The Legend of the Bitter Alum: Hope’s Story, Part Three

Homeschoolers U

HA note: The author’s name has been changed to ensure anonymity. “Hope” is a pseudonym specifically chosen by the author. All other names herein have been changed as well.

< Part Two

Part Three

“Moving on,” in my case, meant a complete restructuring of my world at PHC. I changed rooms and churches, stopped hanging out with other students from Distance Learning, and started asking a lot of questions about the Tragic Meltdown.

It was still fresh in the minds of the students, which meant that some of them wouldn’t shut up, some of them wouldn’t open up, and some of them were okay with talking so long as it was in private. Everyone responds to grief differently.

From the ones who would talk privately, I learned a great deal.

I learned that the quickest way to annoy any student was to suggest that someone “won” the fight – everyone was eager to assure me that there were no winners. “Everyone got hurt,” the students said emphatically. It was the most common refrain. Even Dr. Farris had not gone unscathed. People didn’t easily forgive him for airing his disagreements with the professors at the student’s graduation. “That day was about the graduates! Many of them were close with those professors! Why should they have had to hear their mentors abused in public on what should have been their day of celebration?”

I learned also that the fight had been building for years, but mitigated through the efforts of the former Dean of Academic Affairs, who was able to keep the peace. It was only when the dean had enough and left the school that the whole Meltdown happened – which made me suspect that he’d probably left to avoid burn out.

I also learned that no one really could explain why it happened. I heard a lot of theories. Dr. Farris’ temper figured prominently in most versions. Others might reference a flaw of this professor or that. One of the professors was prickly about his honor, couldn’t shrug off an insult. Another professor was egging things on, demanded that the students in his class take sides – the one girl who’d walked out told me she’d done so because she figured if she had to take a side, she’d prefer to at least pick which side it was.

I asked about the writings, said that they didn’t look like they were in conflict, and was told that it was a fight more of personalities, than doctrines. As I said, however, these were the things I learned from those who would only talk in private.

Of the ones who wouldn’t shut up, there were three students in particular that I soon learned I didn’t like. They were very angry and condescending in public. Any ASE or article written by them was sure to offend. The college announced it had received accreditation, the threesome looked sour. They frequently argued that people should get out now while they had a chance, which was especially insulting to the freshmen and Distance Learners, none of whom appreciated being treated like brainless infants.

The newcomers, far from helpless, lashed back indiscriminately with their own equally insulting conviction that the seniors were mighty poor losers who should just drop the subject.

It was as if someone planned a birthday party and a wake in the same location at the same time and didn’t bother to warn the guests.

So there’s people with party hats and noise makers wandering around, bumping into black-armbanded mourners with tissue boxes. And both groups are convinced it was the other group who read the invite wrong.

I got into an email exchange with one of the three when she sent out an All Student Email that I thought was unnecessarily antagonistic. I asked why she was even on campus if she was so determined to be displeased by everything. She told me she was trapped, her credits wouldn’t transfer, and so she had to stay if she wanted her degree. She only had to tough it out one more year.

That, I completely understood.

Still, the year of the toxic party-wake created the unshakable image of the “bitter alum.” These few students, with their alumni counterparts, had long since given up any hope of fixing things. They weren’t talking out of a desire for reform. They were there only because they were trapped, and so they only communicated anger and despair.

In time, of course, those voices fell silent as they found areas in which they were accepted and welcomed and encouraged to invest.

But other voices arose, belonging to people who were angry but not in despair, and they were not heard.

The Administration went through a complete turn-over after the Tragic Meltdown. So did the student body.

The Legend of the Bitter Alum was known, but not the context, not the motives, and not the identity.

As the legend was neither forgiven nor forgotten, there were many who were eager to hunt the Bitter Alum and only the people who had been there could know that the Alum of Legend had moved to greener pastures.

The Board had been too far removed from the action, those in the Administration who could be expected to know were removed from power, and the Student Body and most of the alumni were just too young.

When the New Republic Article came out, the Alumni President went to the Board and told them they had better listen this time. He warned them that the voices behind the article were not the same voices they had assumed. This time, there had better be reform, because the costs of doing otherwise were far too great.

For the most part, there’s been progress. The school did create an Independent Review Board, they encouraged discussion of the IRB’s findings, and they seem willing to support the suggestions. We’re still waiting to see how far they are willing to go, but all gains are incremental.

In the meantime, just gotta keep talking. Increment by increment, I’m confident we’ll get there if we’re just persistent enough.

End of series.

The Legend of the Bitter Alum: Hope’s Story, Part Two

Homeschoolers U

HA note: The author’s name has been changed to ensure anonymity. “Hope” is a pseudonym specifically chosen by the author. All other names herein have been changed as well.

< Part One

Part Two

I can still remember his glare, the way his lips clenched and eyes narrowed, and then he took his red pen and scrawled his judgment across my paper. The look and the words combined to tell me all I would ever need to know about myself. That I was a failure. That I would never measure up. That my best efforts were utterly worthless.

It was December of 2006, the last week of class before finals, and twenty-four hours before, my roommates, Alice and Amy, had come back from a meeting with the dean of student life as two utterly broken girls.

A few weeks earlier, over Thanksgiving break, Alice had been sexually assaulted by Ryan, a man I had once considered a close friend. She didn’t have to say much for me to know she was telling the truth and I didn’t press for details. I didn’t want to know and I thought it would be insensitive to make her tell.

When she told me what happened, I tried to be supportive. I told her that he’d pay for it – I was fully convinced he would be expelled from the school. I told her I believed her, didn’t blame her, and that Ryan had always been weak in that area.

After all, who’d know that better than me? Sign after sign I’d seen all that semester . . . he wasn’t a gentleman, wasn’t pure in thought. He was a stalker, who lived to see the prey’s fear. How many times had I seen him sneak up on a friend, just to terrify them? Not startle – terrify. He had cruel eyes and he licked his lips.

I even felt a sense of relief when she told me, because finally things were out in the open. The problem had finally been defined.

All three of us skipped Biology lab that morning, to let the news sink in and to avoid taking class with him. Alice and Amy decided to take a nap, as they’d been up late talking. Once they were asleep, I left the room, walked down to the basement door of Red Hill, and waited for Ryan to arrive.

I didn’t have to wait long. Lab was just ending and he soon came out. He smiled, but I didn’t wait for his greeting.

