Moral formation has always been an important component of the tradition of liberal arts education. At Calvin, the liberal arts tradition is centered in the core curriculum, and radiates from there into the major concentrations, professional programs, and the educational programming of the Student Life Division. It seems fitting, then, that a statement on the moral aims of a Calvin education should be located in a document on the purposes of the core curriculum, even though the project of moral formation cannot be limited to core courses.
Many students arrive on Calvin’s campus in a state of acute social anxiety, self-conscious about their appearance and personality, uneven in their intellectual preparation for college level work, in some cases damaged by conflicts in their families or unwise choices made in high school. They come to Calvin eager for new experiences, new relationships, and for the credentials they need to fit into the professional world and thus secure a niche for themselves in a rapidly changing and confusing economic environment. Their concerns and aspirations are neither trivial nor insignificant. But the college hopes, in the course of the education it offers, to lift them above the tyranny of personal problems, beyond the clutches of the imperial self, into an expansive world that invites their best efforts on behalf of God’s kingdom of truth, justice, and peace. It seeks to foster within them the committed heart of a servant as well as the critical eye of a prophet. It wants to equip them with the knowledge and skills required for a life of Christian service, and the inclination to live that life. In the following we attempt to name and describe traits that mark such a life. These are virtues we expect to be exercised in the Calvin community even as they are commended to a life in the world beyond its campus.
While a specification of the virtues we would want to foster in our students will have definite implications for the content of the core curriculum, it will also and especially be crucial for the pedagogies we employ in the teaching of core courses. Thus we venture, in this section, into questions of pedagogy. And with some justification. For core curriculum and core pedagogy together make up the whole of core education, and they should not be considered separately--an ideal curriculum wedded to inappropriate pedagogy will have little effect; solid pedagogy trapped in a bad curriculum will be, to a large degree, wasted effort.
Virtues are settled dispositions to feel and to act in certain ways. A compassionate person is inclined, as if by nature, to be moved by human suffering. A person in possession of the virtue of honesty has the disposition to tell the truth. Vices are also dispositions. A callous person, bearing within the breast a heart of stone, disregards the needs of others as a matter of habit. A person saddled with the vice of deceitfulness has the disposition to lie whenever lying seems convenient. A particular array of virtues and vices, taken together, makes up a person’s character.
From its very inception in the Greco-Roman period, liberal arts education has sought not only to equip students with knowledge and skill, but also to shape their character on the basis of some shared conception of the good for human life. Isocrates, Quintilian, and Cicero were no sophists, for they were deeply concerned about the moral formation of their students even as they fitted them with the powers of rhetoric. When the program of liberal arts education was later appropriated by the Christian church, it was not divested of its moral import. But it was bought to a different understanding of the human condition and the moral project. In the Christian community, moral formation is not a matter simply of drawing out and directing the innate potentialities of human nature. For Christian doctrine teaches us that human nature has been deeply damaged by the power of sin, far beyond the repair of any human agency. To live aright, we stand in need of God’s grace, God’s forgiveness, and the enabling power of God’s Spirit. The virtues we enjoy are not of our own making. They are the “fruits of the Spirit,” the results of God’s work with us (Galatians 5:22-23; Philippians 2:12-13). They are the family uniform of those who have died and risen with Christ (Colossians 3:1-4, 12-14).
This is not to say, however, that the acquisition of virtue is a wholly passive or mystical affair for the Christian. We are called to co-operate in this process of putting on the new person in Christ by shunning evil, by practicing the disciplines of prayer, confession, and fasting, by listening to God’s word and participating in the sacraments. We are instructed to correct and reprove each other, to set and to follow good examples. We are, in short, to “train ourselves in godliness” (I Timothy 4:7). Christian liberal arts education, then, if it is true to its educational ideal as well as its religious roots, will also attempt to foster within its students the virtues constitutive of a life well-lived, drawing its conception of the good life from the teachings of the Old and New Testaments, the example of Christ, the moral traditions of the church, and ethical reflection guided by the same.
