The Reluctant Rebel: Gemma’s Story, Part Seven

Homeschoolers U

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

< Part Six

Part Seven: Aftermath

On paper, my post-PHC life has been quite successful.

As it turns out, I do have a future in academia. I was accepted to an excellent graduate program in the DC area. I teach at the collegiate level, and I’m good at it. I am still a Christian, mostly due to the fact that I had some experience with the type of Christianity that loves and accepts and forgives before coming to college. I recognized the “Christianity” used to hurt me there as a bastardization of the real thing. Today, I am happily married and still run with the same group of friends I had in college. The future looks bright.

Spiritually, my post-PHC life has been a mixed bag. On one hand, the spiritual abuse my friends and I encountered at school poisoned entire swaths of the normal Christian life for us. Things as simple as prayer and reading the Bible trigger either bad memories or massive amounts of legalism-induced guilt. For me, just hearing one of the praise songs we used to sing in chapel at college would be enough to induce a panic attack. Many of my friends left the faith altogether, and I don’t blame them. Those of us who stayed Christians found homes in various liturgical traditions. On the other hand, the process of sorting through my faith and wrestling with what to keep and what to discard has been enormously rewarding. It is difficult to admit to myself that I just don’t know what I believe anymore, and to try to re-explain the tenets of the faith to myself in words that are meaningful to me now. But I have discovered that Jesus is big enough to handle my doubts, and he seems to be the one constant at the bottom of all my confusion and grief. Today, I am a better Christian than I ever have been, but it has taken years of struggle to come to this place.

Ironically, had it not been for Mike Farris and his college, I would probably still be a conservative evangelical, attending a Bible Church and homeschooling my kids. I would never have had a reason to leave the world I grew up in, because it was a world I didn’t want to leave in the first place.

Their abuse is the only thing that drove me away.

But in other ways directly attributable to my time at PHC, life has been a massive struggle. I graduated a broken, burnt-out shell of a person and spent the first several years after graduation in a haze of grief, anger, and depression. I lost weight. I slept all the time. I had panic attacks daily. Some days, I felt so physically sick—dizzy, nauseous, exhausted—I couldn’t even get out of bed. I skipped class a lot. Even though I was out from under the oppression, I couldn’t shake the sense that I was being watched wherever I went. It didn’t help that I would randomly run into people I didn’t want to see, since I still lived in the DC area. I lived in paranoid and baseless fear that my new university would find something wrong with me, that I would unwittingly break some rule and be found out, or that they would realize they had made a mistake by accepting my unaccredited undergraduate degree and kick me out. I was afraid to speak up in class, so I didn’t. Academically, I was extremely well-prepared for graduate school, but my exhaustion, depression, and anxiety prevented me from getting the most out of my program.

It also didn’t help that PHC continued to abuse its remaining students, many of whom had taken up the fight and kept me abreast of the issues. I fought with them for a while, via the alumni association, interviews with reporters, or maintaining protest websites. Over time, as more of my friends graduated or left, I just dissociated from the entire place as much as I could.

But the dissociation didn’t cure the emotional and spiritual wounds. At the time, I didn’t have much of an understanding of mental health, and attributed my problems to a set of inexplicable, incorrigible physical symptoms. In retrospect, it is obvious that I was deeply depressed and also struggling with severe anxiety. My therapist has compared my symptoms to PTSD, a common description for those who have experienced environments of intense spiritual and emotional abuse. These things don’t heal overnight.

I believe the abuse I experienced at PHC robbed me of my health and happiness in the prime of my life.

I spent 10 years crushed by the weight of broken health, a broken spirit, a broken heart. I didn’t want to live like this. It wasn’t my choice. I wasn’t wallowing in bitterness or being hard-hearted or refusing to trust God enough. After a while, the school wasn’t even on my radar anymore, but the feelings stayed. I think when you spend enough time feeling a certain way, those feelings just start to feel so normal you stop imagining life without them, and then one day you can’t imagine life any other way at all.