“I know what you did,” I told him, loudly but with finality. “Alice told me. You were very wrong, and you will pay for it. People will find out about it. A lot of people are going to find out.” He tried to defend himself, but I didn’t listen. I’d said what I needed to say, so I turned and left.

I expected that to be very nearly the last word on the subject, or at least the last word that I would ever need to make on the subject. Things didn’t turn out that way. Alice and Amy did come back from the first meeting with the dean hopeful, reporting that she – the dean – had been very upset by what she’d heard and that she’d promised (if it was true) to expel him.

Well, the catch was in the qualifier, I guess, although I’ve never really been sure. My interactions with the dean were almost all indirect and the ones that I did have was so cold, so professional, and so distant, that I can’t begin to speculate on her motives.

In any case, things began to go all wrong shortly thereafter. Ryan was angry. Very angry. What’s the phrase, “high dudgeon?” That was it . . . the absolute, iron-clad, self-righteous assurance that what he had done was perfectly right, or if not perfectly right, that at least it was something that no one had any right to challenge him on.

It might not have been so bad, except that I was expecting things to be quick and simple. Oh, probably not court conviction, it’s not like we had any proof that the police could take to trial, but obviously this was going to be public. Obviously he was going to be disgraced. Obviously he would go away and leave us alone. I mean, seriously, this was sexual assault we’re talking about. People get expelled for that.

But it didn’t happen.

Lunch happened, he was there. Night fell, he was on the sidewalks or in the bushes. I remember coming around the building once and jumping out of my skin to see him so close. Heart in my mouth and breathing heavily, I caught up to some other walkers as quick as I could.

He did jump Alice once. Didn’t do anything, just scared her. I was furious.

The college asked us to keep quiet while the investigation was ongoing. I could understand that. Don’t want to crucify a person before you know he’s guilty . . . this silence did align with my own convictions against gossip. But the longer the thing went on, the more I realized this silence was isolating me. I had only my roommates and my all-too-distant mother for support.

Both of my roommates left campus that weekend, leaving me alone with this madman. I didn’t expect, when I said good bye to them, that it was going to be much of a problem, but I had severely underestimated how much Ryan scared me. The moment night fell, I began to remember so much that had not meant anything to me before . . .

. . . that blow to the face he’d given me in a pillow fight, so hard that my glasses were driven deep into my nose and I’d blacked out for a split second . . .

. . . him telling me about how he’d climbed D2 to plaster nightmarish posters over the girls’ second story windows to “celebrate” Halloween, and how disappointed he was that the security guards had removed them so soon . . .

. . . all our trash talk about martial arts and how he could take me in a fight, which somehow didn’t feel much like trash talk now . . .

. . . each time I’d tried to pull back and he’d ignored my hints and every time I’d given way because I didn’t want to be a prude . . .

Once upon a time, I’d been excited to think that he was a little bit dangerous. Now? Now, it was night, I didn’t have a roommate with me, and he was angry. If he wanted to retaliate, I was the only available target. And he knew I was alone. And he could climb. And he could beat me. And he never did take ‘no’ from me, not even on little things.

I was horribly terrified and far more alone than I’d ever been in my life.

I slept in the RD’s room that weekend, but that was only at night. The RD and my own RA were both incredibly busy people. I felt guilty for taking up their time, and wanted to talk to Amelia, the RA I had adopted as my own. Stupid me, I asked permission first.

It was denied.

For most of the semester, I had been in the habit of walking up to Founder’s several times a night just “to get a drink of water” and also to scope out the events – always did hate to miss a party. I didn’t dare do that alone now, but I also was fully convinced that it was not right to spill the details. I asked a friend to accompany me “because there is someone on campus that I’m scared of.”

Word made it back to the dean, who sent me an order through the RA to shut up. “Don’t be scaring people,” they said. “It isn’t true anyway. Don’t be seeking attention.” I shut up.

Then came the day when we realized none of this was ever going to go away. The day we realized they weren’t going to expel Ryan. Twenty-four hours of hopeless uncertainty, then the meeting where they’d make it official.

And that was the night my paper was due.

Actually, I had two papers due. One was an Economics paper that I had planned to write on the financial considerations of making vs. buying a dress for the Liberty Ball. Ryan, my roommates, two other guys, and I had planned that we would all go together dressed in LOTR costumes – I was going to be Rosie. I didn’t have time to change topics.

Each word I wrote was sheer agony, a blow to an open wound, and I couldn’t allow myself to cry. I had to finish that bloody paper, so I could do the next one.

I could have done them on the weekend before, yes, but I had never had problems writing in high school. Writing was, for me, a pleasure and a privilege, always accompanied by high praise from my teachers and often in front of the class. I could write easily and in minutes what others never could even if they’d struggled for days. I wanted it to stay a pleasure. I wanted to write without the burden of uncertainty and fear on my shoulders.

And now things were nightmaric. All I wanted to do was cry and try to sleep. Instead, I wrote about dreams that could never happen as I worked the night into oblivion.

The first paper finished barely on time. The second was harder, as I had no ready-made plan for it. I had no mental power left to spare, but I came up with a topic. Somehow. I found quotes . . . somehow. I wrote . . . somehow.

And then I walked into the end of class, with my paper hot from the printing. I smiled at the professor, proud to have accomplished something despite the madness of my world. I had done it. No sleep, no tears, no heart left to call my own . . . but at least I could still write. He glared back and, taking his pen, scrawled those four unforgettable red words across my clean white sheet.

Late. End of Class.

My smile vanished, but I didn’t cry. I nodded polite acceptance of his judgment, and left without a word.

And that was my first semester.

For me, it meant a major restructuring of my world. I went home for Christmas feeling like a total failure and scared to death of the dark. Each night of Christmas break, I turned off the lights and just lay in bed, staring at the ceiling, letting the fear wash over me as the tension built and built. Then, I’d reach up, hit the closet light switch, and roll over to go to sleep. Then came the joyful day when I realized I could see enough by the green light of the digital alarm clock that I didn’t have to turn on the closet light. The worst of the fear had finally been broken.

Everyone at home knew something had gone wrong, but not what it was. I told my parents, but acted distant and quiet around anyone else. People told me they were praying for me.

For my own part, I spent my days thinking things through. Did I really want to go back to PHC? I had two years and all my savings sunk into that college and it’s not like I could expect all of my credits to transfer. If I went back to school somewhere else, I would be starting all over again. But maybe that would be worthwhile, just to get away from Ryan.

