Gabrielle Eisma wanted to go to art school and be surrounded by other artists only studying art. For her, a liberal arts education wasn’t a selling point for Calvin—it was a strike against it. But because she wanted to study writing as well as art, she ended up at Calvin where she could major in both.
“I was wrong about liberal arts,” said Eisma, who provided the art for this piece. “It’s opened my eyes to so many connections. It’s the whole liberal arts aspect of Calvin that has shaped my creative process.”
Eisma is not alone with crediting a liberal arts education with influencing her work. When reflecting on their Calvin education, Calvin graduates will inevitably remark on the merits of liberal arts and how it’s changed them.
LIBERAL ARTS TO OUR CORE
Liberal arts is not a simple term to define. The word “liberal” might suggest some political ideology, and “arts” might suggest a neglect of the sciences. Sometimes it’s used to describe interdisciplinary work. Other times it seems like liberal arts is synonymous with the humanities.
Back in 1965, the Calvin Curriculum Study Committee considered not even using the term because it means different things to different people. Ultimately, that faculty group wrote a 108-page document called the Christian Liberal Arts Education (CLAE), which has been a foundational document in curriculum decisions since then.
“I was wrong about liberal arts,” said Eisma, who provided the art for this piece. “It’s opened my eyes to so many connections. It’s the whole liberal arts aspect of Calvin that has shaped my creative process.” GABRIELLE EISMA ’22 | BACHELOR OF FINE ARTS STUDENT
Professor emeritus Kenneth Pomykala served on the University Core Task Force in 2019–2020 and helped the task force to understand how foundational documentation like the CLAE should shape Calvin’s current decisions. He explained that the authors of CLAE retained the term “liberal arts” to express one aspect that everyone agreed on: “that a liberal arts education is one which is not aimed at equipping the student to hold down some specific occupation—meaning non-vocational and non-professional education.”
In other words, a liberal arts education is marked by learning opportunities that don’t have direct ties to the student’s professional aspirations. It’s a future history teacher taking a mathematics course or someone who wants to become a chemist studying communication. It’s a broad education, with students taking courses from different disciplines simultaneously.
At Calvin, liberal arts is animated for every student through the core curriculum. The CLAE document established the first core curriculum, and there have been a few iterations since then, including a new version that students began this fall.
The term core is intentional. Most higher education institutions recognize a need for general education requirements, but Calvin’s commitment is deeper.
“The gen ed label suggests that these courses are less important than the courses in a student’s major,” said English professor Chad Engbers, who served on the Core Transition Team. “Core suggests that these courses are at the vital center of everything we do. If you cut out the core of a reactor, you no longer have a reaction.”
THE CORE REACTION
“When students take courses in different disciplines, they begin to draw connections that change how they see the world,” said Carolyn Anderson, professor of chemistry and biochemistry and the newly appointed director of core. “Complexities are revealed that we might have otherwise missed because our disciplinary perspective was too narrow.”
“Our tendency as humans is to make things simple,” said psychology professor Julie Yonker. “We want things to fit neatly into boxes. But the world isn’t like that—people are complicated. Society is complicated.”
Liberal arts education exposes students to disciplines and modes of learning that they might not gravitate toward. “It keeps you humble,” said Yonker. “Humility allows us to say that we don’t have all the answers within our field of study.”
Anderson agrees. “I don’t think a broad, liberal arts education is going to enable someone single-handedly to solve the complex problems of the world. Rather, it allows us to understand why different perspectives are necessary. Liberal arts gives us the eyes to see that we need more people at the table.”
LIBERAL ARTS FOR VOCATION
By definition, liberal arts classes are distinct from professional training. But time and time again, it’s precisely the liberal arts education that propels Calvin graduates in their careers.
“If an employer hires a Calvin grad, they will always come back and hire another one,” said TaRita Johnson, director of Calvin’s Career Center. “It’s that combination of the entire core and the major. Calvin students have a moral compass, intellectual horsepower, and drive for results. They aren’t the typical employees, and it’s the liberal arts that gives them the ability to critically think, problem solve, and be flexible.”
Cal Jen, business professor emeritus, couldn’t agree more. “Breadth [of learning] allows students to adapt more quickly and easily to all areas— including business—of our rapidly changing world.”
ELEMENTS OF THE NEW CORE
Reformed: Students will begin Calvin with the course “Community and Commitments,” which will introduce Calvin’s Reformed Christian theological heritage. In their last year, they’ll take “Contemporary Challenges and Enduring Questions,” which invites students to live out their vocation in Christian witness to the world.
