Sun., Oct. 22, 2006
MOSCOW – The newest college on the Palouse is trying to return to some old ideas. Students at New Saint Andrews College learn ancient languages and read heavily from the Western canon, in a curriculum based on Calvinist theology. There’s no such thing as a major. Most exams are oral. School officials say it’s an effort to return to a classical model of higher education.
A modern university education, said college President Roy Atwood, with its emphasis on elective majors and job preparation, is “only going to train people to be widgets, and plug into low-paying jobs. It’s not going to train people to be leaders and visionaries.”
New Saint Andrews College is part of a model of classical Christian education that is growing from minister Douglas Wilson’s controversial Christ Church. It has gotten some recent national attention, being cited among the top 50 conservative Christian colleges in the country by the Intercollegiate Studies Group just 12 years after it started with four students.
But for years now, critics have said the small college in downtown Moscow – and Christ Church – want to revive some older ideas that are less benign, such as the natural authority of men, hostility toward gays and lesbians, and a desire to restore a Southern confederacy, with voting rights reserved for landowners.
In the 1990s, Wilson co-authored a pamphlet on slavery that described it as “a relationship based upon mutual affection and confidence.” Two years ago, the Southern Poverty Law Center published a story on the college and the church organization behind it, titled, “Taliban on the Palouse?”
Nick Gier, a retired University of Idaho professor, has been an outspoken critic of the school, questioning the quality of the faculty and urging the UI not to accept transfer credits from the school.
“They are very, very specialized courses, slanted toward one point of view,” he said last week. “They are not academically sound.”
New Saint Andrews and Christ Church have been involved in controversy after controversy in Moscow, ranging from a battle over church affiliates’ tax-exempt status to recent complaints about how the school handled a case of sex abuse by a student. The debate rages on community list-serves and blogs and is often fierce and personal.
School officials say critics have distorted facts and acted out of personal or ideological hostility toward the church’s conservative views.
“The accusation that we’re neo-confederate is laughably stupid,” Atwood said.
Wilson echoed that comment but said he might be fairly described as “paleo-confederate” – favoring many ideas of the Southern confederacy, such as agrarian living, opposition to a strong central government, voting based on property ownership and a focus on traditional family and community, but not slavery.
Wilson, who’s lived on and off in Moscow since 1971 and teaches at New Saint Andrews, says the controversies are offshoots of larger cultural battles.
“As long as I’ve been here, Moscow has prided itself on being a progressive, liberal town in the middle of a hugely conservative state,” Wilson said. “In microcosm, what we have here is a clash of worldviews.”
A lot of Latin
Kathryn Garfield is a 19-year-old Moscow woman with about a decade of Latin under her belt – first during her education at Logos School, the K-12 school of Christ Church, and now as a sophomore at New Saint Andrews. “I’ve had to take Latin since third grade,” she said.
Garfield is one of roughly 150 students who take classes at New Saint Andrews. She’s grown up in Christ Church and said she believes strongly in the values and benefits of a Christian education. Were she to take classes at a public university, she said, she’d likely encounter an atmosphere that’s “hostile to Christianity.”
The curriculum at New Saint Andrews is a liberal-arts approach, based on study in history, philosophy, literature and the other humanities. The school’s Web site says it emphasizes “a right understanding of Christ’s lordship over every human endeavor.”
The school teaches the biblical version of a six-day creation. While students read Charles Darwin’s “The Origin of Species,” it would be “odd” if they arrived at the conclusion that it was correct, said Atwood, the school’s president.
By contrast, just last year UI President Tim White made a public announcement that alternatives to evolution had no place in the science classroom – a reaction to the intelligent design movement. Most mainstream scientists say Darwinian evolution is the mechanism that best explains life on Earth.
Critics of the school’s curriculum say an emphasis on biblical inerrancy precludes true academic inquiry – everything is directed toward arriving at a predetermined answer. But Atwood and others said that all schools teach from a foundation of beliefs.
“All education is probably the most religious thing most students do. We are passing on what we believe to be the fundamental truths of the universe,” he said. “If other schools were honest, they’d say, come here and we’ll teach you a secularized version of the world.”
The school grew from a church group that studied Greek and opened formally with four students in 1994. It has since grown to about 150 students and in 2003 moved into its building in downtown Moscow, on Friendship Square. A year ago, the school was accredited by TRACS – the Transnational Association of Christian Colleges and Schools.
New Saint Andrews attracts a lot of intelligent students with good test scores. Roughly 40 percent were home-schooled. Atwood says they’re trying to establish a new model for classical Christian education.
