October 4, 2008
American Gothic ReduxBy Ed Kaitz
Photographer Jona Frank recently attempted to capture life at the Evangelical Christian Patrick Henry College (PHC). But the resulting book is not, as the press release says, "an in depth portrait" of the school as much as it is another ho-hum illustration, at a cost of $35.00, of how the Left in this country perceives both homeschoolers and Evangelical Christians. Simply put, Ms. Franks uses her camera and staging to portray the students at PHC as tense, artificial, pasteboard figures that float like detached ghosts over the landscape.
In Right: Portraits from the Evangelical Ivy League, what is billed as a "non-partisan" portrait of PHC students ends up being a record of one photographer's inability to suspend partisanship. Instead of "[humanizing] the school, its student body, and their families," as the press release announces, the reader is treated to what would be more aptly titled "Variations on American Gothic," or in other words, over one hundred pages of images reminiscent of Grant Wood's famous painting of a pitchfork grasping father and his unmarried daughter. I can't imagine anyone on either the Left or the Right making space on a coffee table for this book.
Indeed, one is struck by the number of times the reader is told before even reading it that the book is "non-partisan" and "non-judgmental" which will allow "readers to draw their own conclusions" about the students at PHC. Curiously, however, after these persistent claims of objectivity, the press release tells us the following: "With the 2008 election just around the corner, Right is the most topical and provocative photography book to be released this year." A tiny Christian college with a few hundred high achieving conservative students is the subject of the most "topical and provocative photography book" of the year? Is it possible for a book of photographs to be "non-partisan" and "provocative" at the same time?
The way I see it, the only reason portraits of a few dozen PHC students are considered "topical and provocative" in the last couple months of the 2008 election season is that a cadre of the paranoid Left is frightened out of their wits that many of Frank's artificially portrayed, pitchfork wielding WASPs may leap out of the book and find a voting machine somewhere. My perspective seems to be confirmed by the most outrageous statement in the book's introduction:
The last time I checked, whatever remains of the "Christian Right" in this country is presently under assault by the media, Hollywood, our educational establishment, and the ACLU. On the contrary, it seems to me that the "Christian Left" has become the new "fixture" of mainstream culture -- just ask Barack Obama and his legions of followers. Ms. Frank is obviously not alarmed by the Christian Left however, even though they have become the real "topical and provocative" story of the 2008 election.
My willingness to suspend judgment on these matters however was checked after the first page of student photographs. What appears on the very next page is not another photograph but a copy of a handwritten book report by a younger, homeschooled sibling of a PHC student. The subject? David Aikman's biography of George Bush, A Man of Faith. Ms. Frank's book treats us to many unflattering portrayals of homeschooled kids, many of whom comprise the student body at PHC. Indeed, Hanna Rosin, author of God's Harvard had this to say about homeschooling in the introduction to Right:
If anything is "prelapsarian" it is Ms. Rosin's myopic understanding of the diverse legions of homeschooling families in this country. The homeschooling movement has grown into one of the most dynamic, creative, and effective challenges to the liberal stranglehold that has suffocated the standards of excellence that once used to be a staple of our public schools. For many years I tutored homeschooled kids in the San Francisco Bay Area. These kids came from families that were conservative and liberal, Christian and Jewish. The parents were interested in a challenging classical (i.e. conservative) curriculum. Alas, even the liberal families somehow concluded that the progressive public schools were shortchanging their kids
Ms. Rosin tells us, after observing one of the homeschooled children portrayed in the book:
It becomes obvious very early on that both Rosen and Frank are fascinated not by real human beings but by what they seem to think are rather flat-souled misfits trapped in another time. The curse of this book is revealed quite clearly when the photographer Ms. Frank expounds on her philosophy of art near the end of the book:
Because Ms. Frank only has a "split second" to assess her subjects based on external "ornamentation," she's blind to her subject's more telling internal ornamentation. In addition, while Ms. Frank claims that the "slightest gesture" can suggest a purpose, she nevertheless prevents her subjects from ever expressing their individuality in a candid setting - most of the photographs are carefully and often unflatteringly staged.