Now on the verge of my 4th decade, I’ve finally gotten myself the professional help I needed for so long. Reading people’s stories on HA has helped in the sense that I can see now that I am not alone. But it has also brought up a lot of strong feelings I thought had gone away. Writing this story was very hard, but I thought it was important to do for a few reasons:

First, I want there to be a record of the truth. I want people to know that some of us stood up for what was right and against what was wrong. I want people to know that serious wrong was done to us, and we tried to respond in the right way. I am proud of myself and my friends for the way we handled ourselves. Although no one should have to endure what we endured at college, I am glad that I had an opportunity to stand up for something I believed in, at significant personal risk. I am glad that when I had a chance to be courageous, I took it. Not everyone gets those opportunities in life, and not all of those who get them, take them. We did.

Secondly, I want people to know what PHC is really about. I can’t tell you how many times, even while I was still a student, I would have settled for the school just admitting the truth about itself, even if that meant I had to live with that truth forever. Patrick Henry College is not a normal, mainstream, classical-liberal-arts college. It is not regionally accredited and apparently never will be, despite what we early students were promised when we enrolled.

Patrick Henry College is a sheltered, religiously fundamentalist, agenda-driven institution; a side project of HSLDA like Oak Brook is a side project of ATI/IBLP.

Its purpose is not to give students a quality collegiate education on which to base their own dreams and plans for the future, but to indoctrinate students into the mindset of its founders and leaders, so they can be deployed into positions of power and thereby further the political and social agenda of those leaders.

I am not exaggerating. This is the truth.

In order to fulfill this agenda and succeed in getting people into power, the college wants to maintain its veneer of respectability and normality. But it is just a veneer. Once upon a time, some professors and students fought with all our strength to make the veneer into a solid reality, but we were kicked to the curb by those in power. That ship has sailed. The only thing left to do now is peel back the veneer and expose the underlying reality.

Finally, I want others to know that they are not alone. Recently I saw that students at Bryan College were going through a similar struggle. I hope they know they have support, and that what they are doing is courageous and important.

As long as my story has been, I have not included every significant thing that happened while I was at PHC.

I have not even included the worst things. There are some stories that, even now, a decade or more later, are too painful to write about.

Some events included other people, whose stories I don’t want to tell for them. And I have left out many of the weekly and daily occurrences that, individually, were just straws, but over time accumulated into an unbearable, back-breaking mountain. The little comments made in chapel or in the lunch line; the judgmental, preachy emails sent to all-students by self-appointed morality police; the new rule adjustments, interpretations, or applications that dribbled out from the Office of Student Life. All reminders of the invisible standard we non-conformists were not conforming to. All reminders of who was in charge, and who was watching, and how we could never live up. A thousand little discouragements. They add up after a while, but there are too many to remember.

I hold no grudges against my fellow students. Thanks to the work of people at Homeschoolers Anonymous and Recovering Grace, I now have the perspective to see that those of my fellow students who made my life so unhappy were unhappy themselves. They were not actually evil sadists, but victims of a sadistic system. They didn’t know any better. Many of them have changed. Their stories, like mine, are not over yet. My hope, for all of them, friends and foes alike, is that they will find some peace on their journeys after all.

Honestly, I have had a harder time forgiving the adults in charge at PHC, mostly because they have refused even to entertain the idea that they might have been at fault for some of what happened, and that they, personally, might have hurt students and alumni along the way. Recently, it seems that Mike Farris is in more of an apologetic mood. As I can personally attest, the skeletons that have come out of the fundamentalist homeschooling movement’s closet in the last year have prompted a lot of reconsideration and reflection. I hope he will come to see the recent stories in the press and the blogosphere not as an attack to be countered, but as an opportunity to acknowledge the truth. Truth is important. Without truth, real reconciliation is impossible. I believe that God’s work in the world is toward the redemption and reconciliation of all things. I stand on the side of truth and redemption—not bitterness, not cheap grace, but the kind of real love and reconciliation that can encompass the ugliest truth.

I will end by saying that I recognize there are many former students whose experience was not like mine. Some students seemed to get along just great with the administration. Of those, not all were abusive and spiteful—many were kind, compassionate, genuine human beings with whom I simply disagreed on some issues. Other students kept their heads down and their opinions to themselves, and escaped relatively unscathed. Even others seemed to let the BS wash off them like ducks—it was just a place they went to college, and their real life was somehow elsewhere. I recognize the fact that other people experienced PHC very differently than I did.

