Thou shalt be like Bush

By Andrew Buncombe

By ANDREW BUNCOMBE

Patrick Henry College in rural Virginia is not your average American university. The students - about 75 per cent of whom have been taught at home - sign a statement before they arrive, confirming (among other things) that they have a literal belief in the teachings of the Bible. Students must obey a curfew, wear their hair neatly and dress "modestly".

If they wish to hold hands with a member of the opposite sex, they must do so while walking: standing while holding hands is not permitted. And students must sign an honour pledge that bans them from drinking alcohol unless under parental supervision.

Several Christian establishments across the United States enforce such a code. What makes this recently established, right-wing Christian college unique are the increasingly close - critics say alarmingly close - links it has with the Bush administration and the Republican establishment. This northern spring, of the almost 100 interns working in the White House, seven are from Patrick Henry. Another intern works for the Bush-Cheney re-election campaign, while another works for President George Bush's senior political adviser, Karl Rove. Yet another works for the Coalition Provisional Authority in Baghdad.

Over the past four years, 22 conservative members of Congress have employed one or more Patrick Henry interns.

Janet Ashcroft, the wife of Bush's Bible-thumping Attorney-General, is one of the college's trustees.

And this is no coincidence. Rather, it is the point. Students at Patrick Henry are on a mission to change the world: indeed, to lead the world. When, after four years or so, they leave their neatly kept campus, they do so with a drive and commitment to reshape their new environments according to the vision of their college.

The college's openly stated aim is to train young men and women "who will lead our nation and shape our culture with timeless biblical values".

Nancy Keenan, of the liberal campaign group People for the American Way, says: "The number of interns [from Patrick Henry] going into the White House scares me to death.

"People have a right to choose [where their children are educated], but we are concerned that they are not exposed to the kind of diversity this country has. They are training people with a limited ideological and political view. If these young people are going into positions of power, they have to govern with all people in mind, not just a limited number."

The staff and students at Patrick Henry College are extraordinarily pleasant. The campus lies in the small town of Purcellville, about 90 minutes' drive west of Washington DC. It is small - there are 240 students, all white - and dominated by one large building that houses the classrooms, library and cafeteria, where the students and staff take their meals.

On one wall is a copy of a famous painting of the revolutionary war hero after whom the college is named, 10 years before he made the "Give me liberty or give me death" speech for which he is best known. Students are required to attend chapel every morning.

The college was established four years ago by Michael Farris, who runs the Home School Legal Defence Association, set up in 1983 to promote the values of Christian home-schooling.

The association now has 81,000 families, each paying dues of $100. Last year, when George Bush signed legislation banning so-called "partial-birth abortion", Farris was one of five Christian conservatives invited to witness the act in the Oval Office.

The college gets so much money from right-wing Christian donors that it operates without debt and yet charges just US$15,000 ($22,200) a year for tuition - about US$10,000 ($16,100) less than comparable institutions.

Farris, who is also the president of Patrick Henry, was unavailable for an interview when we visited, but told The New York Times: "We are not home-schooling our kids just so they can read. The most common thing I hear is parents telling me that they want their kids to be on the Supreme Court. And if we put enough kids in the system, some may get through to the major leagues."

The man entrusted with the education of Patrick Henry's students is Paul Bonicelli, a former staffer on the House of Representatives international relations committee and now the college's dean of academic affairs.

He, too, is terribly pleasant. "I am just sorry that the most important thing we do did not get mentioned," he says, referring to an article in an American newspaper that focused on the strict behaviour code.

"And that is to provide a very good, liberal arts education." He adds: "I think the most important thing is our academic excellence, [and that we] combine it with a serious statement about our faith and values."

All members of the teaching faculty, too, have to sign a pledge stating that they share a generally literalist belief in the Bible. Oddly, only staff teaching biology and theology have to hold a literal view specifically of the six-day creation story.

And what is Bonicelli's view? He smiles. "I believe in six literal days, but I remain open to someone persuading me otherwise."

Internships or apprenticeships, which all students must do in their final year, form a major part of their courses. Many spend time working for Republican members of the House or Senate, or in the White House. Only one student has interned for a Democrat. "Most students' values don't link up with [those of] the Democrats," Bonicelli says.

"Values" are something the students here seem to think about an awful lot - values and focus.

"It's a very focused campus," confirms Marian Braaksma, 21, a charming, third-year creative and professional writing student, who was home-schooled by her parents in Arizona until the age of 18.

"We know why we are here and we want to learn everything we can here. The professors give us a great opportunity to learn. We do work awfully hard, more than most colleges."

But what about student life? What about having fun, what about those usual student experiences that one might struggle to enjoy while obeying the rule about hand-holding and walking?

"We do have fun, but it is not the sort of student life of a normal college," insists Braaksma. "There are no heavy parties, we have a curfew. But there are sports and games.

"It is a very musical college. We have a drama team. We also have a debate team that does very well. Mr Farris has said the debate team is our college sports team. Often we will stay up to welcome them back if they have been away debating against another college."

On a tour of the campus, we stopped to speak to Leeann Walker from San Diego, a 20-year-old due to be among the college's first students to graduate next month. Unlike most of the students, Walker was not homeschooled, but she had nothing but praise for her friends who were.

"I have found them to be some of the most responsible, most hardworking people I have ever met," she says.

Walker feels the college has prepared her for the real world. She is looking to work for one of the many conservative think-tanks in Washington. "The mindset of most students is of denial of reality. They want to stay in their own, self-centred world for as long as possible."

It was at this point, walking past the single-sex dormitories and the campaign posters of suited students running for college office, towards the main building, that one was struck with a sense of being on a film set. One could not help but recall the 1998 film Pleasantville, in which two teenagers are transported back to their parents' 1950s town.

The staff and students at Patrick Henry may laugh at this - if, that is, they have seen the film. The MTV and VH1 pop-culture channels are blocked from campus televisions because their contents are considered inappropriate. The students' computers are set up with a program called Covenant Eyes, which monitors the websites they visit.

There is something a little unsettling about Patrick Henry and the cultish devotion of its students. The establishment claims to challenge its students to think for themselves, yet establishes a fixed, rigid framework in which they are to operate.

But, to its critics, what is perhaps most striking about this small, influential college is its utter transparency. Patrick Henry College is an institution devoted to spreading its word, spreading its view of the world, and helping to place its students in positions of authority and influence. And it does so in plain view.

- INDEPENDENT

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