymous is inviting current and former students of Patrick Henry College to speak for themselves about their experiences and stories at their school. We are open to hearing about all of it: the good, the bad, and the ugly. Our one parameter is that you speak to your experience, rather than speaking in universal commentary about popular (mis?)conceptions about the school. Help others get a more nuanced understanding of the campus culture and ideology — whether that commentary be positive or negative.

* Deadline for “Homeschoolers U” submission: Friday, July 25, 2014. *

Please put “For Homeschoolers U” as the title of the email.

As always, you can contribute anonymously or publicly.

If you interested in participating in this, please email us at homeschoolersanonymous@gmail.com.

Dear Michael Farris, Sexual Abuse Isn’t a “Basic Strength” That “Can Get Out of Control”

Screen Shot 2014-02-17 at 3.50.36 PM

By R.L. Stollar, HA Community Coordinator

*****

“You have planted wickedness and harvested a thriving crop of sins. You have eaten the fruit of lies — trusting in your own way, believing that your great armies could make your nation safe.”
~ Hosea 10:13

*****

On Sunday, HSLDA’s Michael Farris made his first public statement on the recent controversies surrounding Doug Phillips’s clergy sexual abuse and Bill Gothard’s sexual child abuse.

Take a look:

I continue to hear distressing news about the moral conduct of Christian leaders and speakers some of whom were/are popular in the homeschooling movement. Of course, anyone can sin–including me. But I cannot be so gracious about protracted patterns of sin that reveal a deep hypocrisy.

From my own observation there is a central problem that often accompanies these kinds of failures. All leaders have to have a certain amount of ego strength to be able to withstand the slings and arrows of the naysayers who attack anyone who attempts to lead. But, that basic strength can get out of control. Consider it a danger sign when the leader never shares the spotlight with other leaders in the organization. Consider it another danger sign when the leader does not have anyone in his organization with both the power and the character to tell him “no” at times.

Mike Smith has been at my side at HSLDA from the beginning and he now leads the organization day to day. Chris Klicka was a significant part of our leadership team for many years as well. And I guarantee you that both Mike Smith and the HSLDA board tell me “no” on semi-regular occasions.

I am also reminded of the statement of Dick Armey when he was asked what his wife would say if he was caught in an affair like Bill Clinton. He said, “She would say ‘how do I reload this thing?’ as I lay there in a pool of blood.”

Having a wife who is a good shot is also a great asset.

(Farris’s statement is archived on HA as a PDF here and a PNG here.)

Just so we’re all on the same page, let’s review what exactly the “distressing news” is concerning individuals who “were/are popular in the homeschooling movement”:

While in a position of hegemonic spiritual leadership, Doug Phillips pursued a sexual relationship with a young woman who worked for him and was under his authority. This is clergy sexual abuse.

Bill Gothard has sexually harassed and molested over 30 young woman, including children, for decades. He personally admitted “defrauding” young women decades ago. This is child sexual abuse.

Taking advantage of, harassing, and/or molesting children and young adult women isn’t simply “sin” or “hypocrisy” which “anyone” can fall into. Taking advantage of, harassing, and/or molesting children and young adult women is criminal behavior. It is sexual abuse, plain and simply. This isn’t a question of people’s fallibility; it isn’t a question of “ego strength,” unless you somehow believe leaders are innately abusers.

And it sure as hell isn’t a question of “basic strengths.” Sexual abuse isn’t a “basic strength” that “can get out of control.” It’s not something that comes from “too much of a good thing.” Michael Farris’s attempts to spin these situations away from criminal activity and into the realm of “we’ve all fallen short” is self-serving, inexcusable, and horrifying. It is yet another example that he is in denial about abuse within the movement he himself helped to build.

Making this statement of his even more ironic and tragic is that a mere day later after Farris praised himself for accountability and looked down on other leaders for not taking “protected patterns of sin” seriously — just one day later — the New Republic released a devastating look at how Patrick Henry College has handled sexual assault cases on its campus, entitled “Sexual Assault at Patrick Henry College, God’s Harvard.”