There are bad apples at every school, I thought. At least at PHC I know who it is. Not, perhaps, the most cheering sort of progress one could make, but still progress of a kind.

If I leave PHC, where will I go? It had taken me two years to scrape together enough hope and will power to apply to PHC. I had no guarantee the next time would be quicker and plenty of reason to believe that it wouldn’t. I have always hated giving up and I believed that the shock of quitting would probably kill me. I felt like a failure right now; but if I got that diploma, wouldn’t I be proving that I wasn’t a failure at all?

It never occurred to me to wonder if other administrations did things differently than PHC’s had. I guess I just assumed that was industry standard. Not the best assumption perhaps, but it did give me a way to distance myself from the event.

It happened, it was done, I’ll move on.

Part Three >

The Legend of the Bitter Alum: Hope’s Story, Part One

Homeschoolers U

HA note: The author’s name has been changed to ensure anonymity. “Hope” is a pseudonym specifically chosen by the author. All other names herein have been changed as well.

Part One

The story of my admission into PHC is an odd one, starting from the first moment I heard of the college and culminating in interviews between the admission counselor and both of my parents. I’m convinced the admissions counselor only let me in because it was easier to do that than it was to answer my dad’s questions.

It was my mom who wanted me to go to PHC. When she first made the suggestion, in my junior year of high school, I told her, as diplomatically as possible, that it was a perfectly horrid idea. A college full of would-be politicians out to change the world sounded like something straight out of Dante. Why would anyone ever volunteer as a tribute (I mean, student) for a school filled with ego-maniacs and egg-heads? I was pretty sure the students were all going to be arrogant jerks, not at all worth knowing.

Unfortunately, I soon learned that one didn’t have to be a would-be politician-in-training to be an arrogant jerk.

I don’t even know how to explain what happened that next year, because it was so unexpected and so devastating. Nobody ever saw it coming.

“Joseph” was such a close friend to me that I called him my brother and people believed me, even though we didn’t look anything alike. His mother, Jackie, was a second mother to me. She was a bit… intense and somewhat tempermental, but I never thought much of it. I mostly just laughed off her oddities and moved on with my life. She had this thing where she loved to mock people who had y-chromosomes. Joseph was her favorite target.

Anyway, Joseph started dating this girl, Emily Schmidt, and, when things started getting serious, Jackie started getting even more demeaning and bullying than was normal for her. She didn’t like the girl or the girl’s family because they weren’t about to let Jackie dominate them the way she dominated Joseph. Or at least, that’s what I heard after the fact. I hadn’t been paying attention.

Then came the point Joseph had enough. He decided he was moving out of the house that very day and he called his future in-laws over to help him. Jackie flipped out. She called the police and my parents and then, when neither group proved able to stop things, she called everybody else. Everyone in the county heard all about how Joseph had been duped and stolen away from her by a sinister cult family who were out to steal brides and grooms for all their freaky cult kids from the good homeschool families of our tight-knit community. The Schmidts had been well-respected and liked up until that point and I’d enjoyed their company as often as I had opportunity. But now, friendship and openness was replaced with suspicion and confusion.

After ten years of reflection, I can be flippant and matter-of-fact when telling the story, but, at the time, I fell into a depression so dark that I had no idea I was even sad. I thought I was merely bored as I flopped on my bed and imagined how it would be if I fell asleep and never woke up. I looked at the vitamins on my shelf and wondered if it was possible to overdose on them and whether it would be obvious and whether it would be like falling asleep. My SAT results came back and they were good (even though I’d refused to study for it). A torrent of college flyers followed in their wake, but I didn’t care. They bored me to pieces. I threw most of them away without looking at them.

The only thing I was good at, the only thing I enjoyed, was writing. But even at that, there was nothing to write about except for school. I had no life apart from my homeschool group and simply couldn’t think of the future enough to contrive a plan.

The summer after high school graduation, I reconnected with Dave, a childhood friend I hadn’t seen since his family moved away ten years earlier. I remembered him as the happy-go-lucky person with whom I’d reconnected, but his other friends and his senior picture testified to a very recent bout of deep depression. Like myself, he was a homeschooler, but, by this point, he’d spent a year at PHC. To hear him tell it, PHC was all that was good and worthwhile in the world – hard work, lots of study, prank wars, and good friends.

Between PHC and self-reflection, there was no better cure for depression. For me, it was worth a shot.

There was no way I could attempt to live away from home at that time, but, fortunately, PHC had a distance learning program and the enrollment process was less arduous than the one for on-campus enrollment. I spent two years in the program, recovering my good spirits as I built up my friendships. Finally beginning to feel optimistic again, I tackled the “real” application, which included numerous essays, including one on cultural engagement.

I still thought “lead the nation and shape the culture” was a silly, egotistical motto. There was no way I had any intention of running for office. And while I could probably have gotten in by writing about how being a wife and mother is “shaping the culture,” the thought never occurred to me. Instead, I wrote about the need for respect in public dialogue and how we needed to try to understand people even when we think they sound ridiculous. I used the examples of Christians who hate Harry Potter and atheists who search for extraterrestrials because I figured that way I couldn’t accidentally insult the unknown reader. I sent it in, feeling that this at least was an important issue and one that I did care about passionately, even if it wasn’t one of the big issues like pro-life.

I managed to score an interview, but the admissions counselor had a hard time believing I was ready for higher academics. She asked to talk to one of my parents, so I had my mom call. My mom felt that she did a horrible job of representing me, so she had my dad call. According to my dad, the conversation went something like this:

Counselor: do you feel that your daughter is ready for the challenge of higher academics?

Dad: what criteria are you using to judge that?

Counselor: what do you mean?

Dad: if you’re asking that question, you must have some criteria in mind, some standard that makes you think my daughter isn’t ready. If I’m going to answer your question, I have to know what you mean by asking it.

I think my dad was actually disappointed that her only answer to the question was to accept my application.

In hindsight, my timing was hilarious. I sent in an essay about the need for respectful dialogue during what would later be called “the Great Schism.” This was the horrific breakdown in communications and tempers that led to a high turn-over among the professors, the replacing of the school president and most of the deans, and a mass exodus of students. The aftershocks were felt for years – in fact, I am convinced that they are still being felt in ways that are not always obvious.

Although it is often called the Great Schism, I prefer the term “the Tragic Meltdown,” which I picked up from one of the professors who left the next year. As a nuclear physicist’s daughter, I find the comparison to Chernobyl and Three Mile Island to be satisfyingly exact.

