Burned Out in Birmingham: Liberal Education and America

Joseph M. Knippenberg

March 1, 2006

When I first heard about the spate of church fires in Alabama, I had in my mind’s eye a profile of the perpetrator: an undereducated loner, a thrill-seeking nihilist seething with resentment about how the world had treated him unjustly. I could almost see him in a beat-up pick-up truck, driving around back roads in the middle of the night, venting his frustrations on those ubiquitous Baptist churches dotting rural Alabama.

Now I’m inclined to agree with Alabama state fire marshal Richard W. Montgomery: “My profile on these suspects is shot all to heck and back.”

The young men who seem to have committed these crimes are popular and reasonably well-educated. Two have been students at Birmingham-Southern, a well-regarded liberal arts college. They are the sons of suburban privilege, enjoying the kind of leisurely interlude that small private colleges afford them. They were theatre majors, starring in campus productions and in an independent film that they hoped would lead to bigger things.

The third was a pre-med student at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, having transferred there from Birmingham-Southern.

One young man’s neighbor had this to say: “I am in total shock. I knew him as a 5-year-old and watched him grow up. He was just a normal kid. As a matter of fact, he’s the kind of kid you’d say, ’I want my kid to grow up and be like him.’”

What went wrong? Lots.

Stories about the three in the Birmingham News point, in the first place, to lots of alcohol use, or rather abuse, since all were underage. Then there’s a reference, in a New York Times article, to marijuana. Last but not least, two of the three called themselves Satanists, which one said was “not about worshipping the devil, but about the pursuit of knowledge.” At least one apparently ridiculed—perhaps light-heartedly, perhaps not—a fellow student who attended chapel at Birmingham-Southern, a school affiliated with the United Methodist Church. Another wrote this on a webpage: “Let us defy the very morals of society instilled upon us by our parents, our relatives and of course Jesus.”

Now, I’ve been around liberal arts colleges long enough to know that every beer-drinking, marijuana smoking undergraduate, er, “freethinker” doesn’t drive around burning down churches. Most are just poseurs, engaging in a bit of experimentation before they get serious about life.

On the other hand, because there are so many poseurs populating our college campuses, the temptation is to take all of them lightly. They don’t mean anything by it. They’re not really serious. When it’s intellectual at all, it’s just a kind of play. And the immoralism is mostly for show, a means of distancing themselves from their parents and past conventional lives, intended to let off some steam before those lives are resumed. The crimes, such as they are, are “victimless”—underage drinking, for the most part. When things really get out of hand, you get vandalism and the occasional fistfight. Nothing to write home about, in other words.

Someone should have been paying more attention, not just to these three, but to all our college and university students. While there’s a lot of talk about making the transition from high school to college, from living with one’s parents to living on one’s own (and taking responsibility for oneself), many colleges and universities don’t take much interest—indeed, can’t take much interest—in the souls of their students. Yes, during orientation and perhaps during some sort of freshman seminar, there are lectures and programs about alcohol abuse, date rape, and respect for others (in some places, sensitivity training), but the moral framework, such as it is, amounts to little more than utilitarian prudence or self-interest properly understood. We care about deeds and about harm (to yourself and others), but not really about who you are. If you engage in extraordinarily self-destructive behavior, you’ll eventually come to the attention of the folks in Student Affairs, but if it’s garden-variety undergraduate stuff (weekend drunkenness), we tend to look the other way.

For the most part, classes aren’t much better. The relativism that’s fashionable in high schools is rarely, if ever, seriously challenged in the classroom, either because no one (not even the professors) wants to give offense or because we don’t recognize that our play in ideas might eventually have consequences. It’s fun to challenge convention and scandalize the bourgeois, to play devil’s advocate (so to speak), and we can’t imagine that our students would ever really take us seriously.

This isn’t the way it was meant to be. Once upon a time, liberal arts colleges acted in loco parentis, actually caring for and about their students in ways of which their parents could approve. What’s more, the whole notion of liberal education supported that undertaking, for it was understood to prepare students for a life befitting a free human being, a life of responsible self-government, which, it went without saying, was a life of virtuous self-restraint. Moral philosophy wasn’t just an elective, but rather a requirement whose spirit pervaded the entire institution. Education was, for the most part, meant also to be edifying.

I certainly don’t mean to lay all—or even much—of the blame for the church fires at the feet of my colleagues at Birmingham-Southern or at any other liberal arts college. There’s the family (functional or dysfunctional), there’s the culture, and, of course, there’s free will. But our laissez faire attitude toward students certainly does little or nothing to counteract these other influences or to help form that part of the character that can still be formed.

We charge a lot of money. We make big promises. Implicit in much of our marketing literature is the claim that we care. I worry that, sooner rather than later, those to whom that matters will no longer believe us. I worry even more that at some point no one will care whether we care.

Our situation is, I think, still redeemable. But without some serious self-reflection, elite liberal arts colleges will begin to lose the trust of those parents whose children are our—and the nation’s—future. We’ll be perceived as irrelevant or merely subversive, and hence—rightly, I think—unworthy of public confidence and support.

Joseph M. Knippenberg is an adjunct fellow of the Ashbrook Center. He is Professor of Politics and Associate Provost for Student Achievement at Oglethorpe University.