Although CLAE (Christian Liberal Arts Education) was an attempt to spell out the meaning of the liberal arts ideal for a Christian college such as Calvin, it was curiously silent on such topics as the virtues and character formation. It is difficult to know how to account for this lacuna. Perhaps, at the time, that point was so well and pervasively understood that it seemed superfluous to make explicit comment on it. Perhaps it was assumed that character formation is the exclusive business of the church, or the Student Life Division. Perhaps Calvinist higher education to date has been overly intellectualistic, emphasizing the content of belief while ignoring the character of the believer. Perhaps it was thought that any attention to moral formation would play into the hands of the pietist wing of the Reformed community, giving an inward turn to the Christian impulse of a Calvin education.
Whatever the explanation may be, it is clearly time to retrieve this major component of the liberal arts ideal, attempt to articulate it for ourselves, and agree as a faculty upon its main contours. Most of us are the intellectual products of graduate programs in secular research universities, where education is ostensibly “value-free” and instruction attempts to maintain strict neutrality on the question of the good. We acquired a certain kind of knowledge; we acquired certain kinds of skills. What we would do with them, the kind of life we proposed to make with them, even how we acquired them, was our own business. Perhaps many of us have absorbed the ethos of neutrality in matters of education and therefore find it difficult to see what more teaching in the disciplines could possibly amount to. Perhaps we think that moral suasion is the business of RAs, not PhDs. But, of course, education has always amounted to more than the mere impartation of knowledge and skills. Even in the secular research university, certain virtues are being inculcated, a particular version of the good pursued, however implicit or unacknowledged. At a liberal arts college, we should be up front and intentional about the unavoidably formative effects of the educational process, and at a Christian college we are in an excellent position to do so.
Yet even though the virtues require our explicit attention, it is more likely that they are caught rather than taught--at least, if by teaching we mean the transfer of objective information and the like. There would be nothing quite so ridiculous, nothing that would elicit so much cynicism among our students, as a required course entitled “Virtue 101.” Virtue, and its nurture in the souls of our students, then, will be primarily a matter of pedagogy. How are virtue and good character promoted in our teaching? Roughly: by exemplifying virtue in ways both admirable and worthy of imitation; and by inviting students to engage in those activities where virtue is both exercised and required for success. The virtue of courage, for instance, is inculcated not by teaching our students about the nature of courage but by inviting them to partake in those activities where courage is required. In the absence of a war, sports will usually do. It takes a lot of fortitude to dive into the fray of a soccer game, to slide into third base head first, to push through exhaustion while running cross country, to go in for a layup amid a thicket of elbows and knees. Likewise, there are difficult questions to be tackled in the classroom that often call for a great deal of intellectual courage. We can model courage in an academic setting by taking those questions on; we can foster courage in an academic setting by asking our students to do the same. A pedagogy that shapes character as well as it informs the mind is a pedagogy that provides good examples of the virtues it seeks to impart and invites students to be active in learning so that they may acquire those virtues for themselves. Intellectual character, and its moral analogs, cannot be developed on the sidelines of the academic life. Students must be encouraged to become participants, to get wholly involved in the project of shared inquiry, if they are to develop the kinds of dispositions that will make for a life well-lived both within the academy and beyond its walls.
In the tradition of moral philosophy, the virtues are usually divided into the intellectual and the moral. This division should not give the impression, however, that they can be neatly separated in all respects. For the intellectual project, in reality, is a social endeavor. We chase after knowledge not in isolation, but in groups. If we do not exercise such moral virtues as charity, humility, honesty, and justice, we will obstruct the intellectual process of inquiry and impede the shared search for truth.
In the following list we name and describe those virtues we think play a special role in the life of the mind and the building of community, both at Calvin and in the world at large. The list is neither systematic nor exhaustive. It is, rather, exemplary, tailored to the mission of the college as an academic institution. Moreover, it does not seek to suggest, by describing the virtues under separate headings, that the virtues can be possessed in isolation from each other. Abstracted virtues quickly become vices: diligence becomes workaholism, honesty degenerates into brutality, and generosity slides into carelessness. The virtues must be mutually tempered and ultimately bound by the master virtue of love. As God's chosen people, we are enjoined by St. Paul to clothe ourselves with “compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience,” but above all to clothe ourselves “with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony" (Colossians 3:12 and 14).