Of course, I didn’t know about any of that at the time of my application. The campus-quake didn’t hit the online forums of the Distance Learning community until late in the semester. I read everything I could find about it. There were two items in particular; I think it was the Faith and Reason lecture by one of the professors, and an article for the Herald (the school newspaper) by someone from the Administration.

If I was hoping those would explain the commotion, I was disappointed. From a conflict standpoint, these made zero sense.

The lecture was completely orthodox Christianity. The article was completely orthodox Christianity. The school is supposed to be a completely orthodox Christian institution, so how in the world two orthodox Christians even managed to be in conflict on a point of complete orthodoxy was a mystery to me.

The only cause of conflict that I could scrape out between them was that the article interpreted the lecture in what I considered to be one of the most unlikely ways possible. The lecturer said that the Bible isn’t a how-to manual for building a house. The writer of the article said that the Bible isn’t a how-to manual, but it does require that a house-builder build his houses in an ethical and moral fashion. Perhaps if I’d been the lecturer, I’d have been insulted that something so basic wasn’t inferred from the text.

Maybe the whole problem was just a stupid insult war?

Dave told me to be very careful and to seek to be informed. He liked the professors and distrusted the official line. Said this was the worst time to start at PHC. I agreed, but I wasn’t going to delay any longer. Anyway, it couldn’t really affect me, could it?

It probably wouldn’t have either, but my first semester didn’t go as planned.

Part Two >

I Was Expelled From PHC: Tim Raveling’s Story

Homeschoolers U

I was expelled from PHC in 2009 after writing a paper declaring to the world that I was no longer a Christian.

I left happily, and without looking back.

PHC was small and incredibly insular. There were students there who, like “Esau”, had no idea of what went on off campus, behind closed doors, and to those of us who didn’t quite fit in with the administration’s idea of what PHC students should be. There were students who described the horrific experiences of some of my friends with words like “allegedly,” and who could never imagine any members of the school’s administration ever acting less than saintly.

But that insularity didn’t end with the uber-conservative circles of on-campus students. I arrived in the semester following the so-called “schism,” wherein several professors were booted for being more “liberal arts” than they were “Christian,” and the first good friends I made were students who had gone through that, most of whom were bitter at the school for destroying the educational environment they’d fought so hard to preserve. PHC was central to many of my friends, and when we’d gather off-campus to drink illicit wine they’d often rant for hours about the various ways in which the admin had fucked them over. Even in our anger and betrayal, we still focused inwards, on PHC, on ourselves, on our tiny little community in this great big world.

As for me, though, the most important experiences I had happened in the cracks between my time on campus. I spent one Thanksgiving with a friend of mine, a ribbon dancer in New York City, and her four Kuwaiti friends, where I got stoned for the first time and realized what reggae was for. I spent the next sleeping on the streets in DC and volunteering at a homeless shelter for Thanksgiving dinner. I spent less and less time with fellow students and more and more time with random locals in the Purcellville coffee shop, where I’d draw pictures and people would ask me if PHC was a cult.

When I finally took the trip that changed my life, in the summer of 2009, I came back no longer able to believe in the Christian god, but more, no longer able to care much about the internal drama of this little school that had, when I’d arrived at it, been everything to me. I’d spent the summer in Kurdistan, where the Turkish army had recently burned the farms of a few dozen Kurdish families to the ground, and Damascus, which was at the time still firmly under Assad’s rule, and Athens, where the first riots of the oncoming economic crisis were already in full swing.

So I came back, wrote my paper, burned my bridges, and left.

That was one of the best decisions I ever made.

And yet, the digital age being what it is, I still get ricochets from time to time of PHC drama. Talk to students who are where I was before my trip. Talk to alumni still caught up in the scrabbling, grasping drama of the place. And I feel bad, because guys: it doesn’t have to be this way.

So. You. PHC student. Not the ones who don’t see anything wrong with the place, but you, the ones who do. The ones that are wondering right now if you haven’t made a horrible mistake. If you haven’t wasted the last two years of your life. The ones who are maybe already out, but still revolving around the bitterness of PHC’s betrayal of what it promised you.

It gets better. Whatever PHC’s done to you, know this: it is irrelevant. It is a tiny little outpost of a rotting political movement, and it does not matter. Mike Farris and Graham Walker are obssessed with being the biggest fish in their rapidly stagnating little pond, and once you step out of it, they cannot follow you.

Look up. The world is big and wonderful and scary and there is real shit to be done out here. Sell your stuff. Pack a bag. Hit the road. Do some drugs. Have safe, consensual sex with guys, or girls, or both. Make friends who are pagans and anarchists and communists, friends who have never heard of PHC, friends who are baffled by the very idea of young earth creationism and voting for Rick Santorum.

As for me, I’ll be down in New Orleans, building a communist bookstore. If you’re still at PHC, trying and failing to fit in, feeling stifled and trapped by oversized patriarchal egos, just keep this in mind:

We could always use a few more hands, and bus tickets are cheap.

The Day We Fall Silent is The Day We Don’t Care Anymore: Nikki’s Story, Part Four

Homeschoolers U

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

< Part Three

Part Four

I wanted to close my story by explaining how the PHC administration shuts out alumni, many of whom feel that they share a community with current students and would love to help them.

Remember, there is a division between many current students and the so-called “bitter alumni,” the PHC-coined term for any alumnus who voices criticism of the school. This division is actively encouraged by the administration. Student Life (through the RAs) tells students that alumni criticisms are baseless because they only come from “angry, bitter” people who are seeking to “destroy” the school. Since current students know few alumni and certainly have no idea what kind of people they are (or what alumni faced at PHC, since stories about things like the Schism are also rewritten by the administration when they are passed on to current students, if they are passed on at all), current students have in large part adopted this narrative that was actively spread to them.

The best example of this phenomenon happened last fall, when alumni voiced opposition to Stephen Baskerville’s Faith and Reason lecture, a mandatory, campus-wide lecture that condemned protective orders and domestic violence laws. Over 100 alumni (out of PHC’s roughly 600 total alumni) signed a statement asserting that the lecture “displayed an unacceptable lack of academic rigor” and unacceptably “encourage[d] students to doubt victims of rape, domestic violence, sexual harassment, and abuse when those individuals come forward with their stories.”

