A Life-Changing Class

Ericson

 

In 1991, the Calvin Alumni Association established the Faith and Learning Award as a way for alumni to thank the professors who had shaped their hearts and minds in and out of the classroom.

This year’s award ceremony featured an exquisite exchange between Ryan Voogt, one of the alumni nominators, and the recipient, Edward Ericson, English professor emeritus.

We present these fine representations of the Calvin educational experience for Spark readers.

 

 

What can one offer in three minutes which could honor or be commensurate with a lifetime of achievement by another? Indeed, a list of publications and contributions—though many there be—would not suffice to commemorate Edward Ericson’s professorship. Rather, allow me to offer up just one humble contribution; and take this one contribution as a microcosm, as that one small piece which can be considered an embodiment of Professor Ericson’s great service. That one small piece is me.

It was by accident that I, an engineering student, landed in Professor Ericson’s interim class on Dostoevsky. (In fact, I had made a pity trade with a friend who badly wanted my seat in a class on the Lord of the Rings. I had hardly even heard of Dostoevsky). Just over six years later, I stand before you as a graduate student in Russian and east European studies, who in two days will introduce Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, the primary subject of Professor Ericson’s recent flurry of activity, to a group of 100 high school students.

I am truly a living testimony to the seed of curiosity planted in my soul by Edward Ericson. That seed was encouraged to grow when the then “retired” Professor Ericson took me, then a fourth-year engineering student, under his great wing for an independent study of Russian literature (a bizarre marriage indeed; only possible at Calvin College). About 1½ years later, when I decided to leave my engineering career behind to return to school for Russian and east European studies, Professor Ericson supported me, though I perceived a certain nervousness that perhaps he had done his job just a little too well. And, from a distance, he has continued to teach me through his books, with their unparalleled insights into the Russian author Bulgakov and especially Solzhenitsyn.

As you may know, Professor Ericson was a scholar of 17th century English literature when he stumbled into Solzhenitsyn’s literary world in the 1960s. This coincidence would change the course of his career so much so that 15 years later he found himself collaborating with the reclusive author himself on an abridgement of  “The Gulag Archipelago.” Since that time he has had several other books published, including two within his very active five years of retirement.

Indeed, I cannot speak for the hundreds of students who read Milton in a class of his during his 26 years teaching at Calvin, nor on behalf of his many colleagues who certainly derived great benefit from collaboration with him, but to that which I have discovered in just these last six years in his classroom and in the perusal of his books: That in this academic, intellectual world of literature, we often discuss everything but the point. We read everything but that which calls us to reflect on our souls or speaks painful but prophetic truths. But Professor Ericson, you have called us, called me, and future readers to consider the very truth of our existence. May we only have ears to hear.