The acquired habit of expending considerable energy in the steady pursuit of some goal, diligence is required wherever excellence is sought. It is the willingness to dig in for the long haul, to forego lesser goods in the present for the sake of greater goods in the future. It is grounded in the realization that “fine things are hard,” and rooted in the hope that effort in the same direction over a long time will eventually yield results well worth the wait. It is the condition of real accomplishment in any field that requires more than luck and good fortune. In the academic life, it means not giving up on a difficult text when that text can’t be understood the first time through; persevering with a problem until a solution is found; repeating the conjugation of a verb in a strange tongue until the proper endings become second nature. At Calvin, the academic workload should be gauged, pitched, and paced so that it is impossible for students to do well without exercising a great deal of this particular virtue. While no instructor should push students to the point of despair, no course at Calvin should be set up so that students can coast through it and still get decent marks. Calvin should be a place where students must get serious about their intellectual work if they are not already, learn how to manage their time, plan ahead, turn off the TV, and study even when they don't feel like it. The acquisition of such habits of diligence will stand them in good stead in their callings, whether they remain in the academy or venture beyond its walls. In addition, members of the faculty at Calvin should set a good example of this virtue in the classroom, investing considerable amounts of fresh and visible energy in their pedagogical efforts.
The virtue of patience is an essential support for the practice of diligence. Unfortunately, patience, like diligence, is not encouraged in our society, whose commercial culture runs on the engines of instant gratification. Patience is the ability to absorb a great deal of life’s trouble--including pain, fatigue, setbacks, delays, annoyances, and the like--without loss of self-control, without caving in or blowing up. Students, in whom the private vice of impatience has been cultivated as a public virtue in the marketplace, should be coached and encouraged at Calvin to wait for results that can only be had after a long and sometimes difficult period of effort. They should be weaned from unrealistic expectations of instant and effortless success in their academic endeavors. The tasks assigned to them should, because of their difficulty or magnitude, require patience. Members of the faculty should therefore avoid devising occasions of cheap and easy success for the sake of making students feel good about themselves or the classes they take. Self-esteem in matters academic should be based on the reality of accomplishment, not the empty gestures of affirmation by instructors who think of themselves as therapists. Moreover, in our teaching we should not be given to quick and easy solutions where there are none, but be willing to do in the classroom the kind of patient work we expect of our students in their studies, ready to absorb a great deal of trouble for the sake of solid achievement.
Intellectual honesty is often equated with the conscientious avoidance of plagiarism. Although honesty in matters of the intellect certainly includes truth in citation, it goes much deeper: it means not dismissing data, evidence, or argument in order to hang on to our favorite theories, not covering our eyes and stopping our ears in order to remain in our mental, moral, social, or religious comfort zones. An intellectually honest position is one that has given careful consideration to counter-veiling evidence; one that has fully explored and fairly assessed opposing arguments; one that has seriously contemplated alternative explanations and is able to state them with precision. Intellectual honesty can be fostered in our students by holding them accountable in their work for a careful consideration of viewpoints in opposition to their own, by not letting them get through the college without struggling with data, evidence, arguments, and views that might challenge the notions with which they entered its gates. Likewise, as faculty members, we should not allow ourselves to dismiss and ignore objections to our own positions, but be willing to show how we have dealt with them or--if they are new to us--display a willingness to review matters in a new light.
As patience is to diligence, so courage is to honesty. It serves as an essential support. The intellectual landscape of our day is filled with formidable challenges, strange ideas, troubling issues, and unsettling questions. And the honest way though that landscape is not wide, straight, and smooth, but narrow, winding and rugged. Moreover, it is not always clear from the outset where the journey on that road will take us, what among our cherished belongings we will have to discard along the way, or how we will be changed as we make progress. Intellectual courage signifies the willingness to take risks, to take on the hard questions and follow the answers wherever they lead. It means relinquishing one’s position when that position has been shown no longer to be tenable, as well as holding on to one’s well-grounded convictions in the face of ridicule and hostility. Courage can be modeled in the classroom by asking the hard questions; changing one’s mind when asked to do so by the evidence; and sticking to one’s guns when conviction demands tenacity. Courage can be fostered by helping students to do the same. The college, moreover, can support this virtue by belaying and advising its more adventurous faculty members as they search out new and difficult routes on the previously unexplored faces of their disciplines.
