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:
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.
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."