- 1.1 Preface
- 1.2 The Christian Mission of Calvin College
- 1.3 The Reformed Identity of Calvin College
- 1.3.1 The Historical Strand
- 1.3.2 The Theological Strand
- 1.3.3 The Practical Strand
- 1.4 The Ideal of Liberal Arts Education
Among the many pieces of advice given in the literature on general education reform, two stand out as both sound and of particular relevance to the formulation of a statement of purpose for the core curriculum. One is that, before embarking on any reform or revision of its general education program, an institution should be clear about the purpose of general education. The second is that the purpose of a general education program should be fitted to an institution’s understanding of its particular mission as shaped by its tradition. These points are well taken, and so we preface the statement of purpose for the core curriculum with a brief reflection on Calvin’s mission and identity.
Of the several formulations of educational mission to be found in Calvin’s Expanded Statement of Mission, none is more succinct or more precise than the following: “Calvin College seeks to engage in vigorous liberal arts education that promotes lives of Christian service” (ESM, p. 33). The distinctive feature of this mission is not vigorous liberal arts education; for hundreds of institutions of higher education across the North American continent are engaged in that very project. Nor is it to be found in the promotion of lives of service; for many schools are likewise engaged. Rather, it is the combination of these two elements under the heading of “Christian.”
The distinguishing mark of the mission of Calvin College derives, like all Christian missions, from Jesus Christ, the Son of God, the king of creation, the savior of all who place their trust in him. For the Christian life, including the Christian academic life, centers on the person of Christ--on his incarnation, life, death, resurrection, and ascension, and on the sovereign love that these astounding events express. Christians seek to live their whole lives in continuity with Christ, taking on his mind and affections, acting as his body in the world, sharing his sufferings and his victories in the project of overcoming human misery and rebuilding God’s good creation. Christians gladly join this project out of gratitude to Christ, out of obedience to Christ, and out of an enkindled desire to work within the Kingdom of Christ. As faithful workers within this kingdom, Christians struggle to align themselves with the redemptive purposes of God in this world, daily mortifying their evil desires and vivifying their good desires. Those who have “died and risen with Christ” in their baptism try to keep this rhythm going throughout their lives.
Thus Christians learn to shun what is evil and to cling to what is good. In so doing, however, they also learn how often good and evil are twisted around each other, so that each seems to grow out of the other, generating the great ironies and mysteries that fill the history of our world. They learn how often we deceive ourselves about where real good and evil lie, and how such deception dulls and distorts our grasp of reality. Indeed, given the power, scope, and deeply ingrown nature of sin, Christians develop a sense that the life God asks of us often goes against the grain of our resident desires and common assumptions. For that reason we are constantly tempted to make a small thing of the Christian life, to limit it to a modest portion of our beliefs and a narrow slice of our attitudes and behavior.
Faithfulness to Christ, then, includes a kind of wariness where our own judgment of good and evil is concerned, together with a readiness to submit it to the clarifying revelation of Scripture. Reformed Christians take seriously the corrupting force of sin, and therefore lay heavy emphasis upon the need to reform our lives and our view of life according to the incorruptible Word of God. But Reformed Christians also take seriously the renewing power of God’s grace, released in human hearts and human societies by the Spirit of God, and they spot signs of this grace wherever they live. In fact, they come to see all of life and culture under the sway of Jesus Christ and as the sphere of faithful obedience to him. They realize that no part of God’s fallen creation is left out of God’s redemptive intent. This wide view of our life’s arena and call, corrected by the lens of God’s Word, is what some of our Reformed forebears meant when they spoke of the need to adopt a “Christian world-and-life-view.” In the Reformed tradition, Christian education is not just education as usual with Bible classes tacked on; it is an education that is permeated throughout by a Christian view of the world. In the Reformed tradition, the life of Christian service is not limited just to the church and its missions; it is found in every vocation where God’s creative and redemptive purposes are pursued. In the Reformed tradition of liberal arts education, the whole life of the mind combines with the whole life of service under the headship Christ.
Calvin College is an academy rooted in the Reformed Christian tradition. Its educational mission is profoundly shaped by this tradition, a tradition woven of many strands, chief among which are the historical, theological, and practical. Taken together, these strands constitute the main lineaments of Calvin’s Reformed identity.
