The Curriculum of a Christian Liberal Arts College


Calvin College is in a period of transformation as evidenced by three major developments: a new campus, a graduate study committee, and a curriculum study committee. This article deals with the Curriculum Report, entitled Christian Liberal Arts Education, an attempt to express the essence of Christian higher education. The work of the Committee has already been introduced in The Chimes, The Spark, and Calvinalia. It should certainly be of interest to all members of the Christian Reformed Church also. The purpose of this article is to examine the composition of the Committee and a few basic aspects of the Curriculum Report.

The Committee was formed in the spring of 1963 and consisted of seven members: the President and Dean, faculty representatives from four academic divisions, and one faculty member at large. The Report consists of two parts. Part one deals with the foundations and part two deals with the curriculum of Christian liberal arts education. Substantial progress has been made after many months of hard work by the Committee members together with the whole faculty. In February, 1966, “The faculty endorsed the first three of four principle motions, thereby virtually accepting the new curriculum as proposed by the Curriculum Study Committee” (Chimes, Feb. 9, 1966).

In April the faculty will have made the final decisions.

In the Preface the Committee states the main reason for curriculum revisions.

It is now forty-five years since Calvin College first introduced its basic curriculum. That original curriculum, which closely paralleled the University of Michigan’s program of the time, was intended to win academic recognition for the fledgling college. Since then the college has never seriously reconsidered the fundamental premises of that curriculum nor systematically evaluated their application…Yet, during the years since the original curriculum was established, vast changes have taken place in the college as well as in society…our society has undergone drastic alterations; and the needs of the Christian community, and more specifically of the Christian Reformed Church which maintains Calvin College, have changed. (Report, p. 1.)

While Calvin College continued to add a course here or there, the public and private universities were radically reappraising their basic philosophies and changing their curricula. Most famous is the Harvard Report on General Education in a Free Society (1945). Presently, educators are redefining general education.

Reappraisal of the goal of education and curriculum revision go together. Faced with the revolutionary changes in the academic world Calvin also must act. The Committee reconsiders Calvin’s curriculum, but continues to accept as its own the educational philosophy of emeritus Professor W. H. Jellema and the late Dr. H. Zylstra. (Report, p. 2). Professors Jellema and Zylstra were great teachers and their essays on Christian education were significant contributions. Note· worthy are their statements on the weaknesses of a typical Christian college and the impossibility of neutrality. If Calvin had observed these statements more closely, the college would likely have been different today.

Their understanding of Christian education was not without serious weaknesses, however. For instance, their understanding of the idea of the Kingdom of Cod and the cultural mandate, which are taken over by the Committee ( Report, pp. 32-37 ), should be rethought in our circles. The idea of the Kingdom of God is a basic concept for Christian education, but we may ask whether the poSition advanced is Augustinian or Reformed? The Committee, we believe, could have benefited from a more substantially Reformed position on this important truth, as found in the writings of Dr. H. Ridderbos. What is needed is a definition of the Kingdom of Cod which includes “Christian communal action.” (See H. Ridderbos, “The Kingdom of God and our Life in the World,” Internat. Reformed Bulletin, Jan. 1967, pp. 2–13.) Also with respect to the idea of a cultural mandate the Committee could have profited from the writings of the late Professor Henry Van Til.

The fundamentalists’ “heresy” is not “Christ versus Culture” as Zylstra (Testament of Vision, p. 147) and the Committee make it out to be. There are hundreds of fundamentalists in national politics, in the arts and the sciences. They, too, believe that culture is a God-given realm and that faith is relevant for all spheres of life. Political philosopher Leo Strauss says: “Liberal education is education in culture or toward culture.”1 By definition, then, the fundamentalist “heresy” can hardly be “Christ versus Culture” because the evangelical colleges arc committed to a liberal arts education. Students in these schools are taught to serve Christ in culture. Their “heresy” is not so much that they flee the world, but that they live in the world of politics and education only as individual Christians with a personal faith. The historic Calvinistic position is “nothing less than a Christian organization of society.”2

One could object to the almost exclusive and seemingly uncritical reliance upon the writings of Dr. Jellema and Dr. Zylstra. Their writings have been equalled, if not excelled. The Committee does not mention the writings of the Reformed Christian philosopher C. Van Til on Christian education (e.g. The Dilemma of Education, 1956). The Committee makes no reference to the many clear and solid articles on Christian liberal arts education by Dr. C. Seerveld. These and other writings are so important to a Re-formed understanding of Christian education that there is a serious omission here. The Committee members may have read these writings, but they apparently are not committed to them, at least not in their Report. It seems unfortunate that the Committee so limited its understanding of “Calvinistic-Christian education.” Calvin, to put it into the words of Dr. Seerveld, needs a critical Christian philosophy “at the very core of the curriculum to put Reformed grit into the education and to fortify the tensile strength of the whole undertaking with its unifying, interrelating, reforming perspective.”3 This could have made a difference in the Committee’s understanding of the foundations of Christian liberal arts education.

