The Unlikely Disciple tells the story of a college student who decides to attend Liberty University (founded by Jerry Falwell) for a semester’s break from Brown and as a reporting opportunity, a la Racing Odysseus but from a 20-something’s eyes. The disingenuous aspect of the stunt (since, unlike the author of Racing Odysseus, the author does not need to explain his presence in the university, and does not) made me squirm a bit, and to be fair it also makes the author squirm, although never enough to fully explain himself to his colleagues. But the story is interesting. Strictly segregated by gender and having to follow a strict code of conduct, Liberty students take classes that emphasize beliefs over facts or science. Infractions are punished by a predetermined schedule of reprimands and fines (hugging your sweetheart for more than 3 seconds is worth more than swearing, for instance) that eerily reminded me of confession penances. Heterosexuality and marriage are heartily pushed and promoted, with the goals of marrying off the students before they leave.
There are positive aspects of the learning experience (no more hangovers on Sunday mornings, an excellent knowledge of the bible) and others that are a bit frightening. How can “young earth” extremists undertake honest studies in biology? (Liberty has an Engineering college, which I assume believes in gravity; but how can biologists function without evolution?) How will the students function post-graduation, when the reprimands are no longer meted out when they swear, or worse? And how will they hold their own in a world that expects debate rather than blind obeisance to an established rule? Surely universities should be a place of debates, of forming one’s own ideas, or appreciating the value of a solid argument.