While it is natural to think of the origins of Reformed Christianity as residing in the Reformation of the sixteenth century, the theological sources of the Reformed tradition are to be found much earlier than the celebrated year of 1517. The Protestant quarrel with Rome, after all, did not concern the parameters of orthodoxy as defined by the Patristic tradition of the Christian church--most notably in the ecumenical creeds and the doctrines of God and Christ they express--but rather the abuses of power and authority rife in the church of the day. Luther's Ninety-Five Theses were intended to initiate a debate about indulgences and the allied doctrine of justification, not the nature of God or Christ. After much conflict and a growing estrangement from the hierarchy of the Roman Church, Luther became ever more firmly convinced that ultimate authority in matters of faith could not be vested in the pope or the tradition but in holy scripture alone, a most ancient source.
As Luther and his followers came to the conclusion that an inner reform of the church was impossible, they also understood that their departure from Roman Catholic Christianity entailed the daunting task of giving a full and independent articulation to their newfound theological understandings. This articulation would be in part an appropriation of the tradition from which they came, in part a rejection of that same tradition. For they owned its orthodoxy but rejected its errors and excesses. Born in reaction to the abuses of the church, Protestant Christianity would soon acquire its own set of distinctive emphases: the primary authority of the Word of God as presented in scripture (minus the deutero-canonical books) and all that seemed to follow from this central principle, including a liturgy centered on the sermon, a revised theology of the sacraments, and an emphasis on salvation by grace alone through faith alone.
By the time John Calvin, Ulrich Zwingli, and the second generation of reformers began their work in the cause, serious disputes had broken out among the Protestants themselves. The Reformed theological task then consisted not only of self-identification over against the Roman Church but also against other wings of Protestantism. In the subsequent development of Calvinist thought and practice, which came to be called Reformed in Switzerland and eventually beyond its borders, the articulation of identity was thus initially and for the most part negative: Reformed Christians were not Roman Catholics, Lutherans, or Anabaptists insofar as they differed with these Christian communities on a number of theological points.
But the religious identity of Reformed Christians was only proximately rooted in the work of Calvin and the teachings of the Protestant Reformation. Ultimately, it was anchored in Christian orthodoxy as delivered to the church in the Patristic period. Hence, as their faith and practice spread from Switzerland to other parts of Europe, Reformed Christians came in time to articulate their identity in more positive terms and with lasting significance on the following three confessional points:
- Reformed Christianity is a species of historic Christianity. As such, it confesses its faith in the triune God who created the heavens and the earth and whose second person became incarnate in Jesus of Nazareth.
- Reformed Christianity holds the Bible to be the prime authority for faith and life, inspired by God and infallible with respect to its purpose. The Bible reveals the identity and work of the triune God in telling the story of creation, the fall of humankind, the covenant established between God and a chosen people, the redemption of many peoples from all nations by the sacrificial work of the promised Messiah, and the reconciliation of all things through the power of the Spirit.
- Reformed Christianity is part of the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church. It adopts a presbyterian form of government and is marked by the preaching of the Word of God, the administration of the sacraments, and firm church discipline.
These three tenets testify to both the ecumenical and the particular moments of Reformed identity. Beyond the creeds which all Christian communions accept, different families of Calvinism staked out their positions in confessions that differentiated their adherents from Roman Catholic and other Protestant Christians. In the species of Calvinism which flowered in the Low Countries during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the confessions which express the Patristic, Protestant, and particularly Reformed consensus are the Belgic Confession, the Heidelberg Catechism, and the Canons of Dort.
In the two centuries following the sixteenth, Calvinism witnessed an attempt by theologians to articulate ever more clearly what it is that Calvinists believe. This period of shoring up Reformed identity by producing large works of theological erudition is known as the period of Protestant Orthodoxy. Such doctrinal Calvinism seemed ill-prepared, however, to meet the broad and sweeping challenges of the Enlightenment. As Christendom stood either powerless or mesmerized in the face of increasing threats to its very existence--the modern scientific worldview, the recourse to human reason as the final arbiter in matters of belief, the emergent historical-critical investigation of the Bible--Protestantism was busy forging a variety of responses: digging in, the approach taken by orthodoxy; opting out, the maneuver favored by pietism; and making deals, the strategy recommended by liberalism.