I hope that those who disagreed with me (then or now) can extend the same courtesy, and acknowledge that just because my experience may have been different than theirs, does not mean that I am wrong and need to be silenced.

End of series.

The Reluctant Rebel: Gemma’s Story, Part Six

Homeschoolers U

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

< Part Five

Part Six: Spring of Senior Year and the Scandal of 2006

It wasn’t far into the spring semester before the whole situation went nuclear.

The college rescinded Dr. Root’s contract for the upcoming school year. The contracts had already been issued—it was not simply that they decided not to renew. They issued him a contract, and then rescinded it. Farris claims this was in response to something Dr. Root said in class that upset a parent. What is more likely is that the parent’s complaint was the excuse Farris had been looking for to rid himself of this troublesome professor, this man who mocked his Dean of Student Life and who had no compunction about publicly, in class and in writing, disagreeing with his idiosyncratic, sola scriptura pedagogical views.

This action by the college confused and grieved many students. The grief and confusion turned into a movement, the SaveRoot! Movement, complete with a protest website, orange lapel ribbons, and flyer distributions. Root’s de facto firing succeeded in radicalizing a few students, kids who wouldn’t even sign the letter the semester before but were now going around campus wearing orange. We weren’t optimistic, but we were earnest. We all knew, or suspected, that Root would not go alone. We loved our professors and wanted them to stay. So we wore orange, built websites, handed out flyers, and did our best to make it extremely clear to the administration that we would support a change of course while there was still time.

Wednesday, March 15. The Ides of March. A group of us, students and alumni, were watching The National play at the Black Cat in DC, despondent, trying to absorb the news that five professors had resigned in protest over Dr. Root’s treatment by the administration. We’d known it was coming, but that didn’t make it easier. Our fight was over, and we had lost. The band’s melancholy tunes seemed like a perfect reflection of our grief and anger.

I think this place is full of spies

I think they’re on to me

Didn’t anybody, didn’t anybody tell you

Didn’t anybody tell you how to gracefully disappear in a room?

This time, the magic wasn’t working. There was no gracefully disappearing, no absorption into the anonymous crowd this night. I love The National, but I’ve never enjoyed a show less. I felt alone and homeless. Everything we had worked so hard for had just gone up in smoke, and I still had two months of school left to endure. I didn’t belong there anymore, but I didn’t belong here either. I was stuck between worlds. I didn’t want to leave the club and go back to school, but the realization loomed that the people rubbing shoulders with me would never understand my story.

I would spend the rest of my life with Patrick Henry College on my resume, my Facebook, my Google search history.

To everyone outside the school, I would be identified with PHC and what it had become. To everyone inside, I was already identified with the enemy without, with “the world.” Was there even a place in the world for us

The alumni were drinking heavily. I was just trying not to cry.

You were right about the end.

It didn’t make a difference.

Everything I can remember,

I remember wrong.

The administration did not respond well to the mass resignation. Farris was clearly outraged and caught off guard. He quickly instructed the professors not to discuss the matter with students or the press. Farris, however, did not hesitate to discuss his opinions of the debacle with anyone who would listen. In typical fashion, he said some rather inflammatory and unflattering things about the professors, especially implying that they were less than genuinely Christian and didn’t believe in the Statement of Faith, which all members of the campus community had to sign.

Not unreasonably, the professors decided to defend themselves against these insinuations.

Friday, March 31, 2006 is one of those “I’ll always remember where I was” days. During one of his afternoon classes, Dr. Robert Stacey read a printout of the Statement of Faith to his class. Dr. Stacey was a founding faculty member, the chairman of the Government Department, the creator of the college’s flagship Freedom’s Foundations courses, my thesis advisor, and my dear friend. He read the Statement of Faith to his class and proclaimed his enthusiastic agreement with it. He reminded the students that it was his job to teach them according to this statement, and that if any of them thought he had failed in to do this, they would be better off getting up and leaving his class, and that he would not hold it against them.