In moments of intellectual conflict, disagreement, and exchange of opposing standpoints, it is tempting to caricature an opponent’s position in order to dismiss it, to create a straw person that can be easily knocked down, to impute errant motives so as to make a position--whatever its content--look morally suspect and untenable. In the academic arena, charity is a matter of giving other people the benefit of the doubt, of putting the best face on their positions, of assuming their sincerity as seekers after truth. More generally, it means speaking and writing with clarity, so as not to confound or confuse others, listening attentively enough to be able to summarize accurately what someone has said, arguing without acrimony, being ready to praise what is genuinely praiseworthy in an otherwise faulty presentation. Students should be encouraged to practice charity in their academic work, granting those with whom they disagree a sympathetic hearing, giving a charitable interpretation to positions they may find strange or offensive, and treating others with respect, ever on the lookout for what is good within. Likewise, we should demonstrate this virtue in class when we are challenged by our students; when we are representing positions with which we strongly disagree; when we are moderating student discussions or commenting on their work.
Creativity is an excellence of the imagination. It is the springboard of the arts, suggesting new and arresting combinations of pitch and rhythm, of image and metaphor, of media and material, and new connections to the social context. But it is also the generative source of the sciences and the achievements of practical life. For scientific theories are not dictated by empirical data. They too are the products of the human imagination, even if they are subsequently tested and sorted out on the basis of empirical findings. Likewise, solutions to practical problems are not forced by circumstance, but invented by those whose minds freely range over a multitude of possibilities. Through their liberal arts education, students at Calvin should be encouraged to stretch their imaginations and find joy in the creative moment. For fresh expression in the arts, advances in the sciences, and new approaches to seemingly intractable problems of practical lifeall depend on the ability of the human mind to move from the actual to the possible and the willingness to take risks in realizing the latter. Moreover, at Calvin, students should come to discover--perhaps to their surprise--that the Christian faith can serve as a vibrant source of creativity, not a limit upon it, suggesting insights and approaches that are novel, striking, and largely unexplored in our secular age. This can readily happen when faculty members provide the example, ever on the lookout for the untried potentials of their faith as it bears on the issues and problems presented in their disciplines.
A deep and creative grasp of a subject requires empathy, an imaginative transposition of the whole self into the matters to be understood, a readiness to experience the world as others have experienced it. Whether it strives to comprehend a Greek tragedy, a medieval monastery, modernist architecture, or a secular ideology, the human mind comes to grasp more fully and more vividly what it can understand from an imaginative standpoint located at the productive center of the phenomenon in question. In our classroom instruction and exercises, with mature guidance and appropriate caution, students should be encouraged to move about in their imaginations, to inhabit locations that differ significantly from their own, standpoints from which the world not only looks different but feels different, so that they may be disposed to understand the works and words of those of different background and experience, those with a different temperament and sense of life, those of the opposite sex, those of a distant social stratum, those who have suffered what they have not, those who occupy a different historical world or subscribe to a different set of beliefs and attitudes--a Socrates, a Darwin, a Malcolm X or a Simone de Beauvoir; in short, so that they may come to acquire an understanding of their culturally distant neighbors that is thoroughly enlivened by the powers of empathy.
In our academic pursuits we should strive to achieve a just estimation of our powers as finite and fallen knowers and thus come to possess the virtue of intellectual humility. To possess such a virtue is not to despair of knowledge or the truth. Humility is not skepticism, but a realization that our faculties are limited and fallible, that all cultures have their blind spots, and that we should therefore remain open--even as we carry on with our convictions--to correction by fresh evidence, new argument, and more experience. Humility before a text is grounded in the expectation that we will have something to learn from it; humility before experience, in the realization that experience is vast and ever instructive; humility before other persons, in the recognition that they are complex, varied, and inventive, and therefore may have something unexpected to say that will change our minds. We can exemplify this virtue in the classroom by readily admitting our noetic limitations and openly displaying a commitment to our own “continuing education,” whether that education is to be found in the great texts and works of a tradition or the remarks of our students. Students, likewise, should be encouraged in the classroom to keep themselves open and teachable, even on matters they believe they have already sorted out.
The world and all it contains has been entrusted by God to the care of the human race. We are to cultivate it, tend to it, learn from it, delight in it, develop its manifold potentials, and manage it in ways that benefit the entire human community and other living members of the bio-sphere. We are not to waste it, spoil it, or use it up for ourselves at the expense of others. Yet there are many forces in our culture that would prompt us to squander the time, talent, and resources that God has graciously placed at our disposal. We often treat our natural environment as if it were infinitely resilient; we sometimes spend our days as if we had all the time in the world; we discard our things as if there will always be more; we expend our energy on frivolous activities as if there will always be time for the important things later; we let our talents lie fallow as if there will always be someone else to take up the slack. The community at Calvin College should strive to set a good example in the wise management of time, talent, energy, and resources. Students at Calvin should become aware of the irreplaceable value of the gifts God has given them and the responsibilities attached to those gifts, and thus come to see themselves as stewards, not mere users, of the creation. Where appropriate, issues of stewardship should be addressed in our classrooms; where possible, students should be invited to participate in activities on and off campus that manifest care for God’s creation--mending what is broken, cleaning what is soiled, nurturing the frail, conserving the scarce, saving the valuable.
In a sermon on a passage from the book of Galatians, John Calvin once speculated that God could have created us as self-sufficient individuals, each inhabiting separate universes unto ourselves. That God did not do so, but made us creatures of needs that can be fulfilled only in human community, means that God intended his image bearers to live a life together in mutual love and service. Compassion motivates us to respond to the needs of others. It propels us beyond a self-centered and callous concern for our own interests into the lives of others, to promote their good and their welfare. It feels with those who suffer; it suffers with those who are in need. The social stratification of our society, the clean well-lit places of our suburban homes, and the entertainment bias of the media have isolated us, mostly members of the middle-class, from the suffering of others. The poor may be with us always, but we’ve done a pretty good job of hiding them. Life has been fairly sanitized, and we are insulated in many ways from the plight of our neighbors. Students at Calvin should find themselves, in their courses and their off-campus experiences, exposed to human suffering, invited into situations that normally elicit human compassion. They should be introduced, moreover, to lives that have been driven by compassion, to professionals who have not used their gifts and talents to shore up privilege for themselves, but have been quite intentional about directing their services and their resources to the benefit of those most in need of them. Likewise faculty members should reflect on whether their lives manifest compassion or whether the demands of success in their academic careers have narrowed their moral vision and blinded them in some respects to the needs of those around them.
Justice is often emblazoned on the banners of the political left, while freedom serves as the watchword of the right. We often get the impression that we must choose between defending individual freedom, and letting social outcomes fall where they may, or promoting the cause of justice through the coercive power of the state, and leaving freedom by the wayside as a lesser good. Although there is an inescapable tension between these two ideals, they need not be posed as exclusive options. In order to protect the basic goods of human life, a community’s commitment to justice will lead to legislation enforced by the sword of the state; but not all issues of equity can be handled in this way without violating basic freedoms. Thus even in a well-formed state there will be much to do in the name of justice. A personal commitment to justice is a commitment to use one’s freedom to promote fairness in the way benefits and burdens are distributed in our society. Students at Calvin should learn about the principles of justice, the cases and causes of injustice in our society, both global and national; and they should be encouraged to form a commitment to the cause of justice, of doing what they can in personal, professional, and political life to insure fair treatment of all those who belong to the household of the human community. Likewise, a commitment to justice should be evident in the teaching we do at Calvin. It should govern the way we treat our students; it should have some bearing, where relevant, on the content of our courses; and it should list high among the concerns of the institution as evidenced by the speakers Calvin invites to its campus, the admissions and recruitment policies it pursues, the hospitality it extends to members of minority cultures and races, the service projects it sponsors, and the volunteer services it makes available.
Faith, as a virtue, is the auspicious combination of loyalty and trust. To be faithful to another person is to remain devoted to that person, to keep promises made to that person, to share in advancing that person's legitimate ends. As such, faith is a feature of good marriages and friendships. To have faith in another person is to trust in that person's good will and competence, as when one has faith in one's physician. It is a prerequisite for learning from others, and thus of advancing in knowledge. Christian faith is found wherever ultimate loyalty and trust is directed to God through Christ. In every case, such faith is a gift of God's grace. For, as fallen creatures, we are inclined to be more devoted to ourselves than to God, more interested in advancing our own power and prestige than the purposes of God's Kingdom; and we are inclined to place ultimate trust in ourselves, or one of the idols we have fashioned in God's stead. Christian faith comes when God in Christ makes it possible for us to repent of our sins, reach beyond ourselves, devote ourselves to Christ and his work of reconciliation, trust in him for our salvation, our guidance, and our care. But it also grows with exercise. As we experience God's goodness through faith, our faith is strengthened, preparing us for even greater demonstrations of God's goodness in our lives. Calvin should be a place where students find their faith nurtured, not only in chapel services and dorm Bible studies, but in the classrooms as well. In the core curriculum, students should find themselves reminded of the faith of those who have gone before them, in whose lives great things were accomplished through a childlike trust in God. The stories of God’s people need to be told, and re-told. Students should also find evident faith in their professors, a faith that is deep, constant, and directive of their work in the classroom, their approach to the disciplines, their relationships to students and colleagues, and their bearing in the face of adversity.
Hope is the confidence we have in the realization of a future good we desire, either through our own efforts or the efforts of others on our behalf. As such, hope keeps us going in life. It's the spark that ignites our motivations. Without it we despair; in its absence we close up shop. On the other hand, it is possible for us to hope too much--to expect to bring about a good for ourselves that we cannot possibly obtain through our own efforts, as when a student might hope to ace an exam without so much as the slightest preparation. Such is presumption. To hope in ourselves for our ultimate good and happiness is human presumption par excellence, a product of our pride. In the end, we must admit our incapacities, and hope in God rather than ourselves. This kind of hope--Christian hope--requires faith, a complete trust in God's competence and good will, which has been demonstrated to us in the incarnation, life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. If we turn away from God, we will find ourselves sliding back and forth between presumption and despair. Only faith in God keeps us from presuming too much on our own behalf or despairing of the good we rightly desire for ourselves and others--eternal life in a world renewed in right relationships, in an everlasting city of justice and delight. Students at Calvin should find themselves enveloped in a community of hope that is both girded and guided by Christian faith. They should come to realize that the entire project of Christian education is premised on hope that is in turn based on trust in God's faithfulness to his people. They should come to see themselves as participants in the grand plan of redemption already vouchsafed in Christ, able to know real joy in their lives because of the hope that is within them. They should, moreover, learn to have a proper confidence in the gifts and abilities God has given them, recognizing that it is possible for them, with God's help, to make a genuine difference in this world. Equally, they should become acquainted with their own limitations, and thus learn not to presume beyond their abilities. Here the classroom can be of great assistance, providing feedback on students’ efforts, assessing both strengths and weakness, abilities and limitations, so that they might serve well as "secondary agents" of transformation and renewal--secondary to the primary agency of God, for whom all things are possible.
Wisdom in practical life is a matter of pursuing ends proper to human life and making right judgments in the use of means in pursuit of those ends. It means, in effect, understanding how to live well and how the world works, so that the means we select are in fact conducive to our true ends. The wise build their houses upon the rock, because they know that sand is an unstable foundation. The foolish make traps into which they themselves fall--an unintended consequence. Those who possess wisdom have a keen sense for the ordering and point of God’s creation--they have broken the color code of the world’s huge skein of wire; they know where the lines of causation and motivation begin, where they intersect, and where they end; they understand what it takes to get good results; and they realize that the good for human life is ultimately located in a right relationship with God. The foolish, on the other hand, stumble about in creation as if in a darkened room. They look for happiness in the wrong places. They get their wires crossed. They fail to achieve the right mix of measures, and find it hard to strike a balance in life; their actions are often inappropriate, ill-timed, ineffectual, or irrelevant. They frequently make things worse by trying to make them better, and wonder why. Although wisdom generally displays itself most vividly in an individual life, it is not an individual invention. Wisdom is developed over time in a tradition and carried in a community. It is communicated in proverbs, occasional advice, and apprenticeships; it is conveyed in the established patterns of a shared life. The tradition of Christian wisdom, which begins in a deep reverence for God, should be well-represented at Calvin College. Students should find themselves being instructed in its ways in the classroom, the chapel, the dorm, on the athletic fields, throughout the halls, and in our offices. In addition, they should receive sound advice about Christian strategies for dealing with the ethical challenges they are likely to encounter in their personal and professional lives. At Calvin, a Christian college, they should find much evidence of the kind of wisdom that is more precious than silver, and learn to look for it as if it were gold.