Liberal Arts: Non-vocation, non-professional

The Committee gives a two-fold definition of Christian liberal arts education. Liberal education means “non-vocation and non-professional education,” while Christian education aims at training “the student for a Christian life in contemporary society; or in other words, to train the student to become a vital citizen of the Kingdom of God as it is manifested in the contemporary world” (Report, p. 2).

The Committee defines liberal arts in this way even though it recognizes that throughout its history various forms of liberal arts training could mean either professional or vocational education. In the “Christian community there are no inferior or superior vocations and professions. Every vocation…is a divine calling” (Report, p. 35). The problem is, however, that historically the professions are considered superior to the vocations. If a liberal arts education is indispensable for students to live the life of a Christian, then those in vocational training should also receive it. Calvin is presently offering professional training and the Committee “believes that this is as it should be.” Does the Committee believe that Calvin should also offer vocational training? Is this as it should be? If a majority of the students arc receiving either a professional or a vocational training, why define the meaning of liberal education as above? This is a very crucial question in the discussion. The Committee apparently believes that professional training is different from liberal arts training and therefore makes a distinction between the liberal and vocational arts. Some faculty members, however, do not think that vocational education differs from liberal training. Vocational training is or must be liberal education. For an understanding of this whole problem one should trace the origin of the contrast between profession and vocation and the ensuing controversy as it relates to the liberal arts. The Committee’s negative description “non·vocational and non-professional” is hardly a way out of this secondary problem and the present educational program at Calvin (e.g. professional training).

Liberal Arts – Christian?

Now the primary question of the Report should have been whether the proposed liberal arts education at Calvin is Christian or not. The Committee members are…

conscious that there are current, in the Reformed Christian community and in the evangelical Christian community generally, certain views, alternative to our own, of what a Christian liberal arts education should be. It should be emphasized that we regard the two alternative views ( the pragmatist and the classicist view) which we discuss as basically Christian views of liberal arts education…our ground for discarding them is not that on these fundamental matters they are non-Christian, but rather that they are incomplete, and wrongly focused, and do not achieve as well as possible the agreed-on ultimate aim (Report, p. 39).

It would seem more accurate to say that the three views discussed in the Report, the pragmatic, classicist, and disciplinary, exist within Calvin College. However, while the members of the Committee represent all the academic divisions, they do not reflect all three different views on Christian liberal arts education. Only the disciplinary appears to be represented on the Committee.4

For a background on whether the proposed liberal arts education at Calvin is Christian we do well to go back to 1962 when Professors De Koster and Wolterstorff were battling it out in The Reformed Journal.

Writing about the liberal arts in a Christian context, Professor De Koster belabors the point of synthesiS, that is, of accommodation of the Christian spirit to the pagan-humanistic spirit in education. He writes:

The Liberal Arts are, in fact, historically secular, and religiously pagan, in origin…. Would it not be surprising, then, if no tensions were hidden in this simple conjunction: Christian Liberal Arts College? … But for the Liberal Arts it is the human word that fashions the soul; and in the Gospel it is the Divine Word that does so. No tension, then, here? How could it be otherwise?

Professor De Koster comes to the heart of the matter.

The fruit of such reflections as these is predictable: the small phrase, Christian Liberal Arts, comes alive and represents two massive, living, jealous traditions which do not come to roles of subordinate and superior simply by verbal conjunction…And, mind you, just such a synthesis is innocently presupposed in our little phrase, Christian Liberal Arts.

Dr. De Koster’s thesis is that…

the Liberal Arts have too often put the Christian tradition to their service, instead of the other way around; and that there is a grave danger in this for the role of the Christian Liberal Arts College ought to play in American life.5

Tn the same issue Dr. Wolterstorff writes a very significant article on “The Idea of a Christian College” and what he thinks it should be in America.