After a few minutes, one daft sophomore girl did get up and leave (I say “daft” because, when asked later why she did this, she never could give a clear explanation). A couple of Farris’ toadies found her wondering the hallway, dazed and confused. When they got the story out of her, they immediately ran upstairs and told Farris.

What really happened next depends on who you ask. I didn’t have classes on Fridays; I was at my apartment during this whole event. At some point in the aftermath, I started getting desperate messages from students on campus that Dr. Stacey was being fired. I put on something dress-code compliant and drove over to campus. I found a pod of anxious, tearful underclassmen gathered outside the front doors of the main building. No one could tell me much other than that Dr. Stacey had said something during class, and now he was up in Farris’ office. I stuck my head in the building. It was mostly empty, as it usually was on Friday afternoons. No professors were in their offices. The two toadies were gliding around, looking smug and triumphant, but they would not deign to talk to me. The daft girl was sitting in the dining hall, crying.

I left; I needed to get back to my computer communicate with alumni and other off-campus students. At some point that evening, witnesses later told me, Farris came down to the dining hall and gave a red-faced rant in which he accused Dr. Stacey of “unprofessional conduct” and “forcing the students to choose sides.” Farris had given him the weekend to apologize or be fired. In reality, Dr. Stacey’s phone and email had been cut off by the time he got back to his office that afternoon. There was never actually any choice. A few of us students helped him pack up his office the next day.

Once again, this action by the administration only helped radicalize a few more students.

Dr. Stacey was beloved by the student body in a way Farris could never hope to be. It was abundantly clear to most observers that Dr. Stacey’s real crime had been embarrassing Mike Farris and little else; certainly, Farris’ behavior on that day could hardly be described as “professional” in any meaningful sense.

It is hard to overemphasize the severity of the emotional toll the professors’ resignations and, especially, Dr. Stacey’s firing inflicted on the students. The mood was funereal. We tried to keep up a sort of rueful sense of humor about the whole thing—at one point, we held a “wake” party commemorating the “death” of PHC as we knew it—but underlying the cynicism was a deep and sincere sorrow. This was not how we wanted things to turn out! We were not trying to ruin the school, we had been trying to save it! There were a lot of tears in the weeks following. I broke down anytime I had a chance to breathe and think—in the car, in the shower, at church.

The rest of the semester went by in a fury. Despite the fact that the real battle was over, there was plenty of fallout to manage, and keeping busy helped stave off the depression. The scandal hit the news and suddenly reporters everywhere wanted to talk to us, bloggers wanted to write about us, and alumni wanted to know what was happening as it happened. Managing the reporters was especially sticky. The college had always been happy to show off to reporters, but now they were having trouble controlling the message. The departing professors had been threatened not to speak out, but they refused to comply once Farris started maligning them in the press. The students didn’t have to be told not to speak without permission—the level of fear at this point was intense enough to keep most people in line. By the end of the semester, though, I felt like I didn’t have much left to lose. I chatted with my alumnus boyfriend about it a couple weeks before graduation:

boyfriend: Are you sure you want to talk to this reporter while you are in school?

me: if the professors are willing to talk, I am willing to talk

boyfriend: Don’t you fear reprisal before graduation?

me: yeah, a little

I mostly don’t care anymore

there’s really not much left they can do to me, or take from me

they can’t stop me from graduating because I talked to a reporter

In reality, they probably could have, but I called their bluff and they didn’t.

In the midst of all this, the Student Life drama continued apace. One day Dean Wilson stumped for the establishment candidate for Student Body President in chapel. The Student Senate (I was also a Senator) debated revising the election rules to prohibit this sort of interference in the future. Another day, they rescinded the rule allowing people to live off campus for the following school year, unless they already had leases. We scrambled to help friends get leases signed that day. It became a full-time job. “Every few hours or so there is more bad news,” I wrote in an email to a friend.

Meanwhile, I was also desperately trying to finish my last bit of coursework so I could walk across the stage and never look back.

I had a job to go to and post-graduation plans to line up. The pressure became unbearable at times. There was just no outlet for it. I began to entertain the thought, on my way to church or the grocery store, that I could just keep driving and never come back. Some days I would get as far as the Shenandoah River before collecting myself enough to go back home. I wasn’t the only one.

