Home And Away

October 01, 2000 5 min read

The first Monday in October, notable as the starting date for Supreme Court terms, also marks the debut of Patrick Henry College, the nation’s first college for homeschoolers. Construction delays at the new campus in rural Purcellville, Virginia, are responsible for the college’s late-starting school year. (In a funny twist of fate, many students’ first weeks away from home will be spent living with local families as they wait for dorms to be finished.) However, it seems appropriate that Patrick Henry’s doors should open on an important date in the political calendar, as government is currently the only major offered and the college’s founder, Michael Farris, intends the school to prepare students for political careers through which they can fight for Christian causes.

The college is the latest contribution of Farris—an ordained minister, constitutional lawyer, one-time Republican candidate for Virginia lieutenant governor, and founder of the Home School Legal Defense Association—to the homeschooling movement. Refusing federal funds, he’s raised $6.3 million for Patrick Henry, which offers homeschool graduates a curriculum designed around Christian moral values, the study of classical liberal arts, and an innovative apprenticeship program. About 80 students, two-thirds of them freshman, have enrolled. (In the United States, an estimated 1.5 million students are homeschooled.) The students pay $15,000 in fees and agree to adhere to a strict social code that includes attendance at daily chapel services, a ban on alcohol, and limits on casual dating.

The arrival of a homeschoolers’ college is an example of a “curious” trend, says Peter Magnuson, spokesman for the Alexandria, Virginia-based National Association of Elementary School Principals. “Homeschool parents are coming together in someone’s house or on the Internet for specialized instruction—it’s the antithesis of what they were originally trying to do.”

College officials certainly don’t seem apprehensive about how students accustomed to one-on-one attention will interact in an institutional setting. “Anecdotal evidence from all over the country says that adjusting won’t be a problem,” Farris says. “Homeschoolers’ personalities run the same range as other people, from shy to aggressive. To some degree, there’s a cockiness that flows” from being self-starters, “but we can ameliorate this.” Adds the man who homeschooled his 10 children: “Homeschoolers have been going off to all kinds of colleges without difficulty. They’ve been trained to get along in the most exacerbating crucible of all—the family.”

The issue has been discussed, and adjustment need not be traumatic, says Paul Bonicelli, chairman of Patrick Henry’s government department. “These students won’t be getting eight hours a day of lectures. They’ll go to three or four classes a day” (usually with 25 or fewer students) and then study alone, work at a part-time job, or participate in extracurricular activities. Like all Patrick Henry faculty (recruited through advertisements in homeschooling publications and the Chronicle of Higher Education), Bonicelli has experience with the homeschooled—specifically, his niece and nephew. Far from being shy and withdrawn, these students tend to be “extra-analytical and impatient doers,” he says, “so I’m more concerned about how to control the discussion so that each learns to share the floor.” He points out that structured competitive debating is the most popular extracurricular among homeschoolers.

Patrick Henry students will get plenty of personal attention in the apprentice program during their junior and senior years. It’s built around writing policy papers on issues raised by local politicians and members of Congress, all 535 of whom will be approached for suggestions. Much of the professors’ time will be spent supervising each student’s preparation of more than 20 papers, the best of which will be delivered to the politicians. “The goal is to mimic a public policy job as best you can,” Bonicelli says. “Homeschooling has long stressed that kind of learning.”

The apprenticeship was the college’s main draw for Eric Papetti, a freshman from Huntsville, Alabama. “It set Patrick Henry apart from any other college I looked at,” he said. “It will let us put our book learning into practice.” Brian von Duyke, a freshman from Newark, Delaware, was attracted to the college because he believes he’ll work closely with teachers. “The professors have relationships in the work world that would take you years to develop,” he says. Other students like the faculty’s religious orientation.

Critics of homeschooling (both national teachers unions are skeptical, though only the National Education Association officially stands against it) have long argued that homeschooled children miss out on social life and specialized academics such as special education and foreign languages. The introduction of a college for homeschoolers just ups the ante, some say. “What happens to society if people stay to themselves and their own kind and don’t mix with people who have different values and attitudes?” asks Paul Houston, executive director of the Arlington, Virginia-based American Association of School Administrators. “Typically you go to a university to get exposed to the ideas of other worlds,” he says. “Will they now create a homeschoolers’ graduate school, or a company for homeschoolers to work for? When will they meet reality?”

Farris doesn’t think it’s bad that his students will miss out on typical college social life. “Lots of colleges have this assumption that kids have to sow their wild oats with sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll, but where is it written that you have to get drunk Friday night?” asks Farris. “I think it’s fallacious that kids have to go through that phase.”

Furthermore, he says, homeschoolers have no problem blending in with society as adults. “My response to critics is, ‘Don’t send your children here,’ ” says Farris. “The reason the United States has a K-12 system that is a joke but has the best higher education system in the world is competition, diversity, and free choice. Honest people will applaud us for adding another thread to the fabric of American higher education.”

—Charles S. Clark