The Purpose of the Core Curriculum
Today, Calvin College is a comprehensive institution of higher learning rooted in the liberal arts tradition. However, since the re-organization of Calvin’s curriculum in the late 1960s according to the disciplinary model proposed in CLAE (Christian Liberal Arts Education) the purpose of liberal arts education carried in the core curriculum has been less than perfectly clear. There should be little mystery to this. For there are two agendas at work in CLAE. One ties into the classical ideal of liberal arts education as personal formation and preparation for involvement in civic life; the other hooks up with the more narrowly focused ideal of the modern research university, the training of knowledge workers for the fields of academe. In its broad statements of purpose for Christian education, CLAE clearly aligns itself with the former: the aim of Christian education, it claims, “is to train students to live the life of faith in contemporary society” (CLAE, p. 40). Yet, when we come to its specific interpretation of the liberal arts ideal, the emphasis swings in the direction of the disciplinary research agenda. After faulting the classical ideal of liberal education championed by William Harry Jellema for its “passivity,” CLAE issues the following injunction: “We must ourselves develop the various disciplines; and...we must educate new generations for productive and creative work in the various disciplines” (CLAE, p. 46). A page later CLAE repeats the point, asserting that, “The primary focus of a Christian liberal arts education should be on teachers and students together engaging in the various scholarly disciplines” (CLAE, p. 47). The aims of the general education program at Calvin--later called the “Core Curriculum”--are then spelled out exclusively in terms of the separate disciplines and never move beyond their scope. Through a set of distribution requirements, students are to become acquainted with the results of the disciplines, the methods of the disciplines, and the variety of approaches within the disciplines (CLAE, pp. 61-62). While there is some speculation in CLAE as to how the disinterested study of the disciplines will prepare students to live the Christian life in contemporary society--say, through the acquisition of generic intellectual skills (CLAE, pp. 63-67)--the connection between the two remains tenuous, vague, and unconvincing. The one interdisciplinary course that was to serve as the flagship of integrative common learning in the new curriculum--Christian Perspectives on Learning--was no sooner proposed than it was converted into a distribution option in the contextual disciplines. The “Core Curriculum” was implemented minus its core.
Thus there emerges within CLAE a gap between the ultimate goal of Christian liberal arts education as preparing students for a life of service in contemporary society, and the proximate aim of general education as introducing students to the disinterested study of the disciplines (as if they were being prepared for a life of service in contemporary academia). We propose a stronger link, a more direct connection, between the ultimate goal of Christian education and the core curriculum by suggesting that the primary aim of core courses in the disciplines should not be a general introduction to the disciplines, but an introduction--from the vantage points of the disciplines--to the world in which our students are called to serve, taught in ways that foster both the commitment and the ability to serve. The Expanded Statement of Mission puts the point this way: because “we are called to obey God as whole persons in every area of life…education should explicitly connect the way we think with the way we live” (ESM, p. 18). The chief aim of core courses in history, then, is not to present the discipline of history--its results, methods, and approaches--but to present the world in which students are called to participate as historical agents, to examine the formation of those ideas, themes, institutions, and practices that have shaped both their identities and the society they inhabit, to kindle a passion for the purposes of God in human culture, and to cultivate the habits of mind they must possess if they are to make good on that passion. Likewise, core courses in political science should not be designed as general introductions to the discipline of political science, but to the major political ideas, institutions, practices, issues, and tensions that students will grapple with as committed Christian citizens. Similar points could be made with respect to every discipline represented in the core.