The basic premise?

Patrick Henry College, which Michael Farris founded and is currently the Chancellor of, does not take protracted patterns of sexual assault seriously.

Patrick Henry College has ignored, minimized, and threatened abuse survivors and people standing up for them. Just like Doug Phillips and Vision Forum. Just like Bill Gothard and IBLP.

And yet Farris still has the gall to praise himself for treating “protracted patterns” differently.

The hypocrisy did not go unnoticed. Homeschool alumni took to Farris’s page to call him out for making such a statement about Phillips and Gothard right when the story about PHC was coming out. Farris’s response was predictable, considering it was completely deja vu from HSLDA’s handling of the #HSLDAMustCampaign: he quickly deleted the evidence of his original statement (which, again, HA archived as a PDF here and a PNG here), deleted comment after comment after comment after comment by homeschool alumni, and blocked homeschool alumni from his public page.

Honestly, Michael Farris has run out of time to play these games.

He has spent decades ignoring the growing, obvious, and publicly verified problems — and what did he do? He remained silent. He has never publicly condemned the abusive teachings of Doug Phillips. He has never publicly condemned the soul-crushing system of Bill Gothard’s ATI. (In fact, he himself brought Inge ATI’s Inge Cannon to HSLDA and HSLDA continues to feature Gothard’s homeschool curriculum on its website.) He has refused to this day to acknowledge the concerns of homeschool alumni and parents that homeschool communities need to take abuse more seriously specifically because of reasons like this.

And when when he finally breaks his silence, it is with this? Yet another attempt to sweep everything under the rug by saying these abusers were just “too strong” for their own good, that praise God he has two (?) people at HSLDA who stand up to him (but one is deceased?), and then he closes with a joke about domestic homicide?

Not once, not even once, does he say, “What these men did was abuse, and it was wrong, and we as a community need to take abuse seriously.”

Not. Once.

Not once does he say, “I am sorry that I gave platforms to and partnered with these individuals that have caused so much pain for so many people.” Instead it’s “basic strengths” that “got out of control” and basically people should be more like him or lol their wives will shoot them.

Even with this short-lived statement, Michael Farris still refused to call these men out by name. He was still afraid to directly criticize Bill Gothard. He is still hiding.

Homeschooled children deserve better from you, Michael.

If you continue to refuse to call abuse abuse, you’re contributing to the exact same culture of silence from which Phillips and Gothard fed — the exact same culture of silence that you intimately built and continue to defend.

A Tool In Someone Else’s Culture War: Philosophical Perspectives’s Story, Part Two

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

*****

In this series: Part One — We Need Advocates | Part Two — A Tool In Someone Else’s Culture War

***** 

The stories shared so far on HA are rough.  Whenever another story pops up on my blogroll, I take a deep breath before reading – and sometimes I have to cut myself off.  There’s only so much trauma I can read in a day, especially when so much of it triggers my own.

Part of growing up in the homeschool community in the 80’s and 90’s was living defensively.  Our parents felt like they were culture warriors, and everyone and everything in the world was against them and their choice to homeschool. We, their children, were the proof they offered to the world (and each other) that they weren’t screwing up. Not only was it vital that we act like little adults on all occasions, but we had to be well-spoken, articulate, and ourselves advocates for homeschooling. I remember many conversations with my mother at the age of 8, where I agreed with her disapproval of *that* family whose children just couldn’t sit still and be quiet, or walk through a museum and respectful read all the placards. We, on the other hand, were excellent at it – and this meant that we were “good children”.

We visited well-respected leaders in government and business, we politely and persuasively argued the case for our political agenda, all while going through puberty. We were nowhere near normal, but that’s why we appealed to powerful people. Who has ever heard of a 15 year old who argues persuasively in front of the state legislature, instead of hanging out at the mall with her friends? No one.