Another kind of response to the secularizing influence of the Enlightenment and its political embodiment in the French Revolution was conceived by certain Protestants in the Netherlands. In an attempt to re-establish order on the continent after the Napoleonic wars, King William I reorganized the Dutch Reformed Church (Nederlandse Hervormde Kerk) as a unified state church in 1816--a move which brought about a secession (Afscheiding) from the DRC in 1834 by pious and doctrinally concerned members of that church. Some of these seceders left for America in the 1840s and settled in West Michigan. In the Netherlands, meanwhile, Groen van Prinsterer (1801-76) and his theological descendants, most notably Abraham Kuyper (1837-1920), were busy articulating a critique of what they took to be an idolatrous revolutionary spirit in Europe.
Trained as a liberal theologian, Kuyper experienced a conversion in his first pastorate through which he came to see the full power of the Calvinism he had too glibly passed over in his youth. Afterwards, in addition to the strictly theological work he undertook with his colleague Herman Bavinck (1854-1921), he committed himself to the translation of Calvinism into a political and cultural program that was to renew Dutch society according to Christian principles. While fully cognizant of the reality of common grace operating in the world at large, Kuyper nonetheless proposed an isomorphic plan of Reformed Christian witness in Dutch society: if there was a press, then there would be a Christian press; if a labor union, then a Christian labor union; if a political party, then a Christian political party; if day schools, then Christian day schools; if a university, then a Christian university. Kuyper's accomplishments in realizing much of this point-for-point program of renewal were prodigious, both in terms of what he himself achieved in the Netherlands and how his principles were applied by subsequent generations, including those who came to shape the mission of Calvin College.
The origins of Calvin College lie in the literary department of a Grand Rapids theological school founded in the year 1876. The nineteenth century Dutch immigrants who had left the Dutch Reformed Church in the Netherlands soon left the Reformed Church in America as well, establishing in 1857 the True Dutch Reformed Church, later known as the Christian Reformed Church. By founding their own theological school some nineteen years later, they were attempting first and foremost to fill the pulpits of their churches with ministers committed to and trained in orthodox Christianity as they understood it. Their concern at the time was the survival and purity of their small community of faith in a foreign land, not the comprehensive transformation of North American society and culture.
But the educational needs of the supporting community soon expanded beyond the preparation of the pastorate. Teachers for Christian day schools of the Dutch Reformed community had to be trained as well. At the end of the century a college was organized around the school’s literary department so that, in the words of Synod, “our young people . . . no longer have to wander in various institutions outside our circles, but can be molded by our own Reformed interests” (Acts of Synod, 1898, p. 57). John Calvin Junior College, as it was then known, broadened its program to instruct aspiring teachers in a wide range of subjects. The curriculum evolved, reaching into the classical tradition of liberal arts education even as it extended into domains of modern science. The college granted its first Bachelor of Arts degree as a four year institution in 1921. After the Second World War, its student population exploded. In the 1960s it moved to a new and expansive campus on the edge of town, adopted a discipline-based curriculum and department structure modeled largely on the plan of the research university, and added several professional programs. Among its faculty, mostly Calvin alumni, were many who had received advanced degrees from some of the most prestigious graduate schools on the North American continent.
With such growth and accomplishment came a new sense of cultural confidence that found its proper expression in the Kuyperian worldview. No longer did Calvin conceive of its purpose as shielding students from the secular influence of American society; rather, it was to prepare and send them into that society as agents of transformation. No longer a mere refuge for orthodoxy, it became a training ground for cultural engagement. Now with a student population of some 4,000, 250 faculty members, major concentrations in over seventy areas, eight professional programs, and 46,000 alumni, Calvin College has emerged from its sheltered and provincial existence and entered the mainstream of North American higher education with a solid reputation for academic excellence and its Reformed voice still strong and clear. The ecclesiastical conflicts that originally defined the Reformation have now faded into the historical background. The Enlightenment project that first elicited the Kuyperian response is largely exhausted. The College now steps into a postmodern world, and is once again called upon to embody an education that is academically rigorous, culturally relevant, deeply Christian, and thoroughly Reformed.
