Right: Portraits from the Evangelical Ivy League, Jona Frank. (Chronicle Books) $35
Life as a student at Patrick Henry College is far from the images of beer pong and late morning snoozing that most of us conjure in recalling our university days. Patrick Henry is a school on a mission to return what they see as a lost America to the conservative evangelical fold. Its students are made up primarily of home schoolers and already its vast network of influential Americans has landed many of its graduates high powered jobs where they intend to carry on their alma mater’s mission. Their rising influence alone is enough to cause curiosity from those on the outside, but the cool-headed ease with which they engage the secular culture and maintain their own subculture is puzzling. It transcends the escapist nature of most religiously conservative groups. Jona Frank takes readers on a journey into the DNA of Patrick Henry College. Through a series of student interviews, portraits and personal assignments, the reader glimpses into the lives of the students: where they come from, where they hope to go, and what it means to be a part Patrick Henry.
Frank personalizes student portraits by publishing alongside them personal assignments or notes. Jeremiah, a 22 year old government major who still exudes a pubescent air, is pictured with a practiced half smile resting against a long desk in immaculately empty classroom. Next to this scene is his own handwritten list of heroes. Lacking a proper title, the list is headed, “If God can use them with their weakness, flaws, and sin… I praise Him that He can use me.” While list members are diverse in occupation and renown they all hold in common two essential characteristics: Christian beliefs and an ability to overcome the odds to achieve greatness—the very same virtues found among most of Patrick Henry’s student body. It is what makes the school’s mission and the students that attend it so interesting: they’ve found a way to engage the culture while still clinging to conservative practice. Frank collected these thoughts from Justin, a 19 year old government major on the subject: “Academic institutions have either rejected Christian principles or the other extreme: Christian institutions have rejected culture… Patrick Henry equips us to take his [god’s] name into whatever work we do in the world.” But the kind of careers that these ambitious students seek and their superiors encourage are just the opposite of “whatever work.” Most are positioned for
high-powered jobs in politics, entertainment, and the media, a fact which school founder Michael Farris touts as one of Patrick Henry’s best selling points. Government
major, Elissa, is featured on the school grounds’ sprawling lawns in a khaki overcoat,
wedding ring displayed prominently, emanating a pleasant maturity most college seniors have yet to develop. At only twenty-two she has already interned for politician
Karl Rove. Readers will discover in Frank’s chapter titled “Interns” that she’s not alone in her exceptional accomplishments. Her Patrick Henry peers have—even before graduation—managed senatorial campaigns, worked for the White House and at the assignment desk for Fox News.
From Frank’s perspective though, Patrick Henry isn’t just a breeding ground for America’s next top senator. The atmosphere lends itself to a personal moral code much more Victorian Era than twenty-first century. Vices like alcohol, drugs, and premarital sex are shunned, and respect for authorities, honesty, and biblical conflict resolution are endorsed according to a proposed honor code that Frank includes. Delving further into the collective psyche of the student body, Frank visits and photographs students’ families. Eighteen year old freshman Juli, an education and classical liberal arts major is pictured with her family during Christmas break. Aside from the family portrait, the girls dawning long prairie-style jean dresses, Frank photographs the bare walls of her parents room—the area used for school study. Unlike many of her classmates, Juli doesn’t aspire to an influential job in the secular world, she hopes to be a home school mother and to support her husband. Don’t be fooled though, Juli’s no dummy: she loves philosophy and studying the greats like Plato, Nietzsche, Kant, and Kierkegaard, and being exposed to ideas she didn’t encounter during her education at home. She says,
We learn the ideas that are going around today and influencing the world today… we are learning about them in a scholastic manner, which means these are legitimate thought positions. They may be absolutely wrong, but they are not foolish, so we can’t just mock them… There’s a broadening of the mind, and with all the reading we get to do, I am getting such a wide base of knowledge.
On the opposite end of the spectrum Frank discovers twenty-one-year-old Kimbell. She’s pictured lying leisurely on the grass with her boyfriend Caleb. The pair represent the more liberal faction on campus. In an interview with Frank she says, “…some conservatives are still living in the prairie days, with jean dresses, when women shouldn’t speak in chapel. And then there’s other conservatives who say, ‘Hey, this is the 21st century—we can still be God-honoring and love him with all our hearts but be more acclimated to society.’” Together with Caleb, who is struggling with cystic fibrosis and diabetes, the two would like to see the student code changed—for rules like “no alcohol” to be changed “no abuse of alcohol.” Her parents, who sent her to Patrick Henry, have since encouraged her to leave for a more “normal” college experience, but she seems to have found peace both with the school and in her relationship with Caleb.
Frank has creatively used fold-out pages to great effect, featuring, for example, all eleven family members of Patrick Henry student Nathan, side by side in a spliced panorama, as if at a Last Supper-style table. Hannah Rosin (author of the non-fiction God’s Harvard, also about Patrick Henry) and Colin Westerbeck’s essays accompany the photographs well. Along with Frank, the three commentators approach the school with a generosity afforded only by the truest of curiosities—one deeply invested in the humanity of their subjects.