Less Is More, Preaches Headmaster Robert Thoburn, and the New Right Says 'amen'

updated 06/22/1981 at 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 06/22/1981 01:00AM

There are no extracurricular activities, athletic teams or even a gym. One standard text is the century-old McGuffey's Reader ("Look! There are John and Sue by the Mill Pond"), and math is introduced as rooted in Genesis. Evolution is discussed only as an oddball departure from Old Testament teachings. While such pedagogical whimsies might appall many modern parents, they have made the suburban Fairfax, Va. Christian School a favorite of Washington, D.C.'s most self-consciously moral minority, the families of the New Right.

Fairfax Christian's 500 students, from kindergarten through 12th grade, include the scions of such conservative lions as South Carolina Sen. Strom Thurmond, Illinois Rep. Phil Crane and Howard Phillips, founder of the Conservative Caucus. Says Richard A. Viguerie, the New Right's master fund raiser, who sent two daughters to the school: "It's very comforting to know the teachers there have the same values and views on government and life-style that I do." Headmaster Robert Thoburn, 52, an ordained Presbyterian minister, happily boasts that at his school, "We have standards that come out of a biblical world."

A free-enterprise world, too. Thoburn and his wife, Rosemary, started their school on a shoestring 20 years ago, teaching 32 kids in their own house, and tuition today is just $1,975. Yet Fairfax's ledgers are full of black ink. One reason is that, educationally, Thoburn is an unabashed minimalist. There is no cafeteria at Fairfax, and no classes in shop, home economics or art. Explains Thoburn: "That's one of the problems of public schools—students load up on electives, and some of them aren't too substantial." Fairfax pays teachers frugally, and crams as many as 35 pupils into a single class. "When people say they want small classes," Thoburn maintains, "it is usually a tip-off there are problems with the kids." When he has problems, he resorts to swift discipline. Children who talk during a test get a zero; other sinners wind up weeding the lawns.

Thoburn grew up on a farm in Harrisville, Ohio and was educated at little Muskingum College in New Concord, where he met and married Rosemary Sweet, a contractor's daughter. After graduating from Philadelphia's Westminster Theological Seminary, he moved to Fairfax and there established Virginia's first Orthodox Presbyterian Church, moonlighting as a teacher and bus driver at a private school.

When the Thoburns started their academy in 1961, times were tight. "We were really hustling," the reverend recalls. "We washed dishes in a bathtub, tutored after school and on Saturdays and had church there on Sundays." But the school made a profit from the beginning, and in 1964 Thoburn began building on his new site in Fairfax. He did the contracting himself, and avoided overextending himself financially. "We don't believe in long-term debt," Thoburn says.

Three times a failed candidate for the U.S. Congress, Thoburn won a seat in the Virginia legislature in 1978 and lost it last year. Twice he made headlines as the only legislator to oppose the state budget because of his unshakable opposition to Medicare abortions for the needy. He says he is "100 percent ready" to try for the state legislature again this September, and is pleased that three of his four grown children—out of a brood of eight—are politically inclined. Lloyd Thoburn, 19, is legislative affairs director for the Moral Majority; Mark, 22, raises funds to fight abortions; John, 24, a student at California's Claremont College, ran unsuccessfully for the Virginia Senate in 1979. Thoburn's eldest son, David, 25, heads a religious mail-order house he began at 13.

As for Thoburn himself, his educational philosophy has not required self-denial. With a claimed worth of $1 million, he is the proud owner of a Lincoln, two Cadillacs and a farm in West Virginia, and is building a new seven-bedroom home near his school. "He is a man of the church," observes one Fairfax County schoolteacher, "but he very openly enjoys making money."

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