While the school is not likely to grow much beyond its current size in Moscow, school officials can envision trying to establish similar models elsewhere.
“We really do see ourselves as the new generation of Christian colleges,” Atwood said.
‘A happy picture’
Gier, the former UI professor, said he has known some of the New Saint Andrews officials for years and worked with the school and its students initially.
But when the college was a candidate for TRACS accreditation in 2004, Gier wrote a letter opposing it. He argued that the majority of the college’s faculty don’t have doctoral degrees and publish their scholarship only through a press associated with Christ Church.
In his letter, Gier also cited the publication of “Southern Slavery As It Was,” a pamphlet authored by Wilson and Steve Wilkins and quoted it: “There has never been a multi-racial society which has existed with such mutual intimacy and harmony in the history of the world.”
He also noted that Wilkins was a founding director of the League of the South, which has been declared a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center. He said that many students who come to New Saint Andrews have some tie with Wilkins or the League of the South, and Wilkins has appeared at New Saint Andrews events.
“I have not called Doug Wilson a racist,” Gier said. “He says he is not, and I take his word for it. But there is a very strong neo-confederate element in those who come to the college.”
William Ramsey, an assistant professor of history at the UI, co-authored a response to the slavery booklet titled, “Southern Slavery As it Wasn’t.”
He said that the pamphlet constituted “academic fraud” in the way it selectively quoted from interviews with former slaves. It has also come under attack for plagiarism.
“They selectively used historical evidence to try and paint a happy picture of slavery,” he said in an interview.
The Southern Poverty Law Center, in its 2004 article on what it called Wilson’s “far-flung, far-right religious empire,” connected the slavery pamphlet and New Saint Andrews’ curriculum with racist writings and movements. The article detailed several instances of Wilson’s writings that discuss the “overthrow of unbelief and secularism,” opposition to homosexuality and the belief that men are the ultimate authority in the household.
‘In the pudding’
Wilson says he’s not a racist and notes that several people of color attend his church. He says his pamphlet on slavery – now revised and included in a book – was not an apologia for the practice but an attempt to keep it in perspective.
“The South was not Nazi Germany,” he said. “What we were objecting to was the moral equivalence between Robert E. Lee and Stalin or Hitler.”
He acknowledges that portraits of Lee and Confederate flags have adorned office and school walls at times and says that he believes in some – but not all – of the tenets on which the Southern confederacy was built: a society centered around God and belief, a simple farming life as opposed to a hectic modern one, and an emphasis on traditional family and community.
He also says he’s not a sexist and notes that his wife has published four books. But he also says that men are the head of the family.
“I believe the Bible teaches the husband is the head of the wife, as Christ is the head of the church,” he said. “I believe that, but so do millions of other Christians.”
Atwood said he’s grown tired of the criticisms over the years. He contends that ideological differences have fueled some of the controversies about the school, most recently including complaints that school and church officials didn’t do enough to notify people about a student who was convicted of sexually abusing a minor.
The student committed the crimes while boarding with a family in Moscow. Critics said the church didn’t make information about the crimes known to members of the congregation and college; Wilson and Atwood defended their handling of the case, saying police were notified immediately and the student expelled.
“There’s a lot of animosity, mainly from the extreme left, people who are really pushing for gay rights and are more radicalized on that issue,” Atwood said.
Regarding criticisms about the school’s faculty and academic quality, he said that four of the seven full-time faculty members have doctorates. Part-time instructors don’t – but neither do the grad students and many adjuncts who teach at public universities, he said.
He said the school’s performance speaks for itself, with some students moving directly into doctoral programs. The ISI, in its rankings of the top 50 conservative Christian colleges, noted that the reading list includes about 100 books from the Western canon and called the school’s core curriculum “impressive.”
“The proof is in the pudding,” Atwood said.
For students like Eric Mabry, that pudding involves a whole lot of books. The 20-year-old sophomore from Texas, who was home-schooled, said he was drawn to New Saint Andrews by its curriculum primarily, because he was interested in reading ancient languages and studying philosophy, looking toward a future in graduate school.
In his freshman year, his reading assignments totaled between 600 and 800 pages a week.
“For me it’s just wonderful,” he said. “It’s one of the reasons I’m here – the amount of stuff we’re able to read.”
Mabry said that alternative views aren’t omitted.
“I feel like I am exposed to more ideas here than I might be in a secular university,” he said. “We’ve discussed atheism. We’ve discussed humanism. … In a university, sometimes Christianity is ignored.”
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