Barbara Carvill

Faith and Learning Award


Spring 2011

Back in the late 1980s, Calvin German professor Barbara Carvill was booked to present at a conference, and she was looking for a distinctly Christian approach to foreign-language instruction. She was mulling over the word fremdsprachen—German for “foreign languages”—and it inspired thoughts of hospitality. “Fremd means ‘stranger’ or ‘alien,’” Carvill explained. “The Bible says that you shall love the stranger as yourself,” she said. “First, you have to love the stranger, and you have to be hospitable to strangers.” The biblical precept would inform her teaching from then on.

Carvill, the recipient of the Calvin Alumni Association’s 2011 Faith and Learning Award, was born in post-World War II East Germany. Her father, who owned a toy factory specializing in stuffed animals, went missing in action during the war. The factory was seized by the government. “It became the property of the people,” Carvill said. “We lost everything.” They fled to West Germany, and her mother, using money she got from a Jewish woman the family had hid during the war, started another toy factory. “So, I spent my summer vacations stuffing cats and sewing the tails on squirrels,” Carvill remembered.

She attended the University of Hamburg, where she eventually earned a master’s degree in French and German. Carvill had been raised and confirmed in the Lutheran church and spent the last three years of high school in a Pietist boarding school. In Hamburg, she had a boyfriend who was a theology student. “Through him,” she said, “I came to the place where I couldn’t not be a Christian.”

Carvill came to the United States in 1967 to study the U.S. educational system on a Fulbright Scholarship. At Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill., she met Robert, a PhD student in English who would become her husband. Robert, a graduate of Gordon College (Mass.), was schooled in the Reformed tradition, and through him, Carvill was introduced to the ideas of Abraham Kuyper and Herman Dooyewerd—thinkers who encouraged an intellectual approach to faith. “My husband and I were both excited about that,” Carvill recalled. “You could be both an intellectual and a Christian.”

The couple moved on to Toronto, to the Institute for Christian Studies, an organization that promoted Reformed thinking in education. The Carvills were enthusiastic about the work of the institute, which was to challenge the foundation of every academic discipline from a Christian perspective. Then Robert died of leukemia in 1975, and Carvill got a job at Calvin. She and her 4-year-old daughter, Emily, moved to Grand Rapids in 1978. “I was really strongly welcomed, embraced by this community,” she said.

She was ready to pioneer. “I came with this enthusiasm that I learned at the Institute for Christian Studies for reforming everything,” Carvill said. “I came with a certain amount of arrogance. I thought, ‘Well, they don’t have the same fervor I have.’” Her first effort to introduce a new philosophy of foreign language education was less than productive.

“She struggled because she had to make an adjustment,” said German professor emeritus Wally Bratt, a longtime colleague of Carvill’s. “I learned that it’s easy to come in with good ideas, but it’s harder to put them into practice,” Carvill confessed. “So, I spent the first few years learning how to teach.”

Her models were Bratt and another colleague in Germanic languages, James Lamse, now emeritus. Their focus, she realized, was not philosophy, but students. “From Wally Bratt I learned that you had to get to know your students as adult people—not kids. He had amazing antennae for students’ emotional state,” Carvill said. “From Jim Lamse I learned that you should never, ever give up on a student. He was absolutely indestructible in his enthusiasm.”

She was still looking for a Christian approach to teaching foreign language. “I approached it not as a philosophical problem, but through the good practices we had,” Carvill said. She taught her students to be blessings as strangers when they go abroad and to be hospitable to the strangers they encountered on their home turf. “People who have foreign language training have a responsibility to show hospitality to strangers among us,” she said.

Carvill also led interims to Germany. “You could be with the students for three weeks and could see the country—my home—through their eyes,” she said. On two occasions when she spoke for a Chinese audience at the English Language Institute/China, Carvill had her speech translated into Mandarin and delivered it from memory. “I could see from my students’ faces that they had such a hard time learning other languages,” she said. “They were just so happy to hear their language out of my mouth. The roles were reversed.”

Carvill had a name for her hospitable approach to teaching: the hermeneutics of the stranger. In 2000, she and fellow professor of German David Smith put that philosophy into book form: The Gift of the Stranger: Faith, Hospitality, and Foreign Language Learning. The book is not about grammar, but cultural competency. She considers the book her gift back to the Calvin community that was so welcoming to her.

Her former colleague returned the compliment: “I consider her one of the Lord’s many great gifts to Calvin College,” said Bratt. “The integration of faith and learning comes naturally to her because her faith informs all of her thinking and doing… . She is both creative and disciplined in her teaching and scholarly interests … . She is warm and sensitive to people without being sentimental. She is wonderful. She helped me so much. She helped all of us as we worked from day to day.”