The word “Reformed” describes the Protestant churches rooted in the Swiss Reformation and organized on the basis of a presbyterian form of government. In that sense, it is an ecclesiastical term. But it has a distinct theological sense as well.
Rooted in the Reformation's insistence on the sole authority of scripture for true knowledge of God, the Reformed theological tradition sought to forge doctrines that would serve as a faithful and consistent expression of its primary source. Educated in the humanist tradition of literary scholarship, John Calvin recognized the signal importance of rigorous training in the liberal arts and a thorough knowledge of the Patristic tradition for the conduct of theology. For these are an invaluable help in rendering the content of scripture accurately, and presenting it persuasively. For this reason Calvin and his theological descendants did not make an enemy of reason and tradition in their attempt to elevate the faith. Rather, they sought to make allies of them according to a certain agreement as to their roles and mutual relationships: the authority of scripture above the authority of tradition, whose role was to develop and retain right interpretation of scripture; faith serving as a guide to reason, whose primary task was to make the content of faith both perspicuous and persuasive.
In terms of the sources of theology, then, Reformed theology draws on the following in descending order of authority: scripture; the traditions of the church; reason and experience. With respect to the first two sources, Reformed theology recognizes the importance of fidelity to the Christian scriptures and fealty to the Christian tradition of which it is the custodian. Theology must therefore be biblical and confessional. With respect to the third source, Reformed theology recognizes the importance of continued reflection and dynamic engagement with contemporary culture. Theology must also be dialogical.
This ordering of sources has direct implications for theological method. Reformed theology seeks to draw on the Bible as interpreted by the tradition in order to speak a word in the present that is faithful, relevant, and coherent. Reformed theology is therefore an ongoing activity, never finished, running between past and present, in each generation seeking anew to make sense of the faith passed down to it in the time in which it lives. The spirit of the theological project thus understood is captured in the Reformed slogan ecclesia reformata semper reformanda est: a reformed church is always to be reforming. In so thinking of the theological task, the Reformed tradition was repeating in its own words an old and venerable way of posing the relation between faith and reason. St. Augustine and St. Anselm conceived of that relationship along the lines of the famous dictum fides quaerens intellectum: faith seeking understanding. As in the slogan of the Reformation, there is something stable (faith--an enduring foundation) and yet something dynamic (the search for understanding--a restless quest).
In its theological emphases beyond the ecumenical teachings regarding the nature of God and Christ, the Reformed tradition--taking its cues from the opening and closing acts of scripture, the first article of the Apostles' Creed, and Book One of Calvin's Institutes--has sought to make foundational sense of the belief in God the Father who out of nothing created the heavens and the earth. In other words, the Reformed tradition has taken the doctrine of creation to be central to a well-formed theological understanding of the world and the calling of the Christian within it. The doctrine of creation forms the steady and ultimate context for understanding the tragic meaning of humanity’s fall into sin, the scope of salvation through the atoning work of Christ, the restoration of all things through the power of the Spirit, and the arena of service that we render to God out of gratitude for electing us as recipients of his grace. Reformed Christians believe that because all things find their ultimate source in God, creation and all of human life within its boundaries, fallen as they may be, remain capable of redirection and worthy of redemption. Despite the rebellion of the human race, God has continued to provide for creation, promised to redeem it, and sent his only-begotten Son, who took upon himself full humanity in order to accomplish that redemption.
World-flight, cultural disengagement, and Gnostic escape theories of redemption have therefore never been hallmarks of a Reformed Christianity that understands the bracing implications of its own theology. By its lights, the Christian life cannot be an inward piety cut off from all worldly involvement, nor can it be divided into a program of social action without remainder. Reformed spirituality insists on the wedding of personal piety and cultural engagement, where each complements and energizes the other in the response of the whole person to the call of God. In Reformed circles there have been countless lives of Christian vocation spent in business enterprises, scientific endeavors, public service, cultural activity, the helping professions, and educational institutions in addition to those called to serve the institutional church. Such devotion to the welfare of a fallen but good creation, worked out in manifold vocations, has been the mark and mainspring of Reformed people at their best, the cultural expression of a “holy worldliness” to which they have been called.
