At some point in Edward Ericson’s undergraduate career, his mentor advised him to go to graduate school.
“I had to go to the library and look it up: What did you do in graduate school?” recalled Ericson. “I didn’t know.”
It was an atypical start to a scholarly career, admits the longtime Calvin professor of English and this year’s recipient of the Faith and Learning Award from the Calvin Alumni Association. But Edward Ericson was not reared for scholarship: “I grew up in a devout but anti-intellectual home,” he claimed.
Ericson was reared on the south side of Chicago, playing baseball with his German, Jewish, Italian and Irish neighbors. He envied the Jewish kids, who got so many holidays off from school and pitied his Catholic teammates, who had to miss games for confirmation. “That’s what religious difference meant to us,” he said chuckling. What religion meant to Ericson was a fundamentalism that left no space for the life of the mind; he could never have imagined, he confessed, teaching college or writing a book.
That he did both, Ericson credits to the many people who encouraged him to pursue an academic career. He attended North Park Academy on a scholarship and completed three years at Milwaukee Bible College, then decided to study at Hope College because there was a church of his denomination located in Holland, Mich. There, Ericson met the mentor that pointed him toward graduate study. “For him, I think the matter verged away from free will and toward predestination,” he said, adding: “I did as I was told.”
Looking for adventure, Ericson applied to grad programs all over the country and landed at the University of Arkansas. “I was a teaching assistant at Arkansas with full classes under my control, and very quickly I realized I had found my niche,” he said. “This is what I should do.” Though his intent was to teach high school English, his mentor there insisted that he earn a PhD.
In 1963, when Ericson had completed his master’s degree, his alma mater called him, asking him to teach. He followed that call, too. “He was very thorough, very prepared, but also, as he confesses, terrified,” remembered his then student and now Calvin English professor Roy Anker. “I think he read all his lectures.”
Ericson taught three years at Hope and seven years at Westmont College in Santa Barbara, Calif., and spent a year as a National Fellow at the Hoover Institute—finishing his doctorate as he went. (The Westmont job was the only teaching position he ever applied for.) He was then asked to be the dean of academic affairs at Northwestern College in Iowa.
During his early career, Ericson was moving away from his anti-intellectual heritage—“What I did on Sunday, going to church, was a good thing. What I did on a Monday as a worker in culture was not”—and gradually and definitely into the Reformed tradition. The lectures of Francis Schaeffer, a frequent Northwestern visitor, helped him along.
Surveying the Christian academic scene with a Reformed perspective, Ericson thought Calvin was a good eventual destination for him. “But what chance was there of that?” he reminisced recently. “Calvin hired its own people.” Then, in 1977, Calvin came calling, and Ericson went.
He remembered: “For me it was a kind of test. …Was I good enough to be at a first-rate place like Calvin?”
At Calvin, Ericson specialized in 17th-century literature. “Students felt he made the Renaissance come alive,” said English department chair William Vande Kopple.
“Ed appealed to a wide range of students, and his door was always well peopled,” testified English professor John Timmerman, who came to Calvin the same year as Ericson and who had an office next door to him for years. “Students can see in a second if you’re a fake or if you mean it—and they knew he cared,” Timmerman said. Over 26 years, many students have borne witness to the way Ericson nurtured them as scholars, readers, writers and as people. “I mentored them as I was mentored,” he said.
In 1977, Ericson followed a different kind of call, his own taste, and taught an interim in Russian literature. After the success of that class, he was approached by a student delegation that wanted him to teach a semester course on the same subject. “I’ve asked around and never heard of another course at Calvin which was offered because of a student petition,” Ericson said. He taught the course for years and also did pioneering scholarship in the field, collaborating with Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn on an abridgement of the Gulag Archipelago and writing several books on the author and others. And he has continued that scholarship, which includes speaking engagements, long past his 2003 retirement.
“He’s always had an independent intellect that goes where it will,” said Anker. “He doesn’t follow academic fashion. … He sees value in writers before they get popular.”
He once believed he had to deny his scholarly self to live as a person of faith. Later he was told by colleagues that his faith would inhibit the full expression of his scholarly self. The Reformed tradition, Ericson said, and Calvin, helped him to reconcile the scholar and the man of faith:
“Being a Christian was just too much of a part of my being—indeed, the central part—for me to be satisfied with having to suppress it. At Calvin … I did not have to keep any part of my deeper self under wraps … I was required to bring my mind to my work. But I could also bring my soul—my deepest commitments, all of my beliefs, my understanding of the nature of reality, my whole set of values—in sum, my heart along with my head.”
In short, said the scholar: “Calvin was a wonderful place for me.”
Edward Ericson and his wife, Jan, have two sons, Ed and Bill. Both are Calvin graduates.
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