A Classic Teacher
Ken Bratt wins Calvin's top teaching honor
By Phil de Haan

Ken BrattAfter 30 years in the classroom, teaching is still a thrill for Calvin College classics professor Ken Bratt, the 2006 winner of the college’s Presidential Award for Exemplary Teaching.

“Seeing the lights go on for a student is an amazing thing,” Bratt said. “To see young people leap imaginatively over the centuries and find something good and meaningful in a culture previously irrelevant to them is richly rewarding. It’s one of the most satisfying things about teaching.”

Bratt is the 14th winner of Calvin’s top teaching honor — dating back to the award’s inception in 1993 — and will receive a one-of-a-kind medallion and a significant financial stipend from the George B. and Margaret K. Tinholt Endowment Fund, established at Calvin by a donor in honor of George Tinholt, a former member of the Calvin board of trustees.

Receiving the award, Bratt said, is surprising.

“I had suggested maybe a dozen people this year for the award,” he recalled. “I thought they were all deserving of the honor. To be singled out in this way from such a talent pool makes me feel a little uncomfortable.”

"To see young people leap imaginatively over the centuries and find something good and meaningful in a culture previously irrelevant to them is richly rewarding." — Ken Bratt

Yet colleagues who nominated Bratt say he is deserving of the honor.

In supporting Bratt’s nomination, classics colleague Mark Williams eloquently described his friend’s influence in the Calvin classroom.

“Plato wrote of teaching and learning as the sort of interaction in which insights pass, like sparks, from soul to soul,” wrote Williams, who is the department chair. “Although Ken would be loathe to claim this similarity with Plato, I believe there are sparks of insight that pass from Ken to the students in every one of his classes. Usually these sparks are exactly what the college expects as a Christian institution: the student emerges from the classroom richer not just for having understood a passage of Greek or Latin (although there is certainly that), but rather for having understood it for the first time in a Christian context. They have learned from the soul as well as the mind; this is exactly what a Calvin education is all about, and Ken Bratt exemplifies the way it should be taught.”

Classics colleague (and former Bratt student) Jeff Winkle said Bratt is a role model.

“When I think of what kind of professor, what kind of mentor, what kind of colleague I want to be, I only need to glance a few doors down,” he said. “Ken’s passion for classics and for his students is palpable and contagious. I have experienced it firsthand, and I hear it on the lips of my students.”

Since coming to Calvin in 1977, Bratt has taught hundreds of students in almost all of the department’s courses, including all levels of Greek and Latin, classical art and archaeology, classical literature, and mythology.

That last area of expertise came in handy a decade ago when he received a call from local sports officials who had secured a team in the International Hockey League and were looking to name it the Grand Rapids Griffins. They wanted to get Bratt’s opinion on the nickname, especially any negative ancient connotations that might be associated with the mythological beast that is half lion and half eagle.

Bratt was able to reassure the team officials that griffins were associated with a number of positive qualities — strength, speed and determination on land and in the air — and that they had a fine nickname for the team. (This season the Grand Rapids Griffins are celebrating a decade of hockey in the city’s Van Andel Arena!)

“Ken’s passion for classics and for his students is palpable and contagious. I have experienced it firsthand, and I hear it on the lips of my students.”—Jeff Winkle

In addition to his teaching, Bratt has been the director of the Calvin Honors Program since 1993, a program that has grown significantly in both size and scope under his direction. Some 500 students a year now participate in a variety of Honors Program activities, including honors classes, special honors research, workshops and conferences, paid McGregor Summer Research Fellowships and even the occasional Trivial Pursuit contest against honors students from other area colleges.

He notes that students today bring far different experiences to the classroom than students did a generation ago.

“Our students today are so sharp,” he said, “but what they bring to classics courses is so different than it used to be. I gained my education through books; it was all about the text for me. Today’s students are used to learning visually from TVs and computers. So going back centuries to other cultures which expressed themselves profusely in visual images is not a difficult thing for them — it’s like exploring another virtual reality, except that it’s historical. That makes some of what I teach a lot of fun.”

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Yet, Bratt noted, today’s students are less prepared to perform textual analysis, a skill that is particularly important for the pre-seminary students who take Greek, and one that is critical to their work as pastors and central to what Calvin is all about.

“When I teach New Testament Greek to future pastors, I tell them that their primary responsibility will be to interpret the text accurately. The word of God is not a painting, not a film. It’s a living word, and they need to understand the text deeply,” he said. “Part of that is transplanting themselves into the first century to try to think like Matthew and Mark. But part of that is also to understand the other classical authors. So they should know something about Plato as well as Mark, Augustine as well as Paul. That’s always been the liberal arts vision at Calvin, and I’m very grateful for it.”

Bratt is also grateful for people over the years who provided for him an example of what a great teacher should be. One of the closest and most enduring influences was his father, Bert Bratt, who for 38 years taught at Oakdale Christian School in Grand Rapids.

Ken Bratt

“He taught junior high,” Ken Bratt recalled, “mainly Bible and history. He was very challenging and enthusiastic. I hope that I have some of him in how I teach.

Bratt also cites several high school and college teachers as significant influences, particularly John Breuker, his high school Latin teacher.

“I took three years of high school Latin, and it’s the reason I decided to continue Latin at Calvin,” Bratt recalled. “I had in mind to teach high school Latin after I graduated, but as I made my way through Calvin I was encouraged by several professors to consider college teaching.”

In fact, based on their encouragement, Bratt did decide to pursue a college teaching career, and then had to complete a Greek major in two years, including six Greek courses his senior year.

After graduating from Calvin in 1968, he was drafted into the Army during the Vietnam War and ended up in New York City teaching chaplain assistants at the Army Chaplain School. He recalls that as his first exposure to a wide variety of other cultures and faiths.

“The experience was very satisfying,” he said. “The chaplain assistants I trained had to be prepared to serve Catholics, Protestants of all kinds and Jews. I felt that the chaplains were doing good work in a difficult situation, and their assistants had an opportunity to be of some earthly good to soldiers. It was a unique sort of teaching that made me aware of a much wider range of human experience than we usually see in our classrooms.”

After his discharge from the Army, Bratt did his graduate work in classics at Princeton University and took his first teaching job at Colby College in Waterville, Maine, where he taught for three years. In 1977 he was offered positions in classics at both Calvin and Hope.

Ken Bratt is married to Laurel Strikwerda ’68, and they have three children: Christina Porter ’98, Jessica ’02 and Justin ’04.