The practical implications of Reformed Christianity--under the aegis of a robust doctrine of creation--are wide-ranging indeed. Some of these implications have been indicated in the previous section on the theological nature of the tradition. With the twin notions of the sovereignty of God and the integrity of creation, Reformed Christians have understood themselves to be charged with a task in this earthly life, a cultural mandate: be busy doing the Father’s work in this world; tend the garden; rule it wisely; develop, explore, and care for it in anticipation of its deliverance from suffering made possible by the Son through the life-giving Spirit.
The Reformed emphasis on world-engagement should be understood in the historical context of the Reformation. Many of the doctors of the church had been thoroughly schooled in the ways of Greek philosophy. And so they imbibed much of the worldview of the Greek philosophers. Many of them thought of the human soul as defined by its powers of knowing, and therefore thought of the fulfillment of human life as an intellectual matter. The intellect finds its completion in knowledge of the highest possible object of knowledge--namely, God. In the afterlife, the saved will be admitted to this exalted form of cognition, called the “beatific vision.” In this life they could only anticipate it with fleeting glimpses of the divine essence achieved through prayer and meditation. Those who were serious about the religious life would leave their occupations in this world and retreat to the monasteries, where the daily schedule was organized around the demands of divine contemplation.
Luther was a monk before he was a reformer. When he broke with the church over the theology of justification, he also broke with the contemplative ideal of the religious life. We are to love our neighbors, Luther taught, not leave them in pursuit of our own spiritual fulfillment. God calls us not to abandon our worldly occupations, but to serve our neighbors through them. This is the Christian’s calling. And Calvin agreed. Those who recommend the contemplative life, he wrote in his commentary on Mark 10, appear to be “indebted to Aristotle, who places the highest good, and ultimate end, of human life in contemplation.” On the contrary, Calvin claims, we know we were created for the express purpose of being employed in labor of various kinds, and that no sacrifice is more pleasing to God than when we apply ourselves diligently to our own callings, and endeavor to live in such a way as to contribute to the common good.
In the Reformed tradition, then, a high view of creation translates into a high view of culture and the engaged life. Reformed Christians take it as their vocation to exercise their gifts and abilities in a life of service to the human community. But they also realize that the conditions under which they do so are less than pristine. For God's good creation has been twisted by the corrupting power of human sin and disobedience, introducing a deep spiritual division in humanity as people turn to or away from God’s offer of salvation in Christ. Faithful cultural engagement will involve not only the development of creation’s many potentials, but a struggle against the evil and falsehood that insinuate themselves in every area of human life, indeed, in every human soul; it will be a contest of opposing principles that runs the entire width and breadth of creation.
Kuyper called the Reformed theological understanding of creation that served as a basis for such broad cultural engagement a Christian "world-and-life-view" (wereld- en levensbeschouwing), adapting a term of common use in nineteenth century German scholarship (Weltanschauung). In recognition of the universal lordship of Jesus Christ, Kuyper was eager to break down the Enlightenment tendency to privatize and marginalize the Christian faith, to box it into the corner of personal piety. In using the term “worldview” and its variants, he was concerned to communicate his conviction that Christian principles should inform the totality of our being and doing, not just our theology, personal conduct, and church life. The lordship of Jesus Christ is universal, he maintained, extending over every square inch of our world.
A liberal arts college that not only roots itself in the Reformed Christian tradition, but consistently derives its sense of mission from its theology, will construe its task as a divine calling to broad-based participation in the life of the academic disciplines and the conscientious preparation of its students to pursue their callings in professions, cultural domains, and societal spheres that extend far beyond its walls. Working out the calling of the college will involve the creation of an academic community that is ordered by the rule of Christian life and informed by the hope of the gospel, a disciplined pursuit of knowledge in service of the Christian church and the human community at large, a steady commitment to tracing out the implications of the faith for the entire encyclopedia of knowledge, and the fitting of students with the knowledge, skills, and dispositions they will need if they are to take on the cultural tasks of the communities they are destined to serve.
