Sunday, June 24, 2007

Berea College's Christian utopianism

I have to admit that, until taking part in a meeting there last week, I'd never noticed Berea College. I should have. The place is fascinating.

This small liberal arts college in southeastern Kentucky looks like a conventional fantasy of an educational institution.

It is amply supplied with brick Federalist buildings.

We stayed at the Boone Tavern, just the sort of nicely appointed hostelry a college likes to have to entertain parents. The rooms were furnished in a "country inn" theme -- not where you'd expect to hold a meeting of community organizations working to empower low-income people, largely of color.

But I couldn't help noticing the banners with this motto hanging everywhere -- and the flyers about Berea College placed in every corner of the inn.

It turns out that Berea comes out of a strand of the 19th century U.S. utopian tradition, an Appalachian abolitionism. According to the college's web site:

...the Rev. John G. Fee started a one-room school in 1855 that eventually would become Berea College. Fee, a native of Bracken County, Ky., was a scholar of strong moral character, dedication, determination and great faith. He believed in a school that would be an advocate of equality and excellence in education for men and women of all races.

During the Civil War, Fee was run out the area by pro-slavery sympathizers but returned in 1865. The first class numbered 187, 96 black students and 91 whites. The school continued as an integrated island in the increasingly segregated South until Kentucky outlawed mixed race schools in 1904. Berea lost a Supreme Court case trying to win exemption from this state law and so was an all-white institution until 1950. But its trustees raised funds during that period to found Lincoln Institute near Louisville for Black students.

Berea's contemporary policies are as amazing as its history. Drawing from Appalachia, Berea students all qualify for financial aid -- and pay no tuition as the school subsidizes every entrant. Berea students graduate without debts. They all work at college jobs 10-15 hours a week while carrying a full load, "to demonstrate that labor, mental and manual, has dignity as well as utility." The young woman who acted as a bellhop, bringing my luggage upstairs for me, proudly explained that, yes, she was a college student!

Looking into Berea's materials, the part I found most challenging is the assertion of a "Christian Identity." At a time and in a region where calling oneself a Christian frequently means adopting right wing bigotry, Berea has re-examined its Christian character as recently as 2002 and asserted its progressive understanding of its historic faith. They write "Berea College welcomes all who accept Berea College’s core values of impartial love and service to others, whatever their culture, faith or philosophy."

Yet the same reappraisal also outlines some of the tensions that go with being an explicitly Christian college with a strongly progressive, even radical, tradition.

The Preamble to Berea’s Great Commitments [statement of its mission] begins, “Berea College, founded by ardent abolitionists and radical reformers, continues today as an educational institution still firmly rooted in its historic purpose ‘to promote the cause of Christ.’ ” The question arises, “Does one have to be a Christian to promote the cause of Christ?” Berea’s historical record says no. ... Throughout its history, Bereans have encouraged and challenged one another, whatever their personal faith or philosophy, to commit themselves to a cause that is consonant with Berea’s core values ... and which its Christian members might express as the cause of Christ.

To be Christian and welcoming to all is Berea College’s tradition. We must acknowledge that, while Berea College is a diverse community, many if not most of those who learn and work at Berea College identify themselves as Christians. Yet even Christians here do not share a common understanding of what that designation means. Berea College strives to be a place where people with various Christian interpretations, different religious traditions, and no religious tradition work together in support of Berea’s Great Commitments.

Over the past century, various leaders of the College have applied the College’s inclusive scriptural foundation and spirit to their expanding world and welcomed those whose beliefs were consistent with the Christian gospel of impartial love. Therefore, Berea College today affirms its inclusive Christian tradition even as it respects the traditions of Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, and Hindus as well as other world faiths.

Bereans have always struggled to express this inclusive Christian tradition in the midst of divergent views. We will not ignore our differences, but rather seek to understand each other honestly and respectfully, and together create a climate where anyone can openly discuss what they believe without fear of sanction.

Obviously, visiting a place for a couple of days doesn't yield much evidence whether that place lives up to its ideals. I have no clue whether Berea, so grounded in a particular Christian counter-culture, is somewhere that works for any students who are not Christian. Maybe such students go elsewhere. Or maybe they are quietly uncomfortable, but take the bad with the considerable good on offer.

There's clearly a lot to like about a school so committed to making it possible for poor students in a poor region to get a very good education -- and there's a lot to wonder about for those of us who have come to believe that grounding in secular assumptions is the only way a diverse society "can all get along."

1 comment:

Jane R said...

Old friend of mine (a former prof of mine from college) is the president. The place has an amazing history and from what I hear, it does work. But of course I see it from the outside as well, though I'm (most of the time) not too far geographically. I'm eager to visit.

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