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College Is Planned for Home Schoolers

Mike Farris, TWP
Michael Farris surveys the grounds where the future Patrick Henry College for home-schooled students is to be built in Purcellville, Va. (Bill O'Leary The Post)
By Hanna Rosin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, September 26, 1999; Page A3

Earlier this month, construction crews broke ground in Purcellville, Va., for a new experiment in Christian education: the first college designed specifically for home-schooled students.

As the tractors whirred and crunched their way through the saplings, the school's founder, Michael Farris, laid out his vision of a future that sounded very much like the past. By the fall of 2000, when the first students arrive at Patrick Henry College, there will be two "colonial Williamsburg-style dorms" at opposite ends of the field, one for girls and one for boys, explained Farris, 48, a founder of the national home-school movement and a fixture on Virginia's religious right scene.

Having been schooled at home by their Christian parents, students will be comfortable with the college's benign authority and all it demands, said Farris. They will dress modestly and go to chapel once a day. They will not drink or do drugs or date, but instead will subscribe to Christian rules of courtship, in which a boy asks the girl's parents for permission first and declares his intentions quickly.

To some, it looks like an Amish daydream, a sleepy place for home schoolers to shut out the world and sustain their youthful innocence long past the natural time. "Eighteen is the traditional age when we're expected to go out into the big bad world and make our own decisions," said Mark Rozell, a professor at Catholic University who wrote a book about Virginia's Christian right leaders, including Farris. "The great danger is, at what point do these people become integrated into the mainstream?"

But Farris does not envision the school as a plastic bubble protecting students from the outside world--far from it. As he imagines it, the secluded campus will act as a training ground for the future Christian vanguard. Just as the Highlander Folk School turned out civil rights activists like Rosa Parks in the 1960s, Patrick Henry will prepare the next generation of young Christian agitators.

Pamphlets lay out the school's mission bluntly: All the students will be government majors, striving to "transform America" by finding high-level staff positions in government as a preparation to run for office. "PHC graduates," one brochure boasts, "will eventually hold some of the highest offices in the land."

Patrick Henry's emphasis on training future activists and politicians will set it apart from other Christian colleges. The school plans to resurrect an old apprenticeship model of teaching, where students work one on one with teachers to learn practical real-world experience. Its student body will be limited to 200, with at least 10 full-time teachers, each one a model of Christian living.

"It's more personal," said Jacob. "Instead of just book knowledge, we'll give them wisdom and experience so they'll be ready to hit the ground running, go into a job and do it from day one."

For the father of home schooling, this educational experiment seems a logical next step. Since the mid-1980s, when parents won the right to keep their children out of what they saw as corrupting public schools, the number of home-schooled children has shot up from a few hundred to 1.5 million--a cohort about the size of New Jersey's school system. Now those children are coming of age and their parents want somewhere to send them.

"Parents were constantly asking us, 'We've done all this, we've raised our kids with our values and standards, now where do we send them?' " said Farris, who home-schooled all 10 of his children, the first of whom just graduated from college. "There are really only a handful of places we felt comfortable with, not even that many."

The plan to build Patrick Henry now places Farris at the center of a debate about the religious right in modern America: Is the college a symbol of the movement's retreat into a parallel counterculture? Or does it represent a new effort to transform secular society?

For Farris and his co-founder, Bradley Jacob, the answer is clear. "This will not be a place for young people to hide from the world," said Jacob, who will be the school's provost. "We are not trying to shelter them from everything. We want them to leave college with strong values and be able to function in any environment."

In the debate over Christians' involvement in politics, he added, "we are solidly in the camp that Christians should be engaged, that they should be running for higher office."

Still, standing in the 43-acre sylvan glade that is the college's future site, it is easy to imagine Patrick Henry as a secluded world, apart from space and time. The 100 students expected to enroll for the first year will pass through an oval driveway into a replica of Harvard in its early days, protected from Route 287 by a thick grove of oaks and maples.

For the main building, a library and four dorm units, the school needs to raise $10 million by next year. So far $5 million has come from Farris's Home School Legal Defense Association, and the school has raised an additional $1 million on its own, from home-schooling families and other sources. Farris said the school won't borrow money or take any government funding.

The school will not be like some Christian colleges, where students drink and party, acting no better than the unsaved, said Farris and Jacob. Instead of finding what God has called them to do, some Christian students are focused on "how can I get the big bucks after I graduate," said Jacob. Other Christian schools are "too legalistic," said Farris, fixating on dress codes and rules instead of the spirit.

"We're not looking for people who say, 'Sure I'm a Christian, I went to church a few times,' " said Jacob. "I'm reluctant to use evangelical jargon, but we're looking for people who are born again, where being a serious Christian has made a difference in their life." The application will ask: "Please describe your personal relationship with Jesus Christ."

Patrick Henry will foster a "family-affirming culture," said Farris, prepping kids for stable jobs and, just as important, stable marriages. The aim is to splice out that period known as teenage rebellion, or youthful indiscretion--a stage of life Christian home schoolers consider a false construct of liberal education. "We want to take people coming out of strong families and equip them to build their own."

Farris has called dating "serial infidelity," and will not allow it at Patrick Henry. Instead students will follow the "courtship model" preferred by conservative Christian families. A boy interested in a girl will have to write, call or e-mail her parents. If they approve, the two can get to know each other by going out in large groups. The aim is not just to "have a good time," said Farris, but to "look at that person as a life partner."

The strategy is already "test marketed," he said. About a third of the employees at his Home School Defense Association are home-schooled, including the interns. So far, they've celebrated several marriages among them and suffered "no pregnant interns."

The school will apply for accreditation, both from the state and the region. When that comes, Farris said, they'll start up the law school, which they hope to get approved by the American Bar Association.

The curriculum will be Bible-centered, meaning "every subject will be analyzed from a Christian viewpoint," said Jacob. Science classes will teach about evolution, said Farris, in order to "explain why it's wrong." All literature will be evaluated for whether it promotes Biblical values.

Law and government classes will make up the school's core, and will emphasize Christian political concerns such as Roe v. Wade and gay rights. "Few students will know more about the political ramifications of reinforcing homosexuality through special rights than ours," said Farris. Every evening students are expected to gather for a town hall meeting modeled on colonial New England to hone their government leadership skills.

The inspiration for the school came not merely from eager parents but from congressmen seeking "sharp home schoolers" to work in their D.C. offices, said Farris. The school brochures display a strong focus on placing graduates in prominent government jobs; most students will be expected to earn part of their credit by taking on substantive projects for national and local legislators.

"In the future, we believe that many of our graduates will join the ranks of 84 former [congressional] staffers who are now members of Congress," one brochure reads.

The school's fixation on government seems partly a response to Farris's own experience in running for office. When he ran for lieutenant governor of Virginia in 1993, and again when he briefly considered challenging John Warner for the Senate in 1996, past extremism came back to haunt Farris. Opponents reminded voters of the times he called public schools a "godless monstrosity," or wrote that "wives have a duty to be a loving and submissive aid to their husbands."

Farris now hopes to train students to be statesmen as well as agitators, to fight from within while keeping their ideals intact. Farris's vision is a candidate who can "travel through a political campaign with their Christian testimony intact," he said. Looking out at the newly mown field where his college will stand, Farris imagined a day, many years from now, when he will stop by to chat with a visiting guest speaker: President So and So, alumnus of Patrick Henry College.

© 1999 The Washington Post Company

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