But even that is not quite enough. To do justice to the full scope of Reformed Christian faith and practice, such a college must emphasize not only its cultural mandate in God’s good creation but also the significance of the mission mandate in a fallen world. Its engagement with culture must be stamped by the good news of the gospel of Jesus Christ. It must help its students learn how to tell the Christian story, live in Christian expectation, wage Christian critique, offer hope and healing in Christ’s name to the downtrodden, the outcast, and all those whose lives have been damaged by the sway of sin, and so point to the triune God in whose image all human beings are created and in whose offer of redemption humanity may share. By recognizing the propriety of the mission mandate in a fallen world, the college and the community it serves remind themselves of the tragic depth of human sin and the height of God’s redemptive love in Christ, and thus protect themselves against the danger of losing their Christian identity within the mundane commitments to cultural involvement.
What, then, does it mean to be Reformed? The Reformed community strives after the lofty goal of retaining and representing the best of the Christian tradition, replete with orthodox and coherent doctrines of the Trinity and Christ, a vibrant conception of the authority of scripture in matters of faith and life, a high doctrine of creation, an honest estimation of the depth and scope of human sin, a broad view of redemption, and a deep appreciation of the value of everyday life as a field of mutual service in response to a divine vocation. To be Reformed at Calvin College is to preserve, extend, and publish this interpretation of the Christian faith, to engage in the rigors and the rewards of the academic life as a Christian calling, and to prepare students for their respective vocations, ever mindful of the aching distance between the basic goodness of this fallen world for which God incarnate died and the surpassing splendor of the world which is to come and for which all Christians hope.
The description of the core requirements in Calvin’s catalog appear under the heading “The Liberal Arts Core.” Behind this brief title stands the long and complex history of liberal arts education, a history that begins in the classical period of western civilization, courses through the schools of the middle ages, and intertwines with the Reformed tradition in ways both intimate and, for our purposes, instructive.
Although the phrase “artes liberales” is first recorded in the writings of Cicero, the Roman orator, the tradition of liberal arts education has its origins in the emergence of democracy in ancient Athens. In a heady political culture no longer based on the fiat of a king of the will of the oligarchs, the public fortunes of the citizens of Athens were largely dictated by their powers of persuasive speech in the agora. Thus a market for instruction in the art of spoken rhetoric was created--and soon filled by such itinerant teachers as Hippias, Protagoras and Gorgias. Known as the Sophists, they were vilified in the Platonic dialogues for their willingness to equip their students with the skills of speech without regard for truth or ethical principle. In reaction to these vendors of words in the markets of power, Plato proposed to mobilize human speech in the interests of philosophical dialectic, which was not designed to manipulate the opinions of the masses for personal advantage, but to transcend the domain of opinion altogether in the direction of a genuine knowledge of the Good--a knowledge which would in turn serve as the moral foundation for the restoration of an Athens deeply troubled after its defeat in the Peloponnesian Wars. Plato’s invitation to such critical sifting of received opinion under the watchful eye of reason, however, led to apparently endless disputation and a wholesale lack of stable results. The goal of sure knowledge--not to mention the application of such knowledge to politics--soon receded to infinity.
Between the quick pragmatic grasp for political power by the sophists and the endless pursuit of rationally grounded knowledge by the philosophers, a third option was marked out by Isocrates, a contemporary of Plato: the wedding of rhetorical skill to traditional wisdom. In his work, Against the Sophists, he faulted the sophists for their lack of moral principles; but in the Antidosis he also criticized the philosophers for their ineffectual abstractions. The true orator must be good--and effective. Students of Isocrates were shaped in character according to the wisdom of the age through exposure to canonical texts in the study of grammar. They were then taught to make that wisdom eloquent and persuasive through training in the art of rhetoric. Dialectic, as the method for discovering truth and testing opinion, played a subordinate role in their education.