Email to a friend, May 10, 2006

[Name redacted] snapped the other day and just ran away.  Literally, just threw her stuff on the ground and ran the fuck away.  They found her, she didn’t go too far and it was in the middle of the day and people saw her, but it is frightening because we all have that impulse from time to time, but are rational enough to stop ourselves.  I wish I could run away though.

Towards the very end of the semester, I packed a cooler full of snacks and a bag full of books, drove out of town a ways, and rented a room at a cheap motel, with no internet access. I gave my boyfriend the room’s telephone number, but no one else knew where I was. I prayed no one would recognize my car from the road. I spent four days in that room, writing my thesis and trying to sleep. (I wasn’t sleeping much anymore; even when I got the chance, I was plagued with nightmares and woke up terrified and exhausted.) This was the closest I came to running away.

I returned to find the senior class up in arms. I had been elected one of two senior class representatives, so this was my problem, too. Some graduating seniors had invited Dr. Stacey to come watch them graduate, but he told them he’d been banned from campus.

The seniors wanted the administration to make an exception, for a few hours, so he could attend graduation. The other senior class representative and I were supposed to have a conference call with Farris about it. The other representative set it up, but we were both on the phone when Farris’ assistant answered it. She asked us to wait, then came back with the news that Farris would only speak to the other representative, not to me. My friend told her that this was not a personal request, but a request on behalf of the whole senior class. Therefore, both of the senior class representatives should be present on the call. The assistant asked us to wait again, then returned with the news that Farris was out of town. We would have to reschedule.

Ten minutes after this phone call, witnesses on campus saw Farris leave the main building, get in his SUV, and drive away. He wasn’t out of town; he just didn’t want to talk to me on the phone, so he lied about it.

The seniors wrote a letter to Farris with our request. It was signed by most of the graduating class. Not surprisingly, our request was denied. The administration wanted to avoid “incidents” and, apparently, a majority of seniors was insufficient. Since we seniors didn’t have unanimity on the issue, the college said approving our request wouldn’t be fair to those few who chose not to sign the letter.

Like Stacey’s firing, this bungled response only radicalized a few more people.

The seniors were also forced to cancel the annual Professor Appreciation dinner. The faculty and the student body were so firmly split between those loyal to the departing professors and those loyal to Farris and the administration, it would have been impossible to get everyone in the same room together and have any semblance of a good time. The mutual distaste was too strong.

The week before graduation was as close to rock-bottom as I’ve ever been. I wrote to an alumnus friend three days before graduation:

Today has just been hell.  Every day there is more.  Will we be living with the pain of all this for forever

They’ve told us we are not allowed to have any senior pranks.  Which I guess is just as well, I have work to do and couldn’t really afford the time.  But I say, no senior pranks – no senior gifts.  Screw them for taking the last bit of joy out of our miserable lives here.

The profs are drafting a response to Farris’ [most recent] accusation.  I am worried they will all boycott graduation… and I don’t think I can go through with it if they are not there… I am so weary of this.

From a chat with another alumnus friend, in response to some event—probably the publication of a media piece making the college look bad:

this is good – it proves all those bastards wrong who say we’re just a bunch of selfish whiners out for revenge

they do not even realize

revenge would not feel good right now

it is not even remotely what I want

what I want is everything they have taken from me

what I want is a college experience as it should have been

what I want is better health and not a life of pain

because we are “winning” now, and if this is all we wanted, we should be happy

but I’ve never been more depressed in my life

I don’t want this to come across as if the only things we were upset about were missing out on “senior pranks” and the typical “college experience.” You have to remember that the reason we were all at this college to begin with was so much more than this. If all we wanted was to party and have fun, we would have gone to a different school!

We believed in the mission and vision of the school as it had been sold to us, not as it turned out in reality. 

We had spent four or more years fighting tooth and nail to preserve and fulfill that mission. We believed in high-quality, Christian liberal arts education. We wanted to be leaders and world-changers. We were proud of the education we had received, and we loved the professors who had given it to us. We fought against the fundamentalists not because we hated their “rules,” but because their way of life was cannibalizing what was actually good about PHC. We had invested ourselves, our names, our reputations, our youth, our money in this fledgling project because we believed in it! Now our investment was being flushed away before our eyes, and the people destroying it were blaming the destruction on us. Is it any wonder we were left grieving and angry?