Many current students became extremely hostile to alumni for voicing these criticisms (and began actively defending Baskerville’s lecture), a reaction caused in large part by the message Student Life was disseminating, i.e., that only “bad” alumni had anything negative to say about Baskerville’s lecture.

Alumni who want to invest in the student body thus face an uphill battle.

They must either be the “perfect” alumni who say the right Christianese, smile when they’re supposed to, and wholeheartedly support the administration in public (and thereby become one of the handful of alumni who get invited back by the administration for certain events) or they have to fight through the alumni-bashing and hopefully form connections with students who are willing to question the administration’s approved narrative. I call the first category the “holies.” And please know—some of the holies are fake, saying and doing what they need to publicly and keeping their opinions to themselves, whether out of a fear of social reprisal or because they believe they can do more good that way. But either way, the PHC administration has created an actively anti-alumni atmosphere, and I believe it has done so because it is easier to control the student body when the students do not have the support of and connections with the wider alumni community.

After all, it would be much easier for 19-year-old students to stand up to the administration if they knew there was a strong contingent of alumni also willing to go to bat for them. And it is also easier for the administration to control the narrative provided to students when their memory of the school, collectively, can’t go back further than 4 years.

Despite the administration’s dislike for alumni, we have a lot to offer current students. Therefore, almost three years after I graduated from PHC, I and several other PHC grads tried to start an alumnae organization. Our hope was to provide mentoring to current female students interested in a career. Many of the alumnae who joined the organization did so precisely because they had few female mentors during their time as a student (PHC does not have many female professors). PHC also has few career counseling services, and the alumnae organization was meant to provide needed support to current female students who would like to learn tips on how to write a resume, prepare a cover letter, or find an internship in their field. Additionally, many alumnae had struggled with the PHC-approved narrative that women were to be wives and mothers first, with career a distant and somewhat-frowned-upon second.

Many, many PHC alumnae expressed to me their desire to share with current female students how the limiting rhetoric at PHC does not reflect reality.

There is value and happiness in pursuing one’s career goals, whether as a mother or non-mother, something few PHC women get told while they are students. And finally, some alumnae also wanted to encourage current female students to keep pursuing their ambitions, even when it sometimes feels discouraging at PHC. In the so-called “real world” women are valued for their work and minds much more than inside PHC’s confines—a statement that I expect will shock most of PHC’s current students. Remember, it is a question of degree, as mainstream American society still displays sexist traits as well. But at PHC, you are never allowed to forget your gender. It is constantly brought up in jokes and banter and general commentary, whether inside or outside the classroom. As a woman, you are always different, by which I mean, you are deemed more emotional, motherly, romantic, lady-like, and fragile than the “manly men” of PHC. Traditional femininity isn’t something women get to choose for the fun of it or because it expresses their desires for how they look. It’s both presumed and required. And smart women who don’t fit the mold (in other words, who seek leadership and display traditionally “masculine” qualities) are bad.

That’s why it’s taken 14 years for PHC to even get a female student body president.

I remember one recent grad, who is now at a prestigious grad school, telling me that she loves grad school in part because she never feels that she needs to dumb herself down to be accepted by her male peers, something she had felt the need to do at PHC. I think that statement captures my grad school and general work experience, post-PHC, as well. It’s wonderful to be in an environment where you are not pre-assigned characteristics based on what’s between your legs. Whether they consciously articulate this sentiment or not, many alumni, I think, want to encourage PHC students that there is so much out there for them, if their PHC years are not going as planned or it has not been easy, it’s ok. It really is.

I systematically reached out to dozens of former PHC women to see if they would be interested in this organization, and their reaction was almost universally positive—but note, the positive reaction was nearly universal because the organization was about helping current students. I think it is telling that many alumni had no desire whatsoever to support the administration or even step foot on campus again—there were too many painful memories associated with the school. This is a distinction that I think current students fail to grasp. For many alumni, there is a world of difference between current students needing help getting an internship and the administration that has systematically bullied those students (and alumni) who did not fit its narrowly conceived notion of “a proper Christian.” I expect that there are dozens and dozens of alumni who would not lend a helping hand to the administration but who would pull strings and make phone calls on behalf of a job-seeking student in a heartbeat.

Sadly, the alumnae organization was stonewalled from the beginning.

Dean Corbitt expressed privately to others that she did not think I was fit to lead the organization (information quickly shared with me due to the ever-present PHC grapevine). She threatened to “pull the plug” on our first event, a meet-and-greet between current female students and alumnae, because I had invited too many (and yes, this is her word) “fringers.” I’m not sure what a “fringer” is. I do know that I had invited dozens of women from many different PHC graduation years and cliques, many of whom were former RAs and none of whom had reputations for disciplinary problems during their time at PHC. They were also extremely talented women who had achieved career success in many different areas and would be an asset to students interested in employment in those areas.

But it would seem that it does not take much to become a “fringer” in Dean Corbitt’s book.

Her need to control was also excessive. She was “offended” when I did not send her a Facebook invite to the event—because I assumed a college administrator had no need to oversee the Facebook postings of an alumni-sponsored event—and she personally contacted several of her favorite alumnae to make sure they would come. Apparently, my assurances that these individuals had already RSVPed yes to my invitation was insufficient. During the event, she played favorites excessively, turning her back on well-respected alumnae (who I assume she deemed “fringers”) and engaging in conversation only with those she approved.

Although I was hosting the event and was there for several hours, I did not get as much as a hello from her.

A few months later, she had all of the alumnae organization’s events indefinitely postponed, and I was told I should only speak with current students if I received explicit permission—anything else would be deemed a “refusal to cooperate,” something that seemed to have vaguely ominous repercussions attached to it.

Anytime I offered to provide an event to fit a specific need (resume writing, major-specific counseling, tea time with ladies who have attended graduate school, etc.), Dean Corbitt told me that the school was doing quite well, on its own, providing career counseling services. Later, I would learn that Corbitt was especially angry that I had “allowed” an anonymous contributor to QueerPHC (a blog describing the experiences of queer students at PHC) to attend our events. Obviously, no discussion of the blog’s content had ever occurred during our events. In fact, the blog was barely known at the time. Farris would not threaten to sue it for a few more months yet. It would seem that, were Corbitt to get her way about an alumnae organization at PHC, every attendee must be vetted according to Corbitt’s standards. Of course, that means that any leader of the alumnae organization must know all the gossip Corbitt has accumulated about various alumnae to even be able to apply those standards.