The option of Isocrates was carried into the Roman world by Cicero and Quintilian, whose manuals on rhetoric became the founding texts of the liberal arts tradition in the west. That tradition, however, was soon destined to be transformed. With the collapse of the Roman Empire and the disappearance of republican forms of governance, there was little need for the art of rhetoric as a tool of civic discourse. But with the rise of Christianity, liberal arts education was soon employed in the service of other goals. The clash between pagan classical culture and Christianity in the patristic period was reconciled by St. Augustine, himself an accomplished teacher of rhetoric prior to his dramatic conversion. Training in grammar, logic, and rhetoric was both good and necessary, Augustine held, for understanding the truth embedded in an authoritative scripture and assisting in the soul’s ascent to a knowledge of God. Thus were the liberal arts made to serve the needs of biblical interpretation, the elaboration of Christian theology, and the private life of piety. They were eventually codified in the Middle Ages into seven subjects--the trivium (grammar, rhetoric, and logic), and the quadrivium (arithmetic, geometry, music, and astronomy). With the development of the great European universities in the twelfth century, the liberal arts were tied to broader social aims as preparation for more specialized studies in the faculties of law, medicine, and theology.
With the rise of the schools, however, also came the ascendance of scholasticism. The introduction of the philosophical texts of Aristotle into Europe during the twelfth century occasioned a new synthesis in the thirteenth of pagan philosophy and Christianity by leading lights of the Dominican order, most notably Albert the Great and Thomas Aquinas. As this synthesis established itself at the University of Paris and elsewhere, the curriculum leading to the study of theology was re-organized. Among the liberal arts, logic was given precedence over rhetoric, and the role of character formation in the study of grammar was de-emphasized. The liberal arts as a whole were preparatory to the study of philosophy, which was divided according to the broad Aristotelian distinctions between nature, morality, and metaphysics. Philosophy was in turn preparatory to the study of theology. And theology itself shifted from the symbolic biblical theology of the earlier centuries to a dialectical theology which aimed to convert the tenets of the Christian faith into a comprehensive system of propositions based on the plan of Aristotelian categories and distinctions. This new program in the schools came to be known as the via antiqua, and it unleashed a period of intense philosophical activity that eventually degenerated into overly subtle disputation with little connection to the life of Christian piety or the needs of the church and the world.
The scholastic subordination of rhetoric to logic and the orientation of liberal arts as a whole to the philosophical project of speculative knowledge soon elicited a strong reaction in the form of Renaissance humanism. The humanists of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries drew upon the old Roman civic ideal of liberal arts education, the rhetorical tradition of literary study geared to the demands of the active life and the development of the human personality. This grand movement, tied to the flourishing of civic culture in northern Italy and spurred by the re-discovery of the full texts of Quintilian’s Institutio Oratoria in 1416 and Cicero’s De oratore in 1422, gave birth to a program of study known as the studia humanitatis. The schools of northern Italy became the center for this re-invention of liberal education, a new course of study that soon spread to the secular courts, urban centers, and eventually to the universities of Europe and England, finding its most striking advocate in the celebrated figure of Erasmus (1469-1536), the “Colossus of Rotterdam.”
In the culture wars that ensued between the scholastics and humanists, the Protestant reformers without exception took the side of the humanists, recommending an education aimed at the cultivation of the language arts and the promotion of true piety. They had, after all, just elevated the authority of the biblical text over that of the institutional church. They saw in the humanist program of study the literary tools they needed to recover the teachings of the Bible, which were to provide leverage over an ecclesiastical tradition they were convinced had gone astray. In addition, humanities helped make the preaching and teaching of the fresh message of scripture persuasive among the people and the courts of Europe. In the Lutheran camp, Melanchthon reasserted the priority of rhetoric over logic in the arts curriculum of Wittenberg. Calvin, trained as a humanist scholar in France, modeled the college at Geneva on the school in Strasbourg organized by Johannes Sturm, where a simple faith was to be combined with classical learning in order to produce a “wise and eloquent piety.” From Geneva this approach to liberal arts education spread throughout the Reformed countries on the continent, and to England through the work of John Colet and Roger Ascham. In New England, the colonial colleges were modeled on the colleges of Oxford and Cambridge, where they first drew their professorate. Harvard was fashioned after Emmanuel College of Cambridge University, a Puritan stronghold; William and Mary after Queen's College, Oxford.