Graduation was the worst day of my entire life.

The departing professors did boycott. My extended family came to town for it, mostly oblivious to what was happening. I was miserable, and trying to put on a happy face for them just took more physical and emotional strength than I had left. Graduation morning, I forced myself to go through the motions and got myself to campus on time with a graduation gown on.

The lawn where the ceremony was being held was surrounded by people in uniform. Every campus security guard not graduating was on duty and lined up in a circle around the folding chairs and stage. Several Purcellville police cars lined the entrance to the campus.

This had never happened at a graduation before.

It occurred to me that they might really be scared of us! Rumors of “protests” and “incidents” had been circulating on campus, but “we” had not started them—we assumed “they” were fomenting the rumors to discredit “us.” The show of force was completely absurd; of course, no one had anything planned. Or at least, nothing requiring police and security. A growing, and by now significant, group of graduates didn’t feel like we could bring ourselves to shake hands with Farris. We had mused on what would happen if we chose not to do so. Alphabetically, I was the first of this group and the informal understanding was that if I didn’t shake his hand, the rest wouldn’t either. I went into the ceremony resigned to do it anyway. It was a motion I could go through like all the others. Just get it over with.

Then Farris threw a bomb. He was scheduled to speak last, after the diplomas had been conferred. But just before the diplomas, he hastily got up and started to speak. It was an intentionally inflammatory speech—a final dig at the professors, a parting shot, getting the last word in.

I felt like I’d been punched in the gut. I was shaking with rage and I couldn’t breath. What was the point of this? They weren’t even here—and I was glad they weren’t! I looked over my shoulder at some of my compatriots. They gaped back, wide-eyed in disbelief. Even some of those not “on our side” were sighing and looking grim. It was an embarrassingly petty act. He’s doing this because he has a captive audience, I thought. He went early because he knows we can’t leave if we haven’t gotten our diplomas yet! One last, final confirmation that it wasn’t about us students at all—it never was—it was only about him, his beliefs, his vision, his agenda, his petty scorekeeping.

In the back of the audience, the local Presbyterian pastor got up and walked out.

Farris finished, and the graduates stood to line up for our diplomas. I was shaking and dizzy. Do I shake his hand? Now, after this? I could barely walk in a straight line. At some point before I reached the stage, through my anger, I reasoned with myself that I had to be the bigger person. I could not react to petty with petty. I could not put that burden on the shoulders of those who walked behind me, even though I know they would have carried it.

Or maybe I’m just a coward. But I shook his hand.

Behind me, unprompted by anything but Farris’ behavior and his own conscience, a friendly, non-rebellious student with an unimpeachable reputation shook Farris’ hand too, looked him in the eye, and said —

“Thanks for ruining what should have been the best day of my life.”

In retrospect, I think this was the most fitting response.

I left as quickly as I could, dragging my gown behind me. My boyfriend pointed out that it was dragging the ground and I said I didn’t care —

I wished I could run over it with my car.

Part Seven >

The Reluctant Rebel: Gemma’s Story, Part Three

Homeschoolers U

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

< Part Two

Part Three: Sophomore Year

I had apparently made enough “progress” by the following fall semester, my sophomore year, that I was allowed to return to a wing with my friends and my old RA. However, it wasn’t long before I came to the definitive conclusion that Dean Wilson was an evil man by watching how he “counseled” one of my roommates who was dealing with a serious personal issue. He engaged in some of the most blatant, disgusting, misogynistic victim-blaming I have ever heard come out of a man’s mouth, and left my roommate even more grief-stricken and overwhelmed than she had been before.

Somehow it was easier to see the evil clearly when it was being inflicted on someone else.

That year, my RA and another popular student wrote a petition to the administration for the loosening of some of the more restrictive rules, especially regarding the interaction of male and female students. This petition was actually relatively successful, and in the aftermath it seemed like people could breathe again. I remember going to an off-campus basketball game shortly after this and seeing girls and guys in the bleachers, rubbing shoulders and leaning back against each other’s knees—just like normal college kids would do. It made me happy—my friends and I acted like this in high school. It seemed normal and familiar.