It might seem that this proposal is more a matter of semantics than substance. The disciplines, after all, study the world, not themselves. To involve students in the study of the disciplines is thus already to involve them in the study of the world. We grant this point but still maintain that the disciplines can be engaged with different purposes in mind, and that a difference in purpose will make a difference in instruction. The line drawn from audience to objective will intersect the disciplines at different angles as audience and objective vary: if we are teaching our core courses to prospective majors with the intent of introducing them to our discipline, we will write the syllabus one way; if we are teaching students who will probably not pursue our discipline with the intent of providing them what they need for informed engagement in that aspect of life we trade in, then we will write the syllabus another way. If a core course in philosophy were simply an introduction to the discipline, then almost any topic that has engaged the minds of philosophers could go into the mix. If it weren’t for the antecedent limitations of student interest and ability, a semester’s introductory course in philosophy could be composed of causal theories of linguistic reference, the modal problem of trans-world identity, early modern theories of perceptual consciousness, and the fine points of Leibniz’s monadology. But if the course were designed to help students identify and deal with the philosophical issues embedded in life as it now confronts us, it would more likely devote itself to such problems as moral and cognitive relativism, the relation between scientific theory and religious belief, the claims to truth in a self-consciously pluralistic society, the phenomena of certainty and doubt in the domain of faith, the evolutionary explanation of human behavior, sexual ethics, and the like. (It should go without saying that such a course, in being directed to contemporary issues, need not limit itself to contemporary texts. Some of the best resources for gaining perspectives on these issues may be found in texts that come to us from other ages and other cultures.)
The chief questions, then, to be asked in shaping the content of the core curriculum should are these: what are the basic domains of the practical world in which we live out our various callings; and what must we know, become, and be able to do if we are to pursue our callings in these domains effectively? The disciplines will surely have a great deal to contribute here, not by calling attention to themselves, but by directing a focused look at that aspect of the world they know best. As the Expanded Statement of Mission puts it: “The classroom is a context for looking outward, for equipping students with an understanding of the world in which they live and for bringing a redemptive message to that world” (ESM, p. 25). Core courses should be taught not as if they were the first course students might take in a major, but the last one they take before they find their places in the world beyond Calvin’s campus. They should serve as windows on the world, not the academy.
Such, we submit, is the purpose of the core curriculum as it relates to the overarching goal of a Calvin education, the goal of enabling Christians to live effectively in contemporary society. A major concentration or professional program should enable our students to live a life of Christian service in their chosen professions. The core should enable them to do so in the other and equally important domains of their calling--the family, the church, the nation, the marketplace, the various venues of the arts, and the like. It should provide them with a basic understanding of the history, structure, themes, issues, and interaction within and among these various realms of practical life. It should furnish them with biblically informed insights so that they may enter these realms as ambassadors of Christ, well-equipped to represent and advance the redemptive purposes of God’s kingdom. Insofar as this education looks beyond the walls of the academy, beyond the “methods, results, and approaches” of the various disciplines, its focus is “external”--it prepares students to respond to their vocations in the broad, rich, and Reformed sense of that term.
To capture the connection between core curriculum and the overarching educational mission of the college is to set before us a goal that lies far beyond four years of education at Calvin. But if the core is to serve that ultimate goal well, it must also perform certain crucial functions during those four years. For a well-designed core curriculum should further a number of structural purposes internal to a college program of study, lest it become nothing more than a loose and ungainly collection of disciplinary offerings bound only by the criterion of practical relevance. In addition to preparing students for a life of effective service, the core curriculum should help found, integrate, unify, order, and mark a Calvin education.
The proximate purposes of the core curriculum at Calvin College, then, are the following:
- It should assure that certain proficiencies are in place in the early stages of academic work at Calvin, so that students are well-prepared to make progress in their subsequent studies. In this sense, the core curriculum will be foundational.
- It should establish integrative frameworks for study at Calvin, so that the particular forms of knowledge acquired in the disciplines connect, mutually re-enforce, and illuminate each other. In this sense, the core curriculum will be contextual.
- It should provide a common fund of intellectual experience, a common vocabulary for cross-disciplinary discussion, and thus create the conditions for an academic community that extends beyond the purview of the department, the major, or the program. In this sense, the core curriculum will be central.
