Required Reading: Faces of Fundamentalism

When I first saw notice for Jona Frank’s book I worried it was another callow safari-style tour of fundamentalism in America.  I worried that the photographer hoped to shock and titillate non-fundamentalists with photographs from a bizarre subculture.  While Right: Portraits from the Evangelical Ivy League does include some elements of that cultural-tourist mindset, overall Frank offers a rich collection of portraits that are well worth exploring.

The book is a collection of portraits of the students at the new Patrick Henry College.  The students at PHC usually come from conservative religious homeschooling families.  The raison d’etre of the school, after all, is to get conservative kids into influential positions in politics and culture.  When I first saw promo photographs from the book, it looked to me as if Frank hoped to emphasize the distinctive subcultural elements of these students.  Many of the students appear awkward and over-dressed.  Some look distinctly overstuffed and uptight, as if they are surprised to find themselves in twenty-first century America.

Juli, whose career goal is to be a homeschooling mom.

Juli, whose career goal is to be a homeschooling mom.

After spending some time with the book, I feel Frank deserves more credit.  She wrestles explicitly with these issues in her conclusion.  As she writes, the “assuredness” of PHC students “confuses me.”  As she put it,

I had vague notions that I would marry and have a family when I was twenty-two, but both were far off.  What I wanted was exploration, travel, stories, youth hostels and road trips, part-time jobs and film school.  Before commencement I yearned for freedom.  This is part of being young in American, or so I believed until I went to Patrick Henry.

It has to be a lot of pressure to have a daily conversation with yourself about how you will impact the world.  In some ways, it’s the summer of ’69 at PHC, and they experiencing their own counterculture.  Of course, they are not ripping off their shirts and taking LSD.  It’s much quieter, but it’s not less complex.  The world is a complicated place.  It’s at odds with the homes they grew up in, and they are holding fast to the ideals of a life they believe is right.

In this passage and elsewhere, Frank demonstrates her awareness of her own limited perspective.  Just because we make certain assumptions about what “college” is supposed to be like, we must not impose those assumptions on everyone.  This is true whether students attend a button-down fundamentalist school like Patrick Henry or whether students are working two jobs while taking classes at a local community-college campus.

For those of us trying to understand conservative thinking and practice in education, Frank’s book also contains valuable samples of student work and wonderfully lengthy interviews with students.  One student sample, by “Grace M.,” reported on David Aikman’s biography of George W. Bush.  As this student reported dutifully, as “Dubya” matured,

It became obvious that his faith and religious convictions were a pleasant aroma to Americans.

Maybe not the best prose, but no worse than much of the student work from the non-fundamentalist schools in which I’ve worked.

Some of the students sound as if they are simply parroting the party line.  Jeremiah, for example, related his understanding of the purpose of PHC.  The school’s mission, he told Frank, included

Impacting government, impacting the media, impacting Hollywood, the culture, the arts. . . . Now our heaviest focus is on government, but the long-term goal is to impact the media, the arts, television, and the movies.

To my ears, this sounds like the sort of indoctrination I’d fear at a fundamentalist school.  Teachers say something, and students repeat it.  But, to be fair, when I listen to many of my undergraduate students here at a highly selective pluralist public university, they often also sound as if they are just repeating back what they’ve been told.

And we see some evidence that PHC dives deeper into true intellectual diversity than do many secular schools.  Another student, Juli, explained why they read so many non-Christian and even anti-Christian writers.  Such writers as Nietzsche, Juli explained

May be absolutely wrong, but they are not foolish, so we can’t just mock them.

How many students at pluralist universities would say the same thing about writers they disagree with?  How many students even read the work of conservative intellectuals as part of their training?  As former New York mayor Michael Bloomberg recently accused, have too many mainstream colleges turned into liberal indoctrination mills?  Have fundamentalist schools like PHC become more intellectually diverse than mainstream colleges?

To be sure, Frank’s book also contains glimpses of more disturbing tendencies at PHC.  One student accused the leadership of being “Draconian, totalitarian, in regard to students and faculty.”  And Frank includes an image of a repressive-sounding “Bride’s Guide.”  Young women are offered the following tidbit of complementarian advice: “Be a Woman Who Is Willing to Give Up All your Dreams.”

To outsiders like me, that sounds shockingly sexist.  To her credit, Frank includes this sort of depressing anti-feminism alongside photographs of an engagement party in which the women seem joyful and wholly at peace with their complementarian commitments.  Frank seems aware that the “Bride’s Guides” might fulfill my stereotypes of harsh fundamentalist impositions, but she also seems aware that the students at PHC often confound my stereotypes by embracing such rules freely and healthily.

Of course, a book can only be so long, but I wish that Frank had explored the theme of institutional growing pains more deeply.  She notes the generational divide at work here.  Many of these students came from families who see themselves as homeschooling pioneers.  But in being part of the first decade of life at PHC, these students also take a role as pioneers.  As I explored in my 1920s book and plan to treat at more length in my upcoming higher-ed book, fundamentalist universities are similar to other organizations in many ways.  The first generation, under the direct leadership of a charismatic founder, has a unique set of challenges and problems.  PHC still lingers in that first phase of development.  It seems to me that Frank could have taken more time to explore that tension.

She might have looked at the history of evangelical higher ed, in which each successive generation has opened a new school meant to be a “fundamentalist Harvard.”  In the 1920s, it was Bob Jones University.  In 1970, it was Liberty University.  How does PHC echo those experiences?  How is it unique?  Frank seems disappointingly uninterested in those questions, or unaware of them.

Instead, Frank seems to play along with the school’s claim to be part of something new, a new “evangelical Ivy League.”  Why, when she is careful to hold the school’s other assumptions at arm’s length, does Frank simply accept this kind of description?  After all, a school founded in the past five years can’t fairly be compared to the Ivy League.  Those institutions have a unique place in elite circles.  No student from the real Ivy League would say that no one knows about their college, as one of the PHC students complained about PHC.  Though PHC’s students might have ambitions of taking a fast track to elite positions, the school itself is more bluster than reality at this point.  To accept the founder’s (and students’) claim that PHC represents the very best of evangelical higher education is to make a woeful misapprehension of the state of American evangelical culture.

Such quibbles should not deter readers from getting their hands on a copy of Frank’s book.  For those interested in exploring the world of conservative education, Right will be well worth your time.

 

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5 Comments

  1. PR

     /  June 10, 2014

    The “pleasant aroma” phrase might be bad prose, but it’s in the Bible:

    “For we are to God the pleasing aroma of Christ among those who are being saved and those who are perishing.”
    2 Corinthians 2:15 (NIV).

    I’m sure you’ve previously considered this sort of use of Biblical phrases – to those of us who were brought up fundamentalist, the “dog whistle” effect is surprisingly strong.

    Reply
    • Ohhhhh…that’s what I get for wasting my youth memorizing the lyrics to the Gilligan’s Island theme song instead of reading the Bible.

      Reply
  2. Ha! A dog whistle. Perfect analogy!

    Reply
  1. Which Christian College Should My Kid Attend? | I Love You but You're Going to Hell

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