I also remember, in the time between the delivery of the petition and the administration’s positive response, my RA hiding—literally hiding—in her dorm room, ducking from the view of the window, or sitting in the hallway trying to breathe and slow her rapid heart beat. She had done the right thing, but she was terrified of Dean Wilson, and of the nameless atmosphere of fear we were all drowning in. She laughed at the absurdity of her “hiding,” but the feeling was real and we all knew it.

Academically, the school was living up to its reputation. In fact, I think one of the reasons the student life issues were so important to everyone is that we had so little chance to socialize as it was. Most of our time was spent studying, trying to conquer the unconquerable mountain of work we were assigned. My classes were extremely difficult, but very rewarding. Most of the professors seemed genuinely to enjoy their students. Some would routinely hold court in the dining hall between and after classes, answering questions, doling out advice, mostly just joking around or facilitating lighthearted debates.

But there was a growing split between the administration and the Office of Student Life, on the one hand, and the academic side of the school, on the other. We started to articulate it even then to outsiders who asked: the education here is great, but the culture is oppressive. Dean Wilson took it personally that the professors—and let’s face it, many of the students—were smarter than he was. He and his favored students started ruminating on the pride of intellectualism, the vanity of worldly philosophy, and the greater goodness of purity of heart and devotion to Scripture. It was spoken of as an either/or dilemma—smart, prideful, sinful people vs. lowly, humble, pure people.

It was around this time that several friends and I had started a campus group called the Alexis de Tocqueville Society. We semi-regularly published a journal of academic writing, book, music, and movie reviews, and opinion pieces. We also hosted guest lecturers on a variety of topics, from international relations to medieval literature to film criticism. Our stated mission was to further intellectual dialogue on campus. It was definitely an intellectually-focused club, but our mission was to serve the campus as a whole, not to show off. But ATS attracted the “wrong” kind of students, and it wasn’t long before “ATS” became a byword for “troublemakers.” We embodied that “intellectual elitism” Dean Wilson hated so much, and the administration began to view us with suspicion.

I now recognize this anti-intellectualism and many other of Dean Wilson’s teachings in what has been written recently about Bill Gothard and other authoritarian homeschool leaders.

For instance, Dean Wilson repeatedly admonished us not to take up another person’s offense—a teaching so bizarre and idiosyncratic I recognized it immediately when it appeared recently on the Recovering Grace website. Another example is this page from the ATI Basic Seminar textbook. Again, I discovered this only recently, but was shocked to see how neatly it summed up so much of what the students branded as “rebels” endured from our fellow students and from Student Life and the administration:

Basic Seminar Page

I know these teachings seem commonplace to those who grew up in systems like these. You have to imagine how bewildering and alienating these judgmental attitudes seemed to those of us who literally had no context to understand how we were being perceived, or why. I didn’t go into college wanting to be a rebel. I was a good, homeschooled, Christian girl. I memorized Scripture by the chapter, volunteered at AWANA, and played praise songs on the piano. I’d never even had a boyfriend before college. But at PHC, just by living my (good) life and being myself, I was branded a “rebel.” It was like there was this invisible line I was constantly crossing, which everyone could see except me. The only people who made sense to me were the other “rebels.” After a while, it just got psychologically demoralizing. I don’t even know what you people want from me, so fine, I’m a “rebel.”

Dean Wilson was a strong adherent of Doug Wilson and the Pearls. In our weekly small-group wing chapels, we were given writings from Wilson and the Pearls to study and discuss.

Here, for example, is the actual handout we studied in one wing chapel, probably during the 2003-2004 school year. The name and book title are mysteriously missing, but anyone familiar with the material can recognize it as a page straight out of Debi Pearl’s Created To Be His Help Meet.


