Saturday, April 08, 2006

Why I Am A Christian

The Chronicle of Higher Education on the cultivation of the Christian mind:

"The campus looks just like the glossy brochure: clean, green, and beautiful. The students are well dressed and well groomed, not a pair of jeans or scrappy goatee in sight. Inside the Commons building, two students engage in a spirited game of Ping-Pong. When one of them misses an easy shot, he cries, "Praise the Lord!"

Pensacola Christian College prides itself on being different, not just from secular colleges, but from fellow Christian ones, too. Some of those differences, like the way students dress, are obvious to any visitor. Others are not. Since its founding, more than 30 years ago, Pensacola has blossomed from a tiny Bible college into a thriving institution of nearly 5,000 students. Along the way it has become known as among the most conservative — and most secretive — colleges in the country.

Not to mention one of the strictest. The rules at Pensacola govern every aspect of students' lives, including the books they read, the shoes they wear, the churches they attend, and the people they date. Many of those regulations are spelled out in a handbook sent to students after they enroll, but there are plenty of unwritten rules as well. Demerits are common and discipline swift.


Lisa Morris was walking to class with her boyfriend last October when something happened. At first Ms. Morris, a sophomore music major, is reluctant to divulge the details. Eventually, however, the truth comes out: He patted her behind.

Someone who witnessed the incident reported Ms. Morris and her boyfriend. At Pensacola any physical contact between members of the opposite sex is forbidden. (Members of the same sex may touch, although the college condemns homosexuality.) The forbidden contact includes shaking hands and definitely includes patting behinds. Both students were expelled.

Of Pensacola's many rules, those dealing with male-female relationships are the most talked about. There are restrictions on when and where men and women may speak to each other. Some elevators and stairwells may be used only by women; others may be used only by men. Socializing on particular benches is forbidden. If a man and a woman are walking to class, they may chat; if they stop en route, though, they may be in trouble. Generally men and women caught interacting in any "unchaperoned area" — which is most of the campus — could be subject to severe penalties.

Those rules extend beyond the campus. A man and a woman cannot go to an off-campus restaurant together without a chaperon (usually a faculty member). Even running into members of the opposite sex off campus can lead to punishment. One student told of how a group of men and a group of women from the college happened to meet at a McDonald's last spring. Both groups were returning from the beach (they had gone to separate beaches; men and women are not allowed to be at the beach together). The administration found out, and all 15 students were expelled.

Even couples who are not talking or touching can be reprimanded. Sabrina Poirier, a student at Pensacola who withdrew in 1997, was disciplined for what is known on the campus as "optical intercourse" — staring too intently into the eyes of a member of the opposite sex. This is also referred to as "making eye babies." While the rule does not appear in written form, most students interviewed for this article were familiar with the concept.

As she tells it, Ms. Poirier was not gazing lovingly at her boyfriend; he had something in his eye. But officials didn't buy her explanation, and she and her boyfriend were both "socialed," she says.

There are three levels of official punishment at Pensacola (four, if you count expulsion). Students can be "socialed," "campused," or "shadowed." Students who are socialed are not allowed to talk to members of the opposite sex for two weeks. Those who are campused may not leave the college grounds for two weeks or speak to other campused students.

Being shadowed is the worst of the three. Shadowed students are assigned to a "floor leader" for several days. A floor leader is a student who is paid by the college and has the power to issue demerits. Shadowed students must attend the floor leader's classes and sleep in the floor leader's room. During this time, the shadowed student is not allowed to talk to anyone but the floor leader. Shadowing is usually a prelude to expulsion.

Ms. Poirier was later told she would be shadowed after being spotted riding in a car in mixed company. She tried to explain that it was an innocent outing, but to no avail. When told she would be shadowed, Ms. Poirier decided to withdraw. "I said 'screw it' and I left," she says.

There are plenty of other ways to run afoul of the rules. Last spring Timothy Dow was caught playing the video game Halo 2. Such games are banned by the college. Movies are also forbidden, including those rated G. Music is restricted to classical or approved Christian ("contemporary Christian" artists are deemed too worldly). Students are allowed to watch television news at 6 o'clock, but that's it. The TVs are controlled by college employees, who flip a switch to black out the commercials, lest students see anything inappropriate.

In the library, books and magazines are censored. One student says she saw a pair of black-marker boxer shorts on a photograph of Michelangelo's David. Any books that students wish to read that are not in the library must first be approved by administrators. Those containing references to "magic," for instance, are normally rejected. The rule book specifically prohibits "fleshly magazines and books."