Except homeschoolers. We sure churn out a lot of teenage spokespeople.

I always cringe when I hear stories like Sarah Merkle’s, because I was one of the kids who spoke before legislatures and guest-lectured in local high schools. I was a tool in someone else’s culture war. I was remarkable for my non-normalcy, and I was praised for it.

My reality check came later. I don’t know Sarah, but when I was in her shoes, I didn’t actually have my own, well researched, well-formed and nuanced thoughts on gun control or any other topic – I had my parents’ thoughts, or my pastor’s thoughts, or the thoughts of another influential adult who told me what the “good arguments” were on the topic in question. I was smart, so I didn’t just take talking points from my handlers – I accumulated a lot of other people’s ideas, and even a couple of dissenting opinions, and synthesized them all so that I could speak from “my own” perspective. The thing is, it didn’t require me to seriously wrestle with dissent, or the complications of policy ideas, it just required me to adopt, reformulate, and regurgitate what I’d heard. What’s worse – I was never really allowed to ask questions about the assumptions that were passed on to me. It wasn’t until I got to college that I was actually free to think and ponder and explore, intellectually as well as personally.

I didn’t have my own thoughts at 15 – they weren’t allowed. As others have noted here, debate is seen as a vital skill for homeschooled offspring – after all, “God’s Harvard” prides itself on the quality of their moot court team (as well as, apparently, soccer…). Debate is important, not because it teaches kids to think, but because it gives us the skill to package propaganda in a convenient, Bill O’Reilly-friendly segment, and makes us appealing politicians and lawyers, ready to be the next generation of culture warriors.

For all our debating, dissent wasn’t allowed. I remember losing debate rounds because an argument that I made sounded something remotely like it could be related to a philosophical principle advocated by Marx. I’m not kidding.

Wait, let me rephrase. Dissent was fine, within a prescribed sphere.

The following topics were open for discussion:

• Infant vs. Adult Baptism

• Predestination vs. Free Will

• The moral weight of a vote for a republican (compared, of course, to a vote for the constitution party)

• The US Farm Bill.

• The failings of other religions and how to prove Christianity was right

• Whether or not it’s morally acceptable to wear a sleeveless dress on your wedding day (the answer: no)

• And, my favorite — the real reasons for the Civil War (slavery or states’ rights?!)

Anyway, the real point — we’ve been parroting a Republican platform and the great things about homeschooling since we were toddlers. Any negative or critical commentary was marked as “rebellious”, and unacceptable, especially when it was directed at homeschooling itself. The options were, repent, or get out. I carried my parents’ defensiveness about the homeschooling movement with me into college, where I had many conversations that started off, “yes, there are some downsides to homeschooling, but…”

It’s taken me a long time away from the homeschooling movement to detox, and come to terms with the pain it inflicted. After eight years away from the movement, I started realizing that I wasn’t just a disobedient, sinful, and rebellious teen. I began naming the things I suffered, and the perpetrators who inflicted them.

I felt totally alone.

None of my non-homeschooled friends had any categories to begin to understand what I was talking about. I was lucky if they’d ever even heard of Josh Harris, and they’d certainly never had personal interaction with his family. They had no concept of a world where it was acceptable for a father to deny a daughter her driver’s license, because her husband might not want her to have that freedom (a position I heard advocated at a young age, at a homeschool conference in my home state). Any time I began a conversation about my own experiences, I ended up answering the same questions. “Did you, like, have a desk in your living room?” “Did you go to school in your pajamas?” “Did you get to sleep in until 10?” Sometimes, we’d get to the real crap, but they were so shocked by the extremes of the movement that they didn’t believe they were real, or that something so blatantly ridiculous had actually impacted my life. I never got to process the things that really changed me.  I never had space to talk about how the patriarchal narrative that reigns uncontested within the homeschooling movement affected my identity as a woman, or how purity and courtship teachings twisted my view of cross-gender relationships, whether platonic or romantic. Two examples spring to mind.