Thus the colleges of seventeenth and eighteenth century America continued the rhetorical tradition of liberal arts education. As centers of instruction according to a classical curriculum, typically tied to a religious tradition, they endeavored to form and prepare their students for lives of civic service in the various professions. The emphasis was on teaching, the cultivation of aptitudes and character by moral guidance and by literary induction into the stream of canonical culture. Moreover, teaching was conducted on the regency rather than the professorial system: typically, one teacher would instruct an entire class of students in all subjects throughout their four-year stay. In many instances, the president of the college taught a capstone course in “moral philosophy” to all seniors, a course that was integrative and, in today’s terms, interdisciplinary. The curriculum was the same for all--one big core--with no electives and no majors. In Europe, as in the States, open-ended research was conducted largely outside the sphere of both the college and university. The development of the new experimental sciences of nature took place in learned societies; philosophers, for the most part, moved among the landed aristocracy.
This arrangement, however, was to change dramatically with the cultural ascendancy of the German research university in the nineteenth century, beginning with the founding of the University of Berlin in 1810 by Wilhelm von Humbolt. Placing the Enlightenment project of free inquiry--the generation of new knowledge untethered by religious dogma and unconnected to practical concerns--at the center of the university enterprise, the German model of higher education created an environment geared to the vigorous pursuit of specialized research and the training of future researchers. The classical curriculum was dismantled and divided according to the separate disciplines; the new disciplines of the natural sciences were brought on board and given equal footing; autonomous departments were created on the basis of this array disciplines; students could elect majors in specific disciplines. Hiring and promotion policies favored and fostered the research ethos. University faculty lived not to teach so much as to write.
In the course of the nineteenth century the German universities amassed a great deal of prestige--and a good number of American graduate students--on the basis of their impressive advances in research accomplished under their auspices. By comparison, the older and more diffuse form of education at the liberal arts college began to look decidedly second rate, at best preparatory for university level work.
The German research model entered the American scene with the founding of Johns Hopkins University in 1876. Thomas Huxley delivered the main address at this momentous event. A zealous advocate of the ethos of free inquiry, Huxley argued in his well-known essay, "Science and Culture," that "liberal education" should be founded upon "an unhesitating faith that the free employment of reason, in accordance with scientific method, is the sole method of reaching truth." It is fair to say that the research model took American higher education by storm. Institution after institution fashioned itself after the German university in ethos and infrastructure. The old classical curriculum was broken down into its component disciplines, which in turn became several of the many options students could elect to pursue as major concentrations if they were so inclined. Departments were formed. Research was promoted. Religious ties were loosened. Graduate programs were expanded.
The dramatic change in the complexion of American higher education put the liberal arts colleges in a culturally awkward position. Andrew D. White, the first president of Cornell University, described them in 1865 as a "regime of petty sectarian colleges." William Rainey Harper, president of the University of Chicago, claimed in 1900 that such colleges would soon find their place as advanced preparatory schools for the universities. Three years later, Starr Jordan, president of Stanford University predicted that "the college will disappear"--the best of the colleges will become universities; the others will become secondary schools.
Jordan's prediction came true, for the most part, with the following modifications. During the first half of the twentieth century, not just the best of the colleges became universities; most of them did. They did so not by adding graduate programs and awarding advanced degrees, but by adopting the curriculum, infrastructure, and ethos of the research universities at their own station. Their curriculum was re-organized according to the separate disciplines; autonomous departments were created; and research was promoted even as the primary commitment to undergraduate teaching was maintained. Many colleges also sought to create an atmosphere of free inquiry, thus starting the engines of secularization, while at the same time maintaining nominal ties to a religious tradition or denomination. Thus most liberal arts colleges in America today are a curious hybrid: they contain the vestigial organs of the old classical curriculum, with its emphasis on teaching and instruction according to a common tradition; but those organs are now surrounded and encased by the newer vital systems of the modern research university, which were designed for specialized, open-ended research.
In the 1960s Calvin College participated in the internal replication of the research university model on the undergraduate level, advocating the "disciplinary view" of liberal arts education. It did not, however, at the same time suggest that inquiry within the disciplines should be loosened from its religious mooring. Far from it. All inquiry was to be conducted from a Christian perspective. But the disciplinary view was designed to make Calvin College safe for research--more like a university in structure, if not in commitment to the ideal of autonomous reason--thus forever changing the focus and feel and the institution. The statement on curriculum in which this view was codified, Christian Liberal Arts Education, is still in force today. And it is to this document we now turn.