When the Curriculum Committee was established, Dr. Wolterstorff became its chairman while Dr. De Koster was not included. Dr. Wolterstorff withdrew himself from the public discussion and used his articles for purposes of the Report. Meanwhile Dr. De Koster could try to influence the Committee and the faculty for the pragmatic view from the pages of the journal. Judging alone from titles of the following articles it appears that he could have had the Committee in mind.6 Even though Professor De Koster is not entirely free from synthesis, his important contributions are necessary reading for anyone interested in the future of liberal education at Calvin. Significant for this discussion is the fact that he recognized the spiritual tension and called attention to the seemingly innocent presupposition in the concept, Christian liberal arts. It is regrettable that his point of view made so little impact on the Committee and its reporter. If he had been a member of the Committee, perhaps part one of the Report on the nature and historical foundations of Christian liberal arts education would have been markedly different by including the necessary critical historical approach.

On one occasion Professor Charles Miller, secretary of the Committee, wrote: “(T)he political, economic, and religious practices of Western European civilization, which are generally called Christian, though perhaps dishonoring the name…” (“Interpreting History,” Calvinalia, Oct., 1962). These practices are intimately related to the dominant educational and academic traditions of the West. Yet there is no indication in the Report that Professor Miller had similar doubts concerning the so-called Christian liberal arts tradition.

Calvin – a liberal arts college?

Eventually, the question must arise: Is Calvin a liberal arts college or not? The Committee actually side-steps this issue. It discusses a certain type of education, “not a certain sort of college, a Christian liberal arts college” (Report, p. 2). Possibly, the Committee recognizes that Calvin is not a liberal arts college, because it offers programs of education other than the liberal arts. Then the next question is: Has the student body (or the students in the non-vocational and non-professional programs) been receiving a solid liberal arts education? It would be interesting to measure its content. None other than Dr. Jellema has said: “Curricularly Calvin does not even guarantee general education, let alone liberal.” He also emphasized: “…in the measure that we do not curricularly insure liberal education we withhold from the student the medium indispensable to Christian education. And this raises the question of the definition of liberal education.”7

If the spirit of the liberal arts is non-Christian and if the liberal arts do not educate young Christians for their specific vocations, should then this liberal arts program continue to be defended as a fit instrument for our college? This question can be raised in the light of the fact that the College was initially established to train Christian ministers and teachers.

The Committee envisions a non-vocation and nonprofessional training for students to live the life of a Christian in American society. It is precisely this way of thinking, this way of formulating the aim of Calvin, which has hampered and will continue to prevent the College from making a unique Calvinistic impact in the United States and Canada. Calvin will educate Christians who, for instance, may go into politics. There they will present an individual witness about various issues, but without a well-rounded and positive Christian view of politics as a science or a vocation. It is not surprising, therefore, that loyal constituents have complained that Calvin has not been providing the Christian leadership American society so urgently needs. Christian liberal arts education, as defined by the Committee, will hardly Christianize America, The Committee should have envisioned the task of Calvin to train students to think Christianly in their sciences, so that upon graduation they can assume leadership as Christian politicians, Christian businessmen and labor leaders.

Within the Christian community there is no complete agreement on the understanding, let alone on the formulation, of the nature of Christian education. Even within Calvin this agreement on the understanding and formulation of Christian liberal arts education is lacking. Christian education at Calvin seems plagued with a kind of duality: education in the liberal arts and Christian in Reformed theology. The Committee describes its definition in two parts, operating as it were on two different realms: the liberal arts as nonvocational and non-professional, and Christian education as training for citizenship in the Kingdom of God. In the higher realm there is fundamental agreement and the antithesis between Christian citizenship and citizenship in some other kingdom is confessed. The liberal arts arc considered a medium or a means to achieve the higher goal. It is often assumed that Christians can disagree on means and instruments because they are “neutral.” The reason for discarding several views of liberal arts for another is that they are incomplete or wrongly focused to achieve the goal. Because the Committee considers them only as instruments and means, it can describe the three views on liberal arts education as Christian views. Thereby, the Committee is in grave danger of forgetting that for the classicist and the pragmatist the liberating arts are not merely a means but an indispensible religious motive in education. Professor Wolterstorff does not know in what way the liberal arts liberate men and society, but Dr. De Koster does.8 The latter’s reason for discarding the classicist and, perhaps, the disciplinary approach is not because these views are incomplete but non-Christian. if not un-Christian. Thus there is certainly fundamental disagreement on the nature of liberal education.

The Proposed Curriculum

Many colleges have a faculty committee struggling with curriculum revision, ow it is one thing for Calvin’s Committee to state its aim; quite another to shape a curriculum as the outgrowth of this goal. If Calvin has a distinctive philosophy of education, it follows that it should have a distinctive curriculum. This, however, does not seem to be the case.