1. I remember telling a prominent female homeschooling leader during my senior year of high school how excited I was to go to the prestigious college to which I’d been accepted. She responded with concern, asking me “whether or not I was planning to pursue a career.”  I think I told her that I didn’t really know, but I was looking forward to all the new opportunities to learn.  The next time I saw her, she gave me a graduation present with a note reading, “with prayers that God will reveal his word and will clearly to you that you might joyfully embrace His ways.” For those not adept at reading between homeschooler lines – my pursuit of a secular education, and potentially a career, she was telling me, was at best based on ignorance of the Word of God, and at worst, on disobedience and rebellion.

With a few swift words and a terrible present, she not only undermined my accomplishments, skills, and personality (I was too ‘leaderly’ for a woman), she questioned my obedience to the God I claimed to follow. I’ve noticed that the thoughts that this woman reinforced (they’d been planted much earlier) have haunted me as I’ve applied for fellowships, talked to recruiters, and pursued career paths.  Despite my (objectively) impressive resume, I find myself wrestling with a toxic combination of shame, insecurity, and guilt whenever I pursue or am offered a prestigious position or set an ambitious goal. Mental accusations of pride, selfishness, or narcissism rush to the forefront. I’m just now learning how to fend them off.

2. I recently came across an Instant Message conversation with the guy I sort of dated in high school (culture notes, for the uninitiated – AIM was a primary source of social interaction for many of us.  I say “sort of dated” because the attraction we felt was taboo, and therefore secret).  It was the conversation where we decided that we “had romantic feelings for each other”.  I was 18 at the time. The exchange went something like this:

Me – “I need to pray about what to tell my parents.”

Him – “What kind of commitment do we have to each other?”

Me – “well, we’re not dating… we can’t”

Him – “just because we haven’t verbalized it doesn’t mean we don’t have one.  I think our commitment should be to prayerfully and cautiously court nine months from now, when you go to college.”

Me – “That sounds great.”

Him – “Shall we state our commitment?”

Me – “I commit to begin a relationship with you for the purpose of exploring a deeper commitment, while bathed in prayer”

Him – “I commit to prayerfully begin a relationship for the purpose of exploring the possibility of a more permanent and concrete commitment, to begin approximately nine months from now.  I intend to ask your father’s blessing when we begin the next phase”.

When I found this conversation, I couldn’t help but laugh. Such contractual language was the model we had for beginning a mature, and godly relationship – and it gave us both the warm fuzzies (I’ll spare you the rest of the conversation). All of this, mind you, was undertaken under much secrecy, because our parents would have objected in a million unimaginable ways.  This doesn’t even begin to cover the number of problematic things about that relationship – but it strikes me how deep courtship culture influenced me.  I saw myself as an object to be negotiated for, between me, my “beau” (as my mom always calls them), my father, and God.  I was “progressive” in that I was willing to strike a deal on my own, at least in the short term.  Thus, this dry, non-salacious exchange between people who were legally adults, via computer, across thousands of miles, was considered both the height of “romance” (because of the bargain we struck) and the height of rebellion (because my dad wasn’t at the negotiating table).

To get back to the point. As I look back at experiences like these, which are far less intense than many others shared on this blog, I realize that I have never had a chance to actually dig into the underlying values I imbibed, and process the pain, anger, and embarrassment that I experienced. I need space to write, and to read, and to be reassured I’m not crazy or alone when I tell stories like mine.

That’s why Homeschoolers Anonymous is so important. We’ve been isolated from each other from a long time. We’ve never had anywhere to share our stories with each other and the world. This is a space for recounting the past and healing from the damage it has done. Trust me, we know the good bits of homeschooling, and we know the ways it’s benefitted us – we’ve been talking about it since we could talk.  What we need now is space to voice the bad.

To be continued.