From what I’ve heard, the men were indoctrinated with these materials even more than the women. It wasn’t like everyone on campus necessarily accepted these things at face value—in my wing of relatively fashion-forward women, I remember us all kind of giggling at one piece of Doug Wilson’s that condemned high heels. But even if everyone didn’t accept them, the presence of these writings and teachings added to the overall atmosphere. Now, it entered the minds of everyone that girls who wore high heels were sluttier than girls who didn’t. Now, wearing heels meant something it hadn’t meant before.

Mike Farris has recently distanced himself from people like Gothard, Phillips, Wilson, and other extremists and has claimed that he rejects their teachings. I think it is true that he, personally, does not hold to many of their more extreme beliefs.

But he allowed these extreme views to circulate on his campus with a stamp of official approval.

He allowed his hand-picked Dean of Student Life and this dean’s favorite, very conservative students to dominate the campus culture with their extremism. He should have known this was going on. If he knew, he never said anything.

And Mike Farris had no qualms about saying something when he thought something needed to be said! Once, a student wrote an article for the student newspaper with the Slate-esque headline of “Why Bono Is A Better Christian Than You.” This piece prompted Farris to respond with an entire chapel sermon on why cursing is bad and demonstrates that one is not a true Christian. Afterward, he spoke jovially with the author of the article, slapping him on the back in a “no harm, no foul” kind of way. But not surprisingly, this response had a chilling effect on the further publication of controversial pieces in campus newspapers.

Another time, Farris got wind that some students had been dabbling in libertarianism. This prompted another chapel sermon, a fiery one in which he denounced libertarians as no better than child molesters.

So it’s not like he ever hesitated to address campus trends that bothered him, publicly and personally.

My best guess is that Mike Farris and Paul Wilson personally benefitted from a campus culture of total submission to authority. Many ultra-conservative students came from backgrounds that said parents, pastors, and government must be obeyed without question and respected without complaint. Questions and complaints were no better than defiance, and defiance of authority was an unforgivable sin. It was very easy for these students to add “college administrators” to that list of unquestionable authorities.

Knowing what I know now, I can see where that mindset comes from. At the time, I thought I was surrounded by a bizarre species of human who spoke some kind of foreign code. At least, I never could seem to get through to them with normal English words, or logic, or questions like Where in the Bible does it say it is evil to question a college administrator? And many of them—especially the young men—didn’t even seem capable of looking me in the face when I talked, or acknowledging anything I had to say. I think Farris tacitly (and Wilson explicitly) approved of this state of affairs, because it gave them power and control over the student body.

That, or he just didn’t know that his students were being forced to study patriarchalist writers and imbibe cultic teachings under the guise of not only administrative, but religious authority—but he really, really should have known.

One final example of the split between the academic and student-life cultures on campus came towards the end of my sophomore year. A reporter from the New York Times, David Kirkpatrick, came to visit the campus for a story he was writing. Reporters were on campus all the time. PHC was huge media bait during its first few years in existence, and the administration was only too happy to show us off to the world. At first, it was kind of fun to interact with reporters, but after a while, you just feel like a specimen being examined. I guess it never occurred to the administrators that it’s actually really hard to pay attention in class when there’s a massive camera in your face. The students joked about campus being a “fishbowl,” a double reference to the utter lack of privacy within and the constant prying eyes from without.

At any rate, when David Kirkpatrick arrived, he came to visit my class. I was taking a course called “Modernity, Post-modernity, and Society,” a political theory elective intentionally modeled on a graduate-level, seminar-style course. We were reading and discussing Hannah Arendt’s The Human Condition on the day Mr. Kirkpatrick sat in on our class. At the end of the class, he complimented the students and the professor on the level of engagement with text we had displayed. He himself had read The Human Condition—in graduate school—and he noted that we had handled the text as well as any of his graduate classmates had.

I was, of course, pleased with the compliment—but even more pleased that this reporter from the New York Times had seen the good side of PHC, the academic side, before encountering whatever weirdness he was sure to find if he hung around long enough.

And it didn’t take long at all. By the time I got to lunch, he was in the dining hall, surrounded by a table full of girls in long prairie skirts. The article led with a photo of students walking on campus, noting that students “may show affection publicly only by holding hands while walking”—one of the more arcane rules from the rulebook.

There was no mention of Arendt or graduate-style seminar courses.

Part Four >

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