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Tales Of Two Harvards

Nov 22, 2007
Journalist Hanna Rosin has written God's Harvard, a wonderful book about Patrick Henry College, a Christian school that its chancellor calls "a Harvard for the home-schooled."

Rosin, who has covered religion and politics for the Washington Post, has crafted an insightful -- some of more moderate or liberal political persuasions might find scary -- story of a relatively new institution, one that has a mission of preparing an "evangelical elite" for political leadership.

Until I read God's Harvard, I had not known of a religiously oriented school so driven in this mission. Historically religious institutions, including national universities such as Notre Dame were founded to train spiritual leaders. While they still take spiritual leadership seriously, such schools have long embraced a much broader academic agenda, including pre-professional training. Teachers do not need to be of the same faith as the order that leads the school. Notre Dame, for instance, boasts highly regarded business and law schools that welcome men and women of all faiths, so do sister institutions such as Boston College and Georgetown.

Patrick Henry College places literal interpretation of the Bible and approved classical literature front and center in its academic curricula. The institution seeks faculty who agree, in writing, to make that commitment. That does not make it different from the 105 schools in the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities -- of which Patrick Henry and well-publicized Christian institutions such as Bob Jones University and Liberty University are not members. The school embraces discipline, to keep young people from temptation, but so do other Christian schools. The drive to place students and alumni into the upper reaches of political and media power sets Patrick Henry apart.

Founded in 2000, Patrick Henry College is a very small school, only 300 full-time students, and very selective. SAT scores of enrolled students range just below Ivy Leaguers. Their students, it appears from reading God's Harvard, are no less bright and inquisitive as their peers at Harvard in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

For curiosity's sake, I read Rosin's book back to back with Excellence Without A Soul, a critical reflection of undergraduate education at Harvard, written by Harry R. Lewis, former Dean of Harvard College. While Rosin is a journalist and Lewis is a mathematician and college administrator, they both presented some interesting contrast between God's Harvard and the nation's oldest, and probably most academically recognized university.

Harvard, in Massachusetts, was interestingly enough, founded as a divinity school for the purpose of training ministers. Students who did not desire to become spiritual leaders took the same classes as those who did. While Harvard has such roots, it has long been thought to be a secular institution.

Dean Lewis touches on several concerns for Harvard: a struggle to define the school's intellectual and moral purpose in a consumerist higher education marketplace; professors are hired for their scholarly accomplishments, and not to be mentors to the young and confused, while the school espouses otherwise, and, he adds that "colleges no longer do a good job of helping students grow-up" because they have had to become surrogate parents. He also discusses the need to incorporate civic values in undergraduate education.

Going on the stories in Rosin's book, I'd say that Patrick Henry College has no such problems.

Harvard's undergraduate school is a liberal arts school; there is considerable freedom to select courses and distribution requirements are not terribly confining. Dean Lewis appears to believe in the liberal arts and general education requirements that form "part of the student's whole education which looks first to all his life as a responsible human being and citizen."

Lewis appears, in his book, to say that a liberal arts education is no longer appreciated by Harvard students, or their families, although the value of the good name of Harvard is still respected. He talks of hovering or "helicopter parents" who expect satisfaction for their money and their child, and question the university's practices and judgment, in name of value, to protect their investment.

Lewis also speaks of liberal education as "a period in which young people can be freed from the presumptions and prejudices with which they were once raised, freed by the power of ideas to pursue their own path in life." Going on his writing, I have to be more impressed by Harvard students and alumni than I had been before I opened this book. They are bright, motivated and successful, even in a setting where there has been grade inflation and few pats on the back from the faculty.

By contrast, Patrick Henry, an institution that targets bright home-schooled students has little choice but to reach out to parents; their children have not been taught alongside peers in more traditional public and private schools. If I were a father who had home-schooled my children for several years, I would want to know about the academic program and student life of the prospective college that my son or daughter might attend. I would also want to know if my values would be carried forward away from home.

Harvard and Patrick Henry do share similar motives: to select students who will make a difference. However, Patrick Henry reminds them that they will; their faculty and administration will give their students a pat on the back, or a kick in the toukis when necessary.

I did business with colleges and universities for almost a decade, at a time of great technological change and values-driven politics -- both family values and financial values. I am impressed by the institutions that find their niche and stick with it instead of trying to be all things to all students.

You'd be surprised which institutions do well to stick to their knitting. I can name names, and I can tell you that Harvard is not one of those institutions, but based on Rosin's book, I'll add Patrick Henry on my list.

I may not agree with the politics of the institution, but I cannot deny that their students, parents, faculty and administrators are joined in a common mission. Evangelical political leadership is not going away; those who served the departing administration will lie in wait as legislative aides, journalists, researchers and lobbyists until they have a new leader in the White House.

That does not mean that Harvard is not a great university -- that has been proven statistically and otherwise, time and time again -- and its community has been the impetus for its greatness. However, traditional colleges and universities have too often looked to Harvard as a benchmark or a model, even when it has not been Harvard's mission to set the missions for other schools to follow.

That makes little sense; you might be able to duplicate the Harvard's academic pressure, but you cannot duplicate the Harvard community. It's better for colleges to find their own way, as Patrick Henry has done, and let Harvard be Harvard.
About the Author
Stuart Nachbar has been involved with education politics, policy and technology as a student, urban planner, government affairs manager, software executive, and now as author of The Sex Ed Chronicles. Visit his blog, Educated Quest
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