I was stonewalled for so long, I finally decided to confront Corbitt in person and ask her exactly why she disliked me so much, since I had never even spoken with her during my time as a student. I am sharing her response because I think it indicates how little it takes to be marked as a “black sheep” at PHC and how Corbitt uses her personal opinion about you to limit your ability to be involved as an alumnus—even when she cannot point to a single instance of wrongdoing on your part.

In response to my questions, she said I seemed “unhappy” during my time at PHC and that my senior testimony was concerning. Before the conversation was over, she also criticized the fact that I was pro-gay-rights and told me that it was not safe to let me speak to freshmen, who the administration has a duty to protect from dangerous and damaging information that they are not yet ready to handle. Strange—one would think that after being homeschooled, a form of education that is supposed to be vastly superior, PHC freshmen would be prepared to speak to a liberal alumna of their school. I wonder if PHC freshmen appreciate the fact that Corbitt doesn’t think they are capable of maturely wrestling with any information I might provide them that is contrary to the beliefs they currently hold. Is this really a rigorous liberal arts education at its finest?

In any event, I had expected her to deny, deny, deny. I confess, her matter-of-fact response startled me.

My time at PHC was marked by dramatic upheaval in my family, months of military-caused separation from my boyfriend (now husband), and long work days due to the part-time job that ate up my every weekend. Was I happy? Certainly not in the always-smiling image of bubbling Christian joy that I suspect she would have preferred. But I was hard-working, caused no problems, and was extremely competent. I graduated summa cum laude, landed the job that paved the way for entrance to a prestigious grad school a few years later, and became financially independent of my parents during an economic downtown. Despite all that, this woman, who never so much as greeted me in the hallways during my entire time at PHC, thought she knew I was unfit to lead an alumnae organization whose sole goal was to link alumnae with current students because I seemed “unhappy” to her three or more years ago.

And then there is my senior testimony. For those who do not know, seniors have the opportunity to give a 10-minute testimony to the student body during chapel, provided you give an outline of your speech to the administration beforehand. Some are quite well done, some are atrociously boring, but there are a few consistent themes, year after year. The most prominent theme is a call for the student body to be less judgmental. The speakers will either talk about being victims of judgmental students or about learning to become more emphatic themselves. It’s interesting how, no matter how many times students are told to be less judgmental, year after year, without fail, a good number of senior testimonies will still focus on exhorting the student body to stop being so judgmental. It’s also common for one or two students to transfer out each year, usually after freshman year, citing the school’s judgmental attitude as their reason. In any event, although I certainly agreed at the time that judgmental attitudes were prevalent, I decided to take my senior testimony in another, more unique direction. I’ll link to the audio here and let you decide how dangerous it made me. (You can also read the transcript here.)

When I was starting up the alumnae organization, I was told, multiple times by many well-meaning people, that the administration would kill it. I kept hoping that something would change, that this would be the time that someone who wasn’t one of Corbitt’s darlings could actually do something good for the students. So many PHC women were interested in helping out, the organization had a lot of potential. When it became clear that Corbitt would never allow me or an organization I was part of near the students, I stepped down from my post, put the reins of the organization in other hands, and sat back and waited for months and months. Maybe something will happen now. It looks like it might, and I hope it does. I would rather some organization exist to help current students, without my involvement in it, than no organization at all.

But whether the alumnae organization gets off the ground or not, the reality is that PHC’s administration cares more about controlling the information students receive than about letting students form relationships with alumni who might be “bitter,” might no longer adhere to the restrictive statement of faith, and might no longer share the school’s right-wing ideology.

If the only way you can remain on their “good” list is by believing the same things you did when you were 18 and showed up on campus (or at least by never publicly changing your mind on anything), PHC has snubbed its nose at a huge number of its alumni, including many of the former golden children who were the RAs and RDs the administration counted on.

So this is why I’m one of the “bitter alumni.”

I don’t stick to the approved narrative that PHC is a wonderful school full of wonderful people. I’m not going to sing the praises of a school that does not deserve them. I’m not going to pretend that PHC is some kind of citadel of Christian learning, that it respects its students, or that it accepts those alumni who have varied beliefs and experiences.

After being part of the PHC community for 8 years, I know better than that.

I also know better than to expect many current students to understand. It took me years to accumulate the knowledge I now have, let alone to realize that Christian leaders at institutions I was told to respect are often just as fallen, misguided, and dangerous as the “atheists and sinners” I had been warned about all my life. So if you are a current student at PHC, please know that those of us in the “bitter alumni” camp don’t hate you. We actually care very much about you. We criticize the school and its behavior because we see it hurting you, in ways you might not even recognize for years, just as we often did not recognize the school’s behavior as harmful during our time as students.

The day we fall silent is the day we don’t care anymore.

One of the most common themes in the stories PHC students and alumni submitted to HA over the last several weeks is loneliness. If you are a current student and you feel that way, if you want to talk with one of the “bitter alumni” about those gut feelings you have and the doubts you are shoving to the back of your mind, feel free to reach out to me by messaging HA. They know how to get hold of me.

End of series.

The Day We Fall Silent is The Day We Don’t Care Anymore: Nikki’s Story, Part Three

Homeschoolers U

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

< Part Two

Part Three

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.

Part Four >

The Day We Fall Silent is The Day We Don’t Care Anymore: Nikki’s Story, Part Two

Homeschoolers U

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

< Part One

Part Two

I was raised in a fundamentalist homeschooling family.

To say my parents were patriarchal is an understatement. My father once sent me this article from Rushdooney’s Chalcedon Foundation to explain why I couldn’t choose my own husband. For those who don’t care to click through, the article’s thesis is summarized by this quote: “As strange as it may sound, in the peculiar relationship of the father and daughter, God, as it were, takes a back seat. God has created a hierarchy such that the daughter is directly answerable to her father, and her father then answers to God.”

Needless to say, I was grateful to get out.

I chose PHC because it was 1000 miles away from my parents. I was young and naïve—homeschooling in the hands of controlling, fundamentalist parents has that effect. I had no idea at the time that I could have applied to other schools. PHC also seemed safe. I had attended PHC’s constitutional law camp a few years before (I know, I know, homeschool nerd). The campus was small and not intimidating. And being around other, conservative Christians meant I would be able to trust everyone around me—or so I thought. PHC just seemed right.