        —Ryan Voogt

~~~

So many good profs, so few awards. My selection surprises me. That was my second reaction when I learned I was to receive this year’s Faith and Learning Award. My first reaction was goose bumps. I was thrilled. My third reaction was relief when I learned that I didn’t have to lecture from the heights about how to integrate faith and learning, which once upon a time I thought I could do.

This award may be Calvin College’s highest honor for faculty members. One can’t even qualify until, with decrepitude gaining, one is within view of heaven’s gates. Matthew Arnold couldn’t appreciate being praised when he was old because he thought he deserved honor earlier. According to his self-pitying poem “Growing Old,” all he could hear is “the world applaud the hollow ghost / Which blamed the living man.” We know a better way as we prepare to enjoy the fullness of grace that for us old-timers lies just over the next hill. Or, in Dick Tiemersma’s droll words, as we cram for our finals.

In college I decided to become a high school teacher. I missed. Blame it on a taciturn Christian Reformed professor who told me I should go to graduate school. For him, I think the matter verged away from free will and toward predestination. I did as I was told. My grad profs told me I couldn’t stop short of a PhD. Only once in my life did I initiate a career move. So much for my image as a strong-willed contrarian. Before I came here, I had concluded that if I could choose where to settle in for the long haul, I would choose Calvin. But in those days Calvin hired few faculty who did not come up through what I later learned to call the pipeline. Then Calvin came calling on me. Even I could read this signal as the call of Providence. Here I would grow either old and wise or just old; I have done so.

I arrived with two prevailing fears. First, although my odyssey had by then led me firmly into the Reformed camp, I wondered if I had all the fine points of doctrine straight. Would I be like that raw young preacher sketched by John Earle in the 17th century who “preaches heresy if it come in his way, though with a mind, I must needs say, very orthodox”?

Second, I wondered how I, as an outsider, would be welcomed. The first sign was preposterously warm: I was inducted into the Calvin Alumni Association. My diploma says “Hope College,” where I also held my first teaching position, an embarrassment that I explained to Calvin students as my needing to practice on those Hope kids so that I could move up to the Big Leagues and teach at Calvin. My first benefit as a Calvin alum was a subscription to Spark, which of course I read as a Calvinist should, religiously. When my initial copy arrived, I noticed that following my name on the address label were three letters, H-O-N, the intimate short form of the familiar term of endearment, “Honey.” “HON.” I felt honored. So much for the caricature of Dutch Calvinists as stolid and staid. Soon enough, I was assigned to major committees. I chaired my department. I learned to play “Dutch bingo.” Tony Diekema says I wrote him more memos of criticism than anyone else, in penance for which he made me write the foreword to his book. No, I didn’t feel like an outsider for long. And here I’d like to list colleagues who befriended and inspired me. Since the list is too long for the time, I can only hope you know who you are. And if you’re in doubt, that means you’re on the list.

For all the good gifts Calvin gave me—the best college at integrating faith and learning, outstanding models of Christian scholarship and teaching, the most congenial department I’ve ever heard about—Calvin did get even with me for joining onze school. One of our two sons, both of whom attended Calvin, married a Calvin girl. Our grandson Ethan has Norwegian blood, yes, but four times as much Dutch blood. And it shows. He slipped off his chair at a restaurant recently, bonked his head on the floor, and bounced right up, unfazed. Hard-headed already.

And now I would like to name my memorable students, but won’t, whether they called me, according to their vintage, Young Turk, Teddy Bear or Patriarch. I checked my memory bank, and lodged there affectionately are more than a thousand of them. When their names come up in unlikely conversations, I can’t resist saying “former student,” again and again “former student.” This linkage makes me happy but bores my friends. Time also keeps me from digging deep into my vault of stories. My favorite course evaluation? General puffery with two stark words appended: “to picky”—spelled “t-o.” The student who took the most courses from me? A Bangladeshi Muslim, who took six. A seminarian at Princeton confessed that he and his fellow Calvin alums there would, as they studied, mimic my mockery of attempts to teach critical thinking without content: “Ya gotta know things. Ya gotta know things.” And of all my millions of words lavished on thousands of souls, many reports confirm that my most remembered line was not something literary or intellectual or spiritual; it was Ericson’s philosophy of money. It went: Try to go through life without thinking about it (money, that is). A credo I lived by until last year.

What did I like best about Calvin students? That most of them came in not knowing they were as good as they were. They put me in mind of a certain Chicago boy from a devout but anti-intellectual background who couldn’t have imagined teaching in college, much less ever writing a book. They needed what he needed: someone to lead them out; an education. What’s not for him to like in students like himself?

I used to muse in class on the improbability that one professor facing 35 students could change a single life. Yet as a former student myself I know such a thing can happen. I thank the alumni association for placing me in the illustrious company of professors deemed to have had a lifelong impact on students. Could one hope for more from a career? Could I, being who I am, have done anything more glorifying to God than that? Do any of my students look back on their studies as honoring our Lord? I know I couldn’t have had a better place to work with students than this good spot of God’s earth. My rewards are beyond measure, and my heart is full.

And I gave a whole speech without ever mentioning Solzhenitsyn.

—Edward Ericson

Read more about Prof. Ericson's reflections on Solzhenitsyn following the Solzhenitsyn's death in August 2008