For playing the video game, Mr. Dow was campused. Later, in the cafeteria, he ran into a friend who had just been expelled. Mr. Dow had been told not to talk to his friend, who had previously been campused. But he figured it would be OK now that his friend was leaving. "I gave him a hug and said, 'See you later, man,'" he says.

Someone witnessed the exchange and turned Mr. Dow in. Students routinely turn each other in for violating rules and are rewarded by the administration for doing so. According to several former students, those who report classmates are more likely to become floor leaders.

Mr. Dow was called to the office of the dean of men, where, he says, he waited for about four hours. Then he was expelled.

Pensacola Christian College is "an idea that came from God," according to its Web site. The college was founded in 1974 by Arlin Horton, who remains its president. It is Baptist but is not affiliated with the Southern Baptist Convention or any similar organization. Both Mr. Horton and his wife, Rebekah, are graduates of Bob Jones University. While it appears that he copied his alma mater's demerit system and some of its rules, there is a longstanding rift between the two institutions.

Several years ago, Pensacola publicly criticized Bob Jones University for using translations of the Bible other than the King James Version. (Pensacola's policy is that the King James is the only divinely inspired English translation.) A group of Bob Jones faculty members fired off a lengthy letter responding to the attack.

It is true that students at Bob Jones are permitted to consult other English translations of the Bible. In the letter, however, Bob Jones professors objected to the implication that the university was not faithful to the word of God. "PCC appears to be bent on claiming exclusive right to the higher ground of Fundamentalism — in lofty isolation, not only from BJU, but from virtually every other Fundamental Bible college and seminary," they wrote.

A representative of Bob Jones University declined to talk about the bad blood between the colleges.

When Pensacola opened its doors, it had one building and 100 students. Its mission was to offer an education "based on the Christian traditional approach in contrast to the humanistic, progressive systems of education." Since then, as it has grown to nearly 5,000 students, it has built a large, gated campus featuring an art-and-music center with a 140-seat recital hall and recording studio; a 137,000-square-foot sports center with a basketball court, ice-skating rink, 12-lane bowling alley, four-lane jogging track, miniature golf course, and racquetball courts. There is a cafeteria, an on-campus restaurant, and a 300,000-volume library.

The campus also has several computer labs and wireless Internet access, although there is a catch. In the mid-1990s, Pensacola had e-mail and limited Internet access, but it shut the services down after several students started an online newsletter criticizing the college. (Needless to say, the students who created the newsletter were expelled.) Internet access was not restored until last year, and it comes with significant restrictions. There are a few hundred approved Web sites; students must ask permission to visit any other site. Amazon and eBay, for instance, are reportedly not on the approved list. Several students say they leave the campus to surf the Web.

Pensacola's success can be chalked up in part to its reputation. It is known as perhaps the strictest Christian college in the country, one that has criticized Bob Jones, of all places, for being too liberal. For those searching for a college that is more-Christian-than-thou, Pensacola is it. It has found a marketing niche.

But that is not the only reason for its growth. Along with the college, Mr. Horton founded A Beka Books, acknowledged as the largest Christian-textbook company in the world. A Beka sells textbooks to more than 10,000 Christian schools across the country, offering a complete curriculum for kindergarten through 12th grade. It has also won a big share of the lucrative home-school market.

The company brings in about $70-million in annual revenue and is valued at $280-million, according to Dun & Bradstreet. A sizable chunk of that revenue goes to support the college, which does not come close to breaking even on its own. According to its 2003 tax filing, the university collected $20-million in tuition and fees and $3-million from contributions. The filing attributes $15-million in income to "royalties," presumably from A Beka.

In the mid-90s, A Beka paid nearly $50-million in back taxes after the Internal Revenue Service ruled that it should have been classified as a for-profit entity. The college itself remains nonprofit.

Revenue from A Beka helps keep costs extremely low. Students pay $6,000 a year for tuition, room, and board. That's about a third or a quarter of what most other Christian colleges cost. When asked what other colleges they considered, Pensacola students often mention Bob Jones, Cedarville University, Northland Baptist Bible College, and Abilene Christian University. Cost is usually cited as the deciding factor.