Indeed, one of the kids I used to homeschool in San Francisco was a black-belt in karate, a jazz guitarist, fluent in two languages, brilliant at history and math, and he hadn't yet turned eighteen. What's more, all of this would have been entirely shrouded in one of Ms. Frank's staged photographs. I've had former homeschool students gain admission to Harvard, Berkeley, Stanford, and the Rhode Island School of Design. None of these kids could have had their souls plumbed "in a split second" by either Ms. Frank or Ms. Rosin. It would have been a crime to "presume a truth" about their character based on "how they choose to ornament themselves" or based on the fact that they were homeschooled. This does not "humanize" kids as much as it robs them of their humanity. The kids I tutored were goofy, playful, and fun, and yes, they still got into Stanford and Berkeley.
While Ms. Frank claims to be interested in "groups" of teenagers most of the photographs in the book are portraits of single students in awkward poses seemingly removed from their natural environment. Indeed, in two sections of the book, "Hoedown" (a country western dance night) and "Liberty Ball" (a formal dance affair), Ms. Frank chooses to pose them individually outside of each of the dances in postures that are reminiscent of the Civil War. Why couldn't Ms. Frank bring herself to walk into the dance hall and snap a few photos of the students having fun?
All that being said, if the photographs provide nothing of interest in this book the accompanying interviews do reveal some important insights. The authors do a good job in presenting interviews from students who love PHC and revelations from at least one student who really can't stand the place. For those who love it the school provides a rigorous classics curriculum and a chance to come together with like-minded Christians. They are also attracted by the school's mission, which is to "take America back to God by training tomorrow's leadership in politics and entertainment."
The most insightful and poignant interview in my opinion was with a young woman named Kimbell who would rather not be at PHC. She had come to PHC on an earlier homeschool visit and "hated it." Her parents informed her however that they were "not going to pay for another college" and so they forced her against her will to attend PHC. Early on though her parents had a change of heart and told her the following:
But Kimbell had made some good friends and she had a new boyfriend too, so she decided to try to stick it out despite the fact that the school doesn't offer her much variety in terms of course curriculum or school activities.
When Ms. Rosin asked Kimball whether she would homeschool her own children Kimball answered:
Socrates didn't become famous for mingling with his supporters but because he took on brilliant relativists like Protagoras. This is not to say that PHC doesn't have its own internal divisions, which it does, but it does remind us that it may well be more effective for our children to remain and fight it out -- that is, to develop some testosterone. The problem is that our established universities are so overwhelmingly liberal that conservatives are at a disadvantage when it comes to advancement and hiring, hence the need to rely on the free market in order to provide alternative campuses like PHC. Would I encourage my kids to attend PHC or my alma mater, UC Berkeley? Like Kimball I'd want them to stay and fight it out, but I'm happy that other kids have the option to attend PHC.
At the end of the book Ms. Rosin discusses a "before and after" series of photos of a young woman named Rachel. The first photo is of Rachel packing at home and getting ready to leave for PHC. The second photo, on the opposite page, is of Rachel at PHC a year later. Rosin basically tells us that the pre-PHC Rachel is carefree and colorful, while the post-PHC Rachel, is "presented, presentable, grown up in black and grey" with "swept-up" hair and a "more strained" expression on her face. Anyone looking at the two photos however recognizes immediately that this armchair psychoanalysis of Rachel is blatantly false. In the end, the book tells us more about the perceivers than the perceived.
Here's a story about "before and after." For years while teaching at the University of San Francisco I watched with some pain as bright eyed and cheerful female freshmen exchanged their dresses and bows for nose rings, tattoos and ripped Levis by their senior year. The pressure to conform to what Eric Hoffer called the "self-consciously alienated" progressive persona was immense. If Ms. Rosen and Ms. Frank want a real story about mass conformity with plenty of external ornamentation they might want to check this one out.