It’s been almost eight years since I first stepped foot on that campus as a new student. Now I’m hated by the administration and have been told by Dean Corbitt that I’m not fit to speak to freshmen.

But in August 2006, I wanted nothing more than to be at PHC and to belong.

The first few weeks were a lot like summer camp. We were the class of 2010, the redemption class, the first students to arrive post-Schism. (Yes, we really did name the faculty’s dramatic departure the year before after the famous church split in the 11th century. Homeschool nerds.) Everything seemed hopeful. It was a new beginning for everyone. Of course, that didn’t last long.

At the time, PHC was cursed by something called an ASE or an “all student e-mail.” Sometimes, ASE wars would erupt, and our inboxes would be flooded with the (rarely witty) back and forth between our fellow students. One such war started shortly after the beginning of the semester. An older male student emailed this link to the entire school, thinking it a marvelous joke. For those who don’t want to watch the video, one of the punch lines is that over-education in women leads to “ugliness, premature aging, and beard growth.”

Unfortunately, sexist banter and jokes are common at PHC. A year or two ago they were still sending out “girl-friend applications” to incoming freshmen, a form that compared getting a girl friend to signing up for extracurricular activities. “Make me a sandwich” and barefoot and pregnant jokes are ubiquitous. Not that sexism is extinct in the rest of American society—far from it. But sexist jokes at PHC have an especially cruel edge because as much as people claim it is all in fun, in PHC’s culture women are expected to marry and stay home with their children, men are expected to be providers, women are expected to be submissive and to obey their husbands, and men are expected to be the leaders in the home.

The majority position at PHC is that a woman can have a career only if it does not interfere with or limit her primary purpose, which is to be a wife and mother.

Complementarianism, the idea that men and women have distinct roles and that women must submit to their husbands, is taught in PHC theology classes as fact. Until recently, Wayne Grudem’s Systematic Theology served as the primary textbook in that class—for those who don’t know Grudem, he co-founded the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood and devotes much of his academic work to combating Christian feminism. It is also not a coincidence that the past two Faith and Reason lectures (school-wide, mandatory lectures held each semester to highlight the work of a Christian thinker) were anti-feminist screeds damning both birth control and domestic violence laws.

Sexist jokes are damaging in any environment—at PHC they are a maddening reminder that some people think it’s funny to mock women’s ambitions, abilities, and experiences in a place where many women had to fight their families to even come to college and where even more must fight for the freedom to choose their own husbands (or wives, let’s not forget there are queer students at PHC).

But let’s return to that ASE. At the time, I was rooming with two of the more liberal women on campus—by which I mean we were all moderate Republicans. The video and the universally positive reaction it elicited enraged us. One roommate and I decided to fire back—with our own ASE.

It was really quite tame, in hindsight. We were impertinent freshmen who told older students they weren’t nearly as funny as they thought they were. Shots were fired both ways. There was no cursing, no name-calling, and probably way too much Christianese. But we had dared to stand up to older students in front of the entire school.

It doesn’t take much to mark you as one of them at PHC. And by “them,” I mean the vague and nebulous group of “bad kids” we were warned not to join. RAs told us about them. “Stay away from those seniors,” “That person is a bad influence,” “That group will ruin your reputation,” you get the idea. Few ever explained to me what these people had done to earn the red letter sewn onto their clothes. When there wasn’t an older student taking you under their wing to steer you away, there were still feelings and whisperings. You got to a certain point where you just knew, based on how the good kids behaved and the subtle changes in conversation, who was in and who was out.

It would be years before I realized that most of those “bad” upperclassmen were just as boring as I was my senior year, kids just trying to keep their heads down, finish their assignments, and get out. But young, impressionable, freshman me wanted none of that—I wanted to be good. I wanted to be one of the well-liked RAs who seemed so on top of everything. I didn’t think that fighting back about that video would be the first tick mark on my record.

A week later two, older male students stuck a pig’s head on a stake, pounded the stake into the ground outside our first-floor dorm window, and attached a note to it: “Thus to all feminazis.”

They were never caught. No one even looked for them. There was no investigation. The administration never interviewed me or either of my roommates. At a school where Student Life seeks to know everything about everyone’s business, this incident was simply unimportant, and the entire thing was shrugged off. It would be years before one of the perpetrators came forward to tell me what he’d done—not to apologize, but to reminisce about an “awesome joke,” one of the great “unsolved pranks of PHC.”

It wasn’t funny to us.

I was so ashamed. I never even told my parents. I was afraid of what they would do to me, since I was obviously advocating for “feminist” (and therefore evil) things while away at school. I never sought help from the administration, believing instinctively that they would take the perpetrators’ side. I never even told my professors, even though I would form close relationships with many of them. I buried the incident so deeply, I had to go back to old gchat records to verify it happened—there comes a point where it just sounds too outrageous to have ever happened to me. And there it was. September 25, 2006.

I know it’s hard to comprehend, but we were so naïve, so sheltered, so ignorant about the world, we didn’t even realize the gravity of what had happened to us. I didn’t understand that I had the right to express my opinion and not fear reprisal for it. It seemed to be just another example of “boys will be boys,” a comeuppance for my temerity.

Whatever it was, I mark this incident as the first time I realized everything at PHC was not as it appeared.

To be continued.

The Day We Fall Silent is The Day We Don’t Care Anymore: Nikki’s Story, Part One

Homeschoolers U

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

Part One

It’s hard to capture Patrick Henry College in a blog post.

You could fill a book describing the campus culture. Its students are mature yet naïve, well-read yet inexperienced, good-intentioned yet self-absorbed. To understand PHC, you have to grasp the cognitive dissonance of a student body that steadfastly believes it will change the world but fears standing up to the administration, that touts academic freedom yet mocks dissent, and that champions liberty but despises human rights.

It’s hard to know where to start. Readers will need a foundational understanding before I can even launch into my own story. So I’ll begin with something that underlies all the experiences I’m about to share with you: the perpetual friction between those who steadfastly (sometimes blindly) believe in the institution and those who don’t.

Many PHC students have a strange response to criticisms of the school, even when current or former students are the source of the criticism. It’s strange because humans are, as a rule, petty and selfish beings. They like to get their own way, even if they have to hurt others to get it. So it shouldn’t surprise anyone that individuals at PHC, like every other institution, have at times been petty, selfish, and desperate to get their own way.

It should surprise PHC students least of all, since PHC’s classes are saturated with the doctrine of original sin—the idea that all humans, even babies, are innately sinful.

