The Liberal Arts Education of Patrick Henry College

John ArmstrongAmerican Evangelicalism

Patrick Henry College, a rural Virginia school of only three hundred students, has been making big news lately. This very conservative Christian school only has sixteen faculty members and five of their professors left this month. Others are thinking about leaving soon. What is the problem? The faculty is having trouble with the president’s understanding of what a liberal arts college does with the liberal arts.

The founder and president of Patrick Henry College is Michael P. Ferris, a fairly well-known conservative attorney with a long-standing commitment to, and legal defense of, home schooling. Indeed, Patrick Henry College aims at home school graduates as their target audience. Ferris expresses deep commitment to teaching a “biblical world view” and openly desires to train graduates who will become movers and shakers in the culture. (World magazine has featured news on the school on several occasions.) Some Patrick Henry students have even interned with noteworthy conservative political leaders such as Karl Rove, Tom DeLay and Bill Frist. The problem at Patrick Henry College is that Michael P. Ferris understands the idea of a “biblical world view” in the narrowest of ways. Professor Todd M. Bates, who quoted St. Augustine in a formal campus lecture, was threatened by the president and then fired (the faculty is non-tenured) for not repenting of his mistake. Religion critic Martin Marty reported this week that in Patrick Henry College’s vision of liberal arts St. Augustine is ruled off campus and in hell as a pagan!

Dr. Marty further refers to “the single-minded and even obsessive character of this training school for tomorrow’s right wing leadership.” I believe home schooling is a serious and worthy option for Christian families. I also believe Michael Ferris has no understanding of classical Christianity and the role of a nuanced and wisely developed “biblical world view.” What makes this issue important is that there are large numbers of conservative Christians who find this type of emphasis compelling. We must teach the Bible, and as Protestants we should believe that it has authority for all of faith and practice, but Michael Ferris’ position is really a brand of fundamentalism that is neither Protestant nor Christian. And it will never build a liberal arts environment in which a healthy approach to public policy can be advanced. I believe this school is on the margins of American society and hope it remains there. If it has any real influence in Washington it will not be for good in the big picture. Until conservatives distance themselves from this kind of approach they will never be taken seriously or have a real contribution to make to society and culture.