Just as the textbook company helps support the college, the college helps support the textbook company. Many of Pensacola's students work for A Beka, operating binding equipment, packing books into boxes, loading those boxes onto forklifts. Some students complain about the working conditions; others say it's a good deal. For women, A Beka is usually the only employment option because they are not allowed to hold off-campus jobs. Or leave the campus alone, for that matter.

So Pensacola is strict. Sometimes very strict.

Is that necessarily a bad thing?

Not really, according to Isaac Blakely. "You get tired of some of the rules, but all in all the rules are not that hard to deal with if you have the right attitude about it," he says.

Mr. Blakely, a senior commercial-art major, had a friend who was socialed for "sitting too close to a girl." One semester Mr. Blakely himself came perilously close to getting kicked out by racking up 118 demerits. (A total of 150 means automatic expulsion.) The demerits were for small offenses, like forgetting to empty his dorm-room trash can or failing to properly clean the sink. Rooms are inspected regularly, and students who do not meet cleanliness standards are given demerits.

Even so, Mr. Blakely is loath to complain. "If PCC didn't put restrictions on us, I would wonder about their standards," he says. "I'm glad they're doing it."

Mena Ghobrial doesn't mind the rules, either. "At first I thought it was too strict, but it helps me concentrate on my studies," says the senior pre-med major. Mr. Ghobrial, who is from Egypt, thinks that some of the restrictions, such as making students sign out when they leave the campus and write down where they are going, help keep them safe.

Others are less enthusiastic about Pensacola's approach. Lisa Daxer transferred to Cedarville from Pensacola. Like other conservative Christian colleges, Cedarville has its share of rules. For instance, students may not drink alcohol on or off the campus, even if they are over 21. They are also forbidden to listen to music that comes with a parental-advisory sticker. Most forms of dancing are banned (ballet is OK).

That's fine with Ms. Daxer, who has no desire to attend a more permissive secular college.

Her problems with Pensacola go beyond the rules. Administrators there equate loyalty to the college with obedience to God in a way she finds objectionable. "They used to say that being at PCC is God's will for our lives," she says. "So walking out of PCC would be breaking God's will for our lives. Then I've heard them say that you might end up dying because God can't use you anymore."

Darrell Dow has heard much the same thing. "There is this idea that if you go against us, you're going against God," he says. Mr. Dow graduated from Pensacola in 2003 with a degree in computer science, but by then he already felt disillusioned. (Timothy Dow, who was kicked out for hugging a recently expelled friend, is Darrell Dow's cousin.) He says because rules can be "made up on the spot," it seems impossible to abide by all of them. "There's a feeling of helplessness and a spirit of fear," he says. "Not to put too fine a point on it, but there's a very 1984 feel to the place."

Matthew Arnold agrees. He graduated from Pensacola in 1998 with a degree in commercial art and graphic design; his younger sister attends the college "going against all the advice I ever gave," he says. Mr. Arnold is active in an online forum for former students, where many complain about the college and trade their best, or worst, stories. Some even call themselves "survivors" of the institution. Others, though, temper their criticism with fond regard.

Mr. Arnold argues that because the college claims that its authority comes directly from God, students who feel mistreated are put in an extremely awkward position. There is another, more practical fear as well, he says: Getting kicked out might mean starting over because other colleges might not accept unaccredited Pensacola's credits. "You live in terror of losing all the money you've put into the college," he says.

When Adam Peters enrolled at Pensacola, he believed that "the Lord wanted me to go there." But last fall he accumulated 111 demerits and was asked to sit out for a semester. Mr. Peters, a junior majoring in Bible studies, says he has started "to see a lot of the weaknesses" in Pensacola's system. "I can't shut my eyes to those, even though there are strengths," he says.

From his perspective, there are indeed strengths. Christianity is woven throughout the curriculum. Creationism is taught in science courses. Classes begin with a prayer. Along with mandatory chapel services, students must attend the campus church three times every week; they are not allowed to go to another church unless they are from the Pensacola area, and even then they need special permission. Mandatory small-group prayer meetings are held in the evenings.

A strong Christian emphasis is part of what Mr. Peters wanted in a college. But he has become disturbed by how Pensacola exerts its considerable power over students' lives. He is also bothered by how many of his friends have left the college. "One day they're there, and the next it's like, 'Where's Samantha? Oh, she got kicked out,'" he says. "They won't spell things out, and then they'll yank you. There's not always a lot of mercy there." (Thomas Bartlett, "A College That's Strictly Different," The Chronicle of Higher Education, March 24, 2006).


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