Jona Frank’s recent work of photojournalism, Right: Portraits from the Evangelical Ivy League, uses images to explore the world of Patrick Henry College. Patrick Henry is a four-year college founded in 2000 by Michael Ferris specifically to be “the Christian equivelant of the Ivy League,” as journalist Hanna Rosin writes in her introduction.
I discovered Right through this photo essay at Mother Jones (if you’re interested in seeing some of the images from the book) and since I’ve read Hanna Rosin’s earlier book on the subject — and am fascinated with home education and the Christian right generally — I knew I had to check out the book. Despite the fact Hanna looked askance when I brought it home.
This is actually going to be a two-part review. The second part focuses on a lengthy quotation from one of the student interviews; watch for that coming in a couple of days. Here, I’d like to make a couple observations about the way in which the photographer and two essayists (Hanna Rosin and Colin Westerbeck) approach their subject.
I am not practiced in visual analysis, and therefore feel slightly out of my depth in reviewing a book composed largely of images. The photographs are largely composed, rather than action shots, and highlight individual students, some of whom are photographed multiple times and several of whom were interviewed, with their responses providing text for the book.
I was left with the distinct feeling that the photographer and contributors (Rosin and Westerbeck) had missed an opportunity to really unpack some of the complexity of their subject. This is a frequent frustration I have with treatments of both the modern home education movement and recent American religious history: that both get characterized in broad strokes with little attention to nuance, and taken at once too seriously as a potential threat to mainstream society and treated gingerly as mysterious outliers rather than human beings with real effect on our world.
Rosin, as I have pointed out before, consistently collapses all home educators under the umbrella of Christian evangelical right-wing homeschooling — a lack of distinction that does a disservice both to the practice of home education and to the specific experience of those who home educate for explicitly Christian reasons. “The homeschooling movement,” she writes, for example, “is full of nostalgia for a prelapsarian age, before the Pull or even sewing machines. The result is that sometimes families seem frozen in an indeterminate earlier time” (9). While skepticism about the effects of modernity and industrialization on human life is certainly present in some homeschooling families, on the political left as well as the political right, I would argue that it is reductionist to speak of The Homeschooling Movement as a singular entity with one philosophical orientation toward technological and social change.
Likewise, I was struck by the wariness that Frank brought to her project, as voiced in her own narrative essay toward the end of the book. She describes the difficulty of creating portraits of young people groomed for public service and intensely conscious of the image they are projecting in the outside world. She then turns to the uneasiness that the self-assurance of these young people engenders in her.
Elisa, in her trench coat, is self-assured and ready . . . One month after this photo was taken, she will be married, her name changed, school will be over, and she will be in her life, on her path. She’s done everything right. Yet when I look at that picture, I feel concern for her. It all seems so fast and she seems so young. But herein lies my fascination with the sense of assuredness these kids possess. Maybe she is not so young. Maybe she is tired of waiting.
The assuredness confuses me. 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 commitment I yearned for freedom. This is part of being young in America, or so I believed, until I went to Patrick Henry (143).
I appreciate Frank’s candidness about her own complex response to the different path to adulthood that Patrick Henry students have taken: home educated young people, particularly those who come from families that take a critical stance to mainstream American culture (regardless of political orientation) often do reject notions of adolescence that are so ingrained in the American psyche that they seem commonsensical. For example, the idea that adolescence and young adulthood are “naturally” a period of rebellion and freedom from “commitment” — and that somehow that lack of commitment to experiences that are coded “adult” experiences (marriage, parenthood, careers) is crucial to identity formation.
I would argue, instead, that it is an experience perhaps crucial to a certain kind of identity formation. One with think of as natural, perhaps inevitable. The normal state of being. Home-educated young people often make the world aware, simply by their presence, how much of what we take to be “normal” is, in fact, a product of particular decisions about childcare, education, and the expected path to full participation in society. As a feminist, I really do believe in the personal and political are interconnected.Certainly there are connections to be made between the chosen life path of Patrick Henry students and their (by and large, although not monolitic) right-wing politics. Yet the correlation is far from uniform. We can, after all, be just as self-assured about following life trajectory wholly at odds with the ideals that Patrick Henry students espouse.
Who knows. Maybe there’s a book to be written there somewhere. Maybe someday I’ll end up writing it myself.