The proposed curriculum is already operative in about two dozen colleges, both church-related and secular. Members of the Committee visited several of the church-related colleges and were confirmed in their conclusions. Officials of other schools were also invited to explain the four-course plan to the Calvin faculty (Chimes, April 30 and Nov. 19, 1965). On the basis of this information one is inclined to draw a tentative conclusion. Either these colleges have also adopted Jellema and Zylstra’s idea of Christian education, or Calvin’s educational philosophy and curriculum are not distinctive. Is Calvin, then, borrowing a curricular pattern from elsewhere?

It is rather doubtful that the four-course plan is an outgrowth of Calvin’s basic philosophy. This is a curricular pattern first developed outside of Calvin. When asked: “Why a 4-1-4 and not some other arrangement?”, Dr. Wolterstorff replied: “Well, that is a hard question” (Spark, Feb. 1967, p, 5). It is, This new program has advantages over the old curriculum. But some will urge that it does not go far enough in revising the old semester system. One of the reasons for advancing this plan is that it will provide more time for independent study, Prof. W. R. Hutchison has objected: “But independent study programs, designed in part to free the time of teachers, have often confounded their sponsors by eating up more faculty energies than do regular procedures.”9 Is it not unrealistic to expect faculty members to do the quality of work in four weeks, which should be done throughout the semesters? Pros and cons aside, however, there is nothing distinctively Christian about this new arrangement.

Much more radical is the change from the hour to the course system, yet the subject matter to be taught remains fairly much the same. Many departments did not plan any radical changes. Several departments, such as the Education Department, faced major problems (Chimes, Nov. 11, 1966), Here it is not possible to go into the proposals of each department. Instead, this article will concentrate on the one course considered central to all departments.

The Christian Perspectives Course

The Curriculum Study Committee recommends “a course in Christian Perspectives on Learning” (Report, pp. 83-84 and Appendix A). According to the Dean, Dr. J. Vander Berg, the Committee “would like to develop a course that will give him (the student) a Christian perspective on all that he is going to do for the four years that he will be at Calvin” (Spark, Feb. 1967, p. 6). The Committee regards this “as the most important course in the revised curriculum.” It is not a completely new course. The course “would retain many of the elements of Religion and Theology 301 (Calvinism)” (Chimes, Oct. 8, 1965).

No doubt there must be good reasons for such a course as serious students know from experience. In a chapel speech on May 16, 1966, a senior student related that he and seven other students got together with a few faculty members the previous week. In his speech he said,

We wanted to know what the profs would consider to be a Christian perspective on their subjects. There was, however, a complete lack of communication. The faculty did not know what we meant and we could not make it clear to them. Our problems seemed so different from theirs and we seemed to live in such a different world that we could not even talk together meaningfully. Logic seemed utterly futile and those of us who posed the questions were strongly disillusioned. The gap between them and us seemed unbridgeable. The profs told us that they did not think there was any integrally Christian approach to the subjects…. We came for guidance but received none.

Unfortunately, the experience of these students is not an isolated case, but symptomatic. In an open letter to some faculty members this student goes on to say: “I believe it illustrates something which is felt by a number of people on this campus. That this was indeed so was confirmed by the large number of students who talked to me after my speech, commended me on it, and related that this had been their experience too.”

There has been much opposition to the Christian perspectives course by the faculty, perhaps, for the wrong (practical) reasons. “After two evenings of debate the faculty approved the core curriculum by an overwhelming majority. All the changes called for… were passed except the course in Christian perspectives” (Chimes, March 25, 1966). A subcommittee was to determine if the course would fit into the required core curriculum. The latest report is that the course “has not yet been sufficiently defined and will probably not be offered next year” (Chimes, Feb. 15, 1967). This must be a real disappointment for the Committee after all the preparatory work which they have done.

Yet someone could be very puzzled by the special emphasis on this course as some students were about the course in Calvinism. If Calvinism were actually at the heart of every course in each discipline, such a course would seem to be superfluous. If the College offered a distinctive Calvinistic education, there would hardly be need for such a super-imposed course. Similarly, the proposed new course would seem superfluous if the Christian faith permeated every course in each department.

Curriculum and Teachers

A curriculum is close to the heart of what makes a college tick. Yet curriculum changes in themselves do not guarantee integrated Christian education. There are good reasons for curriculum revision, as indicated in the Preface of the Report. “Perhaps the major virtue of a reform of the curriculum—any reform–is to stir up the teachers and shake them out of their ruts.”10 Most likely it has, because this time all faculty members were called to defend their discipline, and why they teach in a Christian college. According to President W. Spoelhof: “Never has there been as much serious soul-searching as to our calling and our commitment as a faculty” (The Banner, May 15, 1964 ). The whole faculty is said to have ‘come alive.’”

