Don’t (Always) Judge Christian Colleges By Their Alumni

Every day that I walk into work at Bethel University, I pass by these words from the school’s founder, John Alexis Edgren:

Measure our performance by what God accomplishes through our graduates after they have been prepared at Bethel to go out into the world to serve.

In general, I think that’s a wise maxim for colleges and universities like Bethel; Edgren’s quotation comes at the end of an alumni display featuring everyone from scientific researchers and pastors to a Major League Baseball umpire (who majored in History). But I hope that one of our peer institutions is not being assessed based on the recent statements of its best-known (for the moment) alumna. For while I’m not sure where Betsy DeVos got her ideas about the nature of college teaching, or the origins of historically black colleges and universities, I’d guess they didn’t come from her years studying at Calvin College.

Calvin College Chapel
Calvin College Chapel – Creative Commons (Ejd24)

So I’m glad that The Atlantic dispatched education reporter Emily DeRuy to Grand Rapids, Michigan to interview Calvin faculty and students. What she found is basically consistent with what I know of Calvin — and of most Christian colleges and universities like it:

DeVos is now Calvin’s most famous alum, and in recent weeks, the school has been painted in some circles both online and in conversation as a conservative, insular institution that helped spawn a controversial presidential-cabinet member intent on using public dollars to further religious education. But that is a grossly simplified narrative, and one that obscures the nuances and very real tensions at the school.

In more than a dozen interviews, professors, students, and alumni of all political stripes painted a picture of a college where intellectual diversity and thought-provoking debate are the norm, and where the belief that followers of the Christian Reformed Church, with which the school is affiliated, have an obligation to engage with the world around them compels both instructors and students to question what they think they know.

Abraham Kuyper in 1905
To her further credit, DeRuy goes back to Abraham Kuyper (1837-1920) to understand the roots of Calvin’s philosophy of education – Wikimedia

It’s no puff piece: DeRuy tackles the “tension inherent in the fact that the school sees tradition as a place from which to build, and that that tradition is grounded in ethnic theology,” and the ongoing challenge of making the Calvin community more closely resemble the multicultural kingdom of God that it serves. But she also does well to unpack the meaning of that phrase: “Calvin College is not preparing students to be the heirs to the kingdom of God,” English professor and Calvin alum Jane Zwart explained, “It’s preparing them to be servants in the kingdom of God.”

That’s certainly how I would describe Calvin alumni like my colleague AnneMarie Kooistra, who teaches a course on the history of sexuality precisely because it leaves students “better equipped to enter into dialogue about how to approach the current sexual landscape—one that we share with a diverