Calvin College

CALVIN - Minds in the Making

Strengthening Liberal Arts Education by Embracing Place and Particularity

Case Study

Using walking and biking tours to connect students to place


“The core curriculum at Calvin College is a preparation for life…the core equips students for a life of informed and effective Christian service in contemporary society at large, for an engagement with God’s world…the goal of the core curriculum at Calvin College is likewise divided into three parts:  knowledge, skills, and virtues.  The courses in the core are designed to impact a basic knowledge of God, the world, and ourselves; to develop the basic skills in oral, written, and visual communication, cultural discernment, and physical activity; and to cultivate such disposition as patience, diligence, honesty, charity, and hope that make for a life well lived” (Calvin Catalog, 2006/2007, pg 35). 

What is unique to this description of the Calvin curriculum is the emphasis placed on developing virtues, through which we feel and act in certain ways.  One of the ways to develop and practice virtues is living in community, for this requires a conscious effort on the part of the individual to actively work for the well being of the larger society in which we are placed.  As Mouw (2001) has noted our actions should manifest those subjective attitudes and dispositions – those virtues that will motivate us in our efforts to promote societal health.

Throughout history, Americans have demonstrated the ability to balance personal freedom with promoting the common good. For example, much has been written about Thomas Jefferson’s words “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” which reflect this balance.  In the making of the film Thomas Jefferson, filmmaker Ken Burns interviewed historians and philosophers, asking them to explain what Jefferson meant by the words pursuit of happiness.  What he found was a profound sense that Jefferson connected both individual and societal happiness.  Writer, Timothy Ferris portrays this connection between individual and society, when he states, “it seems to me that the purpose of education is to answer the question of what the pursuit of happiness is for you. The reason we go to school ought to be not to learn some skills to get a job to make a better salary, but to find out enough of who I am so that I know how to pursue my own happiness.  And that happiness is necessarily involved with that of the wider society for reasons that Jefferson saw so clearly. If you just pursue your own happiness and you don't care about anyone else, it doesn't work. You find out that your happiness is bound up with everyone else's happiness.  It's a common endeavor…so many of Jefferson's ideas converge on the realization that, if it doesn't work out for everyone, it's not going to work out for the individual.” Philosopher, Stephen Mitchell highlights the duty of seeking the common good even more strongly when he notes, “as he meant it, I think it had nothing to do with hedonistic pleasure. It had to do with deep satisfaction—including the satisfactions of doing your duty to your country, of doing the right thing by your friends and by your enemies.”

As these quotes indicate there has been a long history of civic responsibility in the United States, where individuals have struggled to balance their individual wishes (freedom) with the responsibility they felt to contribute to the common good of society.  Over the last half of the 20th century, many feel this sense of civic responsibility has lessened and Americans have lost the desire to collectively strive for the common good as evident in the writing of Robert Putnam (2000) who describes the loss of social capital in America over the last 25 years.  

Yet new emphasis has been placed on finding ways to help people re-connect across the United States.  These efforts can also be seen at Calvin, where efforts have been taken to help students build community within the college as well as help re-connect students to the surrounding communities around Calvin.  The challenge for many professors is helping students see how studying such subjects as history, philosophy, music and art can contribute to how they should live their lives on a day to day basis both now and in the future.  This case study describes several such efforts by Calvin to connect a wide range of classes to the study of urban sprawl. 


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