Calvin College

CALVIN - Minds in the Making

Strengthening Liberal Arts Education by Embracing Place and Particularity

Case Study

Developing World Citizens: Learning to Listen to the Voices of the Poor

Description of the Project

For the last ten years, my wife, Jo Ann Van Engen and I have led a semester program in Honduras. The program is designed to expose undergraduate students to key issues that contribute to poverty, to discuss how those might be addressed both in Honduras and around the world and to analyze what our role should be in responding to those problems.

Students spend considerable time during the semester learning about and evaluating  major development theories--those theories that attempt to explain why poverty exists and how best to combat it. Students study the theories of Modernization, Dependency, Neoliberalism, Human Rights and Geography, among others, and are asked to reflect on which makes the most sense in understanding what they see in Honduras.

Students also read selections from authors we refer to collectively as democratization theorists—David Korten, John Clark and others who posit that true development can best occur by working at the local level, strengthening local communities rather than focusing exclusively on global, macro-level growth. Wendell Berry, well-known essayist, poet and farmer, in his essay, Damage, writes of how he harmed a piece of land in his earnest attempt to improve it.

“The trouble was the familiar one: too much power, too little knowledge. The fault was mine. I was careful to get expert advice. But this only exemplifies what I already knew. No expert knows everything about every place, not even everything about any place. If one’s knowledge of one’s whereabouts is insufficient, if one’s judgment is unsound, then expert advice is of little use” (Berry, 1990:5).

It would be logical to assume that simply locating our program in Honduras, one of the poorest countries in the Western Hemisphere, would ensure that this attention to local knowledge, to place-based learning, would naturally happen. And to be fair, we worked hard to ensure students heard from many local voices. We brought in guest speakers twice a week, took trips every other weekend, visited community projects and learned about the work of an array of organizations working for the poor. Our students responded enthusiastically and thoughtfully to the issues we brought to the table. But, increasingly we felt that the four walls of our classroom were insulating students from truly understanding the issues we discussed and their impact on people. And in exposing them to so many communities, projects and organizations in so many places, we succeeded often in giving them project overload, but didn’t help them grasp the myriad ways that complex communities and poverty interact.  

So, this past fall we redesigned the entire semester to try to incorporate more of the facets of true place-based learning in an attempt to give our students exposure to real people trying their best to work through the complex issues we discuss in the classroom.


Next: Place-based Components