- It should provide intelligent sequencing in the order of core studies, so that important common themes and skills get developed throughout the four years of a Calvin education, with core courses building on each other according to students’ level of expertise and intellectual maturity. In this sense, the core curriculum will be continual.
- It should convey Calvin’s Reformed identity, so that students, whatever their major or program, will have a significant exposure to a Reformed Christian understanding of reality and their place within it, acquiring a sense for how their work in the world could count as a response to God’s call to serve in his kingdom. In this sense, the core curriculum will be confessional.
Thus the questions of basic college proficiencies, contextualization, commonality, sequence, and confessional identity should be taken into account as chief desiderata in reviewing and revising the present core curriculum at Calvin. In most cases, these proximate purposes will not call for additional content in the core; rather, they will lend focus, definition, and a limit to its structure. They demand that decisions be made about what belongs to a true core of common courses and what belongs to the distribution requirements; what comes first in the order of study and what comes later; what should appear as a thematic component of many core courses and what should be consolidated in a single core course; and the like.
Whatever the particulars of these decisions turn out to be, the resulting structure of the core curriculum will most likely resemble a column rather than a simple foundation. To date, the core has been a series of distribution requirements that students “get out of the way” in the first two years of their academic work at Calvin. It serves as a kind of platform from which they launch their programs or major concentrations, leaving it far behind, a rapidly diminishing image in the rear view mirror of their career rocket. But if core is to serve its purposes--both ultimate and proximate--as envisioned in this statement, it must become more like a column that rises up through the center of a Calvin education, providing central structural support at each level, as it is implemented in common learning courses, object-oriented distribution requirements, and the educational programming of the student life division, and as its goals are deepened in the major concentration or professional program.
Since the adoption of CLAE, Calvin has been steadily fashioning itself after the image of the research university (cum professional school, since PECLAC). It should come as no surprise, then, that the college is now dealing with many of the educational problems that currently beset the larger universities: hyper-specialization, curricular fragmentation, departmental empire building, a lack of cross-disciplinary conversation and, to some degree, the loss of academic community. The tension between the ideals of the liberal arts college and those of the research university that Calvin now experiences is, nonetheless, one that we should cheerfully, if carefully, embrace. For there are many things on both sides of the divide that deserve our wholehearted support: on the one hand, the commitment to serious participation in the life of the disciplines, the promotion of cutting edge scholarship and Reformed witness in the professional guilds, and all the benefits that active research brings to the classroom by way of expertise and excitement; on the other hand, the commitment to a well-rounded and contextual education, the attention to the wholistic formation of students, and their preparation for a broad-based engagement of life that is guided by Christian commitment.
Nevertheless, in recent years the balance of the curriculum and organization of the college has tipped in the direction of the research ethos, with all the attendant problems mentioned above. However necessary CLAE was in its time, however appropriate it was to establish the disciplines, to make room for research, and to lend autonomy to the departments, it is now incumbent upon us to devote serious thought to the status of liberal arts education as it is carried in the core curriculum, to make it more than a sampling of various academic disciplines, so that we can say with integrity that this part of the college--its core--has both engaged the world and prepared students for a life of effective Christian service within it.
In the following three sections, we divide the content of the core curriculum into the broad areas of knowledge, skills, and virtues. Under these headings we have given specific statements of the curricular and pedagogical objectives of the core. These statements flesh out in some detail what we have in mind when we speak of the ultimate purposes of core; and they provide the raw material that will be required if the core is to fulfill its proximate purposes as well. Some forms of knowledge are directly relevant to informed participation in the domains of practical life, some will also serve as integrative frameworks for college study; some skills listed are required for a life of effective service in society, some must also be in place as basic proficiencies for college level work; all of the virtues will do double duty, serving to build academic community and to shape character for a life of Christian discipleship in the world at large. The final decision on the place, weight, and role of these elements in the core curriculum is worked out in the Proposal for the Core Curriculum.