Lean: The updated core requires fewer credit hours, comprising about 30–40% of a student’s total credits. The credit requirement for graduation remains the same, so students will have the ability to take more electives, add a major or minor, or even change majors and still graduate in four years.
Flexible: Students have more choices than previous iterations. For example, instead of requiring a specific introductory philosophy course, students can choose a philosophy course that interests them to satisfy a number of different categories.
Broad: As with other core curriculums, students will have the opportunity to take classes across campus, in disciplines like world languages, religion, art, music, philosophy, history, natural sciences, social sciences, mathematics, health and movement, rhetoric, and literature.
Relevant: Students come to Calvin with questions, hopes, and aspirations. Through the lens of Reformed faith, students will learn about diversity and difference, global cultural competency, and environmental sustainability. These topics are layered throughout the curriculum, intended to prepare students for lives of Christian service.
The core hadn’t undergone a significant revision since 2001. A general sense from the faculty was that it needed an update to fit the new university structure and student needs.
One reason is that some programs need a higher number of credits to confer a degree as part of their accreditation. These higher credit loads meant that students wouldn’t be able to complete the core and their major requirement in four years, so a patchwork of exceptions were granted, making the core disjointed and inconsistent.
Now, core has been reimagined as flexible and coherent for all academic programs. It is also designed to be attractive to prospective students looking at colleges, relevant to them throughout their lives and careers, and true to Calvin’s long-standing commitments.
“We were finding that students considered core classes as less essential than their major courses,” said Anderson. “We want to change that.”
The University Core Task Force was chaired by Joel Westra, professor of political science, and included faculty from across the university. “Provost Cheryl Brandsen pushed us to think creatively, and our faculty colleagues encouraged us to balance coherence, flexibility, and disciplinary breadth. In some sense, we all had to compromise, but what we ended up with is something we ultimately were really satisfied with,” said Westra.
“If an employer hires a Calvin grad, they will always come back and hire another one.” TARITA JOHNSON | DIRECTOR OF THE CALVIN CAREER CENTER
The core is already a bright spot for faculty, said Engbers, who now serves as one of several faculty core fellows. “For the past two years, faculty have continually had to face reductions. The pandemic is forcing everyone to progressively get used to less and less,” said Engbers. “The new Calvin core, on the contrary, gives faculty more.”
How does the new core give more? One example is the new course called “Community and Commitments,” which students take their first semester on campus. Unlike the course all students took in the previous core, “Community and Commitments” seeks to provide all students with a common foundation for their time at Calvin. Students will read the same book, City of God by Augustine, and establish a broad basis of Reformed thinking.
Knowing that all students have a shared understanding and vocabulary will allow professors to start discussions in future classes at a deeper level.
“The ‘Community and Commitments’ course already is bringing together faculty from across the university to reflect upon and to discuss the meaning and significance of a Reformed Christian approach to learning,” said Westra. “Just as we want our students not to limit themselves to narrow disciplinary perspectives, the new core encourages us as faculty to continually broaden our perspectives as well.”
WHAT THE WORLD NEEDS NOW: LIBERAL ARTS
By David Koetje, biology
Headlines in recent years haven’t always been positive about the future of liberal arts. But it’s far too soon to write the tombstone for the liberal arts. In fact, with the complex challenges of the 21st century, I believe that liberal arts are in for a resurgence.
Why? The problems the world faces today are not problems that can be addressed by one discipline alone.
Let’s take the issue of food security. How can we ensure good food for everyone and also be good stewards of the environment?
This is a complex, global problem. As a biologist, I can’t pretend that I have all the answers to solve the problem. We need to engage perspectives from the social and behavioral sciences. We need to understand how food is intertwined with culture and language. Insights from political science, communication, history, agriculture, and geography are also crucial. A complex challenge like this calls for concerted action based on interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary problem-solving.
Liberal arts education prepares people for this type of work. When students take classes outside of their major, they’re not only learning the skills and facts of that discipline, they’re learning the importance of thinking in different domains. They’re learning how to ask questions that matter to biologists, politicians, farmers, and sociologists. These questions take us outside the boxes of each discipline in ways that recognize the multi-dimensional nature of the challenge and promote creative, sustainable, and just solutions.
What the world needs right now is more liberal arts graduates with the skills and the motivation to meet these complex challenges. And we need to be talking about how a Calvin education achieves this through the interplay between our major programs and our new core.