A student body that reads Montesquieu, Locke, and the (much revered) “Founding Fathers” also understands that while power corrupts, absolute power corrupts absolutely. After all, “[i]f men were angels, no government would be necessary”—a quip by James Madison that I saw again and again in the student papers I edited during my time as a student.

PHC students love this principle so fiercely that many are Tea Party advocates.

They believe that you shouldn’t give anyone, least of all the government, too much power over your life. PHC actively supports these political beliefs, teaching its students that government power is innately dangerous, if not evil. Since almost all PHC students analyze politics through this lens, it’s understandable that Michelle Bachmann is revered by many (if not most) of the students. In fact, not that long ago, the current student body president posted a picture of herself with Bachmann. The caption read: “Today we had the honor of welcoming Congresswoman Michele Bachmann onto the campus of Patrick Henry College! She’s long been a hero of mine, and it was such a blessing to meet her!”

Ken Cuccinelli, Virginia’s recent attorney general, is another hero among PHC students. He spoke at graduation a few years back, and students campaigned for him in the Virginia governor’s race last year—some at the explicit request of current Associate Professor of Government Michael Haynes. (In case you were wondering, yes, Bachmann and Cuccinelli are typical of the guests who speak at the school, and no, Democrats don’t speak at Patrick Henry College. You would be hard pressed to find a single person, whether among the students or in the administration, who voted for Obama in the last election.)

Most of us probably don’t want to be held accountable for the candidates we supported during college—I certainly don’t. And professors have been steering their students to support their pet issues since . . . always. Rather, I mention the political bent of the student body to point out a strange fact:

To the majority of PHC students, individuals in power are inherently dangerous—unless they are PHC administrators, PHC professors, church leaders, or parents.

Somehow, critiques of PHC by current and former students have proven impervious to both the doctrine of original sin and the obviously cherished belief that absolute power corrupts absolutely. Instead, their response is “Chancellor Michael Farris couldn’t have done that,” “President Graham Walker wouldn’t be so heartless,” “Dean Sandy Corbitt is such a nice person”

. . . you get the idea.

To the majority (but not all) of PHC students, criticisms are the result of bitter, disillusioned, unsafe people who are bent on destroying a wonderful, godly institution, one of the last citadels of Christian academia. It’s a doe-eyed naiveté that has been a large part of the student body ever since I joined the PHC community in 2006—and yes, I was doe-eyed and naïve too. Once students become alumni things often change. Some grow out of it completely. Some partly grow out of it, recognizing that some parts of the PHC experience are harmful while failing to see the school’s larger, institutional problems. And some never grow out of it at all.

So when you read about PHC, know several things.

First, people’s impression of the school often changes dramatically. It’s called growing up.

Second, there is a chasm between the majority of current students and many alumni, a chasm I doubt we’ll ever bridge.

The “bitter” alumni are condemned by many current students as angry people acting on irrational hatred for the hard-working, god-fearing administration and faculty, an interpretation of reality that is actively promoted by Student Life under Dean Corbitt’s leadership. The “bitter” alumni, in turn, are frustrated by their detractors’ naïve belief that the administration and faculty are innocent. We don’t want to tell current students that they are too young and inexperienced to see what’s happening—because we hated being told that when we were students, and no one is wholly blind. But at the same time . . . when you have compiled eight years of incidents (in your own personal experience alone) where the administration misbehaved, it’s hard to take freshmen or sophomores seriously when they assure you that “such things never happen at PHC anymore.”

Mhmmmm. Right, kid. I used to think that too.

This is why writing about PHC is hard. There is constant friction between those who trust in the institution and those who don’t, leading to multiple interpretations of the same events. You’ve witnessed that over the past several weeks, as current students provided glowing reports of the school while alumni shared a different tale. Then there is a whole new culture to explain—after all, where else would your RA tell you that you have a “heart problem” because you wore jeans 10 minutes before dress code expired? And then there are so many possible topics, from the students’ arrogant belief that PHC provides a better education than the Ivy Leagues, to the school’s systematic adherence to traditional gender roles. So many daily indignities occur and the students are fed so much misinformation, it’s hard to know where to start.

So after sifting through a lot of topic possibilities, I decided to explain how I joined the “bitter” alumni.

Part Two >

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.

A Community of Grace: Elyssa Edwards’s Story

Homeschoolers U

I was pretty much the poster child to go to Patrick Henry College.

I wanted to attend there since I was 11 years old, my parents are on the state homeschool board, and I competed in the NCFCA – all classic characteristics of a standard PHC student.

PHC is a place like any other: it has its struggles, its difficulties, and its joys. As a rising sophomore, I don’t have a ton of experience with the school. But I do know this: the college is probably the most loving and accepting place I have ever seen.

Of course, PHC has its problems. In my opinion, the mandatory chapel five days a week can encourage stagnation in one’s own personal spiritual life. There is a serious problem with the amount of gossip on campus. There is way too much focus on romantic relationships. But of course, every place has its failings, and we can’t be too quick to judge a place based on of its failures alone.

Yet in spite of all these seeming failures, I left PHC after my first year with a renewed sense of hope. My first year in school was probably the hardest year of my life. I didn’t struggle with being homesick, and I didn’t struggle with the difficulty of the academic rigor of PHC. In fact, I found the work easier than I was expecting.

Rather, during my first year of college, my family dynamics completely changed while I was far away, so I didn’t know how to relate to my family. I injured myself more severely than I ever had before. My grandma passed away near the beginning of my second semester. There were several personal issues that I was dealing with. I was internalizing all this, and building up a huge emotional load that was breaking me. In addition to all this, I was taking 18 credits and working full time.

The students at PHC were amazing.

They ministered to me in ways that were unfathomable to me before I went to school. My RA took time out of her insanely busy schedule to listen to me and pray with me. My friends constantly made me do crazy things to try and cheer me up. During Sunday night worship, people would gather around and pray for people just generally, but it spoke to my heart. People would stop me on the sidewalk and ask me how I was, except they really actually wanted to know. My physics teacher taught us physics, but he also went beyond and showed us the interworkings of our world and just how much God actually cares for us. My US History professor just randomly commented to me one day, “In the 26 years I have been a Christian, God has never failed me yet.”

The people at PHC are human, yes. They make mistakes. But many of them truly want to be God’s hands and feet in our world.

And they do an amazing job of it, for they make Patrick Henry College a community of grace.