As a result of the curriculum reform there may be more communication now among faculty members, and, hopefully, between faculty and students. But there still exists a wide gap of communication between the College and the constituency. Calvin should try to close the “credibility gap.” “When people on this campus openly admit that there is no integrally Christian approach to their subject…then do we really have the right to call ourselves a Christian college? For if that is the case we are not only cheating our constituency by telling them an obvious lie, but we also have taken away the very purpose of our existence.”11


Calvin not only accepted a curricular pattern from a secular university, but all these years, also appointed teachers who themselves were, according to Dr. Jellema, illiberally trained and educated in the mind of modernity. Not much has really changed. The Committee still seems to expect a revitalization of liberal education by accommodating a liberal arts position to Reformed theology. But such a compromise cannot offer an integral Christian education. Calvin intends to provide a liberal arts education, as envisioned by the Committee, in a Christian context. We would ask whether this is what our constituency believes its Reformed college should be?

Much of this article may seem to be quite “negative.” This springs not from lack of appreciation of the hard work of the Committee but from a sincere desire to seek the best for the school and the large number of people which it seeks to serve. Lest it be misconstrued as destructive criticism of Calvin, the following three proposals are suggested.

(1) Let the Board of Trustees or Synod appoint an Educational Policy Committee soon to: (a) examine the presently dominant education philosophy and (b) reformulate the aim and purpose of Calvin as a Christian College. The different perspectives on Christian education in our Reformed Christian community should be represented on such a Committee.

(2) Let Calvin’s Educational Policy Committee appoint another Curriculum Revision Committee in the near future. Its task should be to devise a distinctive curriculum for 1976, as an outgrowth of the report of the Educational Policy Committee mentioned in the first proposal. Members on the Committee should represent all views of Christian education, certainly the three views on liberal arts education present today at Calvin. The Board of Trustees must also be represented because it ought not merely give pro forma approval to a faculty report of such consequence as the Curriculum Report. The trustees should help shape the educational policy in the proper direction.

(3) Let the faculty be invited to write another series on “Integrated Christian Education” in The Banner, especially since the faculty is said to have come to a more meaningful understanding of integrated education. This series should start soon while the department reports to the Committee are still fresh in the minds of the professors.

If these or similar proposals were adopted, our people would surely look forward to the future of our church college with renewed confidence. And, really, is there any better way to plan Calvin’s centennial celebrations?

1. L. Strauss, “What is Liberal Education?” in C. S. Fletcher, ed., Education for Public Responsibility (1961), fl. 43.

2. H. R. Van Til, The Calvinistic Concept of Culture (1959), p.245.

3. C. Seerveld, A Reformed Christian College (1960), p. 8.

4. In the evangelical and Reformed academic communities, there exist, of course, alternative views on Christian education other than the three mentioned in the Report. In addition to the other views referred to earlier in the article, the view of Dr. B. Ramm in his study on The Christian College in the Twentieth Century (1963) should also be mentioned.

5. L. De Koster, “The Liberal Arts in Christian Context,” The Reformed Journal, Sept. 1962, pp. 12–13.

6. L. De Koster, “But Why the Teacher,” The Reformed Journal, Feb. 1965; “And Why the Curriculum,” The Reformed Journal, March 1965.

7. W . H. Jellema, The Curriculum in Liberal Arts College (1958), pp. 12–13. It is interesting to note that, perhaps with exception of the proposed curriculum, this booklet and the Curriculum Report are identical in their main thrust, especially in their disciplinary view.

8. N. Woltentorlf, “Should Everyone Be Admitted To Calvin College?” The Reformed Journal, Nov. 1962, p. 12. Referring to De Koster’s September article, Wolterstorff writes; “…he hints that the liberal arts liberate men, presumably in a way in which the Gospel does not. What that way may be, I do not know.”

9. W. R. Hutchison, “Yes, John, There Are Teachers on the Faculty,” The American Scholar, Summer 1966, p. 439.

10. J. H. Randall, “Which Arc the Liberating Arts,” The American Scholar, Spring 1944, p. 147.

11. Quoted by permission from the senior student’s chapel speech on May 16, 1966.

What issues are involved in curriculum planning and revision for a Christian liberal arts college? The Calvin faculty and board have faced this over a period of some years, so that now synod will be asked to give attention to what has been planned. In this article, Philip C. Bom, post-graduate student of the Free University of Amsterdam, evaluates what has been done and offers some practical suggestions for continuing this study before adopting the present proposals.