The Economist
February 26, 2004

A University for Homeschoolers

The Economist
February 26, 2004

If any building symbolizes the ambition of the homeschooling movement, it is Patrick Henry College in suburban Virginia. This conservative university, which opened in 2000, may have only 242 students; but it plans to expand its undergraduate school to 1,600 and to add a law school of 400. More than four in five of its students are homeschooled.

The college's two passions are "liberty and God". Its walls are covered with portraits of the Founding Fathers, with dormitories named after their houses (Monticello, Mount Vernon and so on). Although lively debate goes on between the college's Jeffersonians and Hamiltonians about exactly how small the government should be, the general idea is that it should be tiny. The college gets no government money.

Yet religion is also omnipresent. The ubiquitous pictures of the Founding Fathers often show them in prayer: Washington, for example, on bended knee at Valley Forge. The college has copies of the first prayer said in Congress. One of its roads is called "Covenant Drive". Student applicants have to write an essay describing their "relationship with Jesus Christ and [their] personal walk of faith", and the professors sign a "Statement of Biblical Worldview" that emphasizes the literal truth of the Virgin birth and the creationists' account of the origins of the universe. Alcohol and tobacco are banned, and students are strongly encouraged to involve their parents if they start a relationship with another student. The college's founder, Michael Farris, describes the place as "a refuge from sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll. Well, at least sex and drugs."

The college wants to produce not just good Christians, but effective ones. "Just as your parents' calling was to turn around a generation for Christ," Mr Farris tells his charges, "your calling is to turn our nation back to a Godly foundation." The academic dean, Paul Bonicelli, thinks that Christian schools ought to put as much emphasis on academic excellence as on spiritual values. Patrick Henry's curriculum includes philosophy, logic, a foreign language, history, biblical studies, economics, literature, sciences, Euclidian geometry and classical Greek or Latin.

The students practise confronting alternative world views. One student mounted a successful campaign, as part of his college course, to close the adult section of a local video store. "I do not want a graduate's first encounter with nihilism or materialism to be at a banquet on Capitol Hill surrounded by atheists and worldly antagonists," says Robert Stacey, chairman of the government department. Students have been dispatched to work as interns in Karl Rove's White House office and on Capitol Hill, and one graduate now works in Paul Bremer's office in Iraq. The college is also considering setting up a film school, having already brought in members of a Christian screenwriters' group in Hollywood to teach a class in screenwriting.

Despite this abiding sense of mission, the students are far from identikit conservatives. Steven, for instance, who was homeschooled in Midland, Texas, litters his conversation with references to Michel Foucault and is so worried about his home state's "over-application" of the death penalty that he wants to get a job with an organization that seeks to reform, though not abolish, it. Several students admit to being puzzled by much of George Bush's foreign policy and by the divisions between America and Europe.

That said, their political sympathies are clearly with the president. "I just like the guy," explains Abigail, who thanks God that Mr Bush was in office on September 11th. Kristen hopes to work for the Bush re-election campaign, and in the longer term she plans to focus on foreign policy. She believes that Christians have opted out of the debate, and should use their God-given talents to reshape global institutions in the same way as they have remolded domestic policy.

Patrick Henry makes no secret of its links with the wider conservative movement. There are signed Christmas cards from the Bushes. Ian Slatter, the college's press officer, used to work for the WEEKLY STANDARD, a conservative magazine. Mr Bonicelli displays a NATIONAL REVIEW cover showing John Ashcroft with devil's horns under the slogan "Every liberal's favorite devil", with the picture signed by the Devil himself. Mr Ashcroft's wife is on Patrick Henry's board of trustees.