The concept behind Unlikely Disciple is simple and powerful: Kevin Roose, a student at liberal Brown University, takes a semester at Christian and conservative Liberty University in Virginia. Inspired by an internship with A. J. Jacobs, editor at Esquire and author of The Year of Living Biblically, Roose’s plan was to learn about the people and culture of Jerry Falwell’s institution of higher education. Mixing anthropology and journalism, the result of his semester “away” is this surprisingly interesting book.
Raised in a secular Quaker background, Roose is not a typical Liberty student. He learns, however, that he shares quite a bit with his classmates. He attends his new college with an open mind. He asks questions and he listens closely. Roose grows up quite a bit in his term at Liberty.
Roose started the book at age nineteen and his aim, whether he realized it or not, was as much about his own maturation and learning as it is a study of an evangelical college and its students. Unlikely Disciple is not profound and it does not pretend to be. Instead, the book is a provocative picture of a smart young man challenging himself and his assumptions – exactly what a college education should offer.
Roose’s semester is a relatively tame affair. He takes basic and required classes, going deep into theology and Christian practice. He lives at a dorm, makes friends, socializes, sings in a choir, and participates in typical Liberty University student life. Roose is attracted to girls and debates whether or not to date. He decides against it, but not without grief. He attends workshops and events that run counter to his “normal” secular lifestyle. On spring break, he joins other students in a proselytizing trip. Roose likes many of his fellow students and makes genuine connections. He also wrestles with his role as an undercover investigator.
Roose comes to appreciate the sense of community and caring that the school and religion provide. He gains understanding of others. He tries to square narrow-mindedness and homophobia with the tolerance that many of his colleagues express interpersonally. Roose interviews Falwell, too, and is challenged aligning the public Falwell with the personal Falwell. He is surprised at the genuineness of Falwell’s faith. And he finds much of the coursework and intellectual discussion difficult but limited and, ultimately in some areas, just plain wrong. He worries about what the experience is doing to him. Is he changing and losing his values and sense of self? Roose experiences many of the same challenges, opportunities and benefits of a typical study abroad student.
Readers expending more will be disappointed. For Roose, there is nothing particularly “wrong” at Liberty; nor is there something unusually “right.” For those of us willing to empathize with the author and his classmates, the book gives a window into the mind of a college student and the inevitable parochialism that accompanies any intense educational experience.
Residential colleges – in particular, residential colleges with resources and a clear sense of mission – engineer an overall student experience. They shape learning, identity, behavior, and values. That kind of college experience is marked by intentionality. Faculty and administrators have particular expectations for student work and behavior. Further, residential spaces and student are designed to encourage certain types of relationships and actions. Policies, such as no cars on campus, increase a sense of local community. Taken collectively, an effective college not only marks it graduates, it establishes a market/brand identity that appeals to certain types of applicants. We know these – and while they need not be stereotypes, they are recognizable to anyone who has spent decades in higher education. These kinds of colleges offer their students much more than a credential. In addition, by going deep these colleges cannot do broad. It is one reason why semester abroad programs have such a powerful effect.
Roose’s semester away from Brown gives him, and us vicariously, a sense of a Liberty intentional college education. It is especially valuable for those of us who live in blue states and whose knowledge of faith-based institutions of higher education is limited to the popular media. The substantive and meaningful differences between Brown and Liberty, just like the similarities, are worth exploration and debate. Since faculty and college administrators rarely have a sense of how to contrast and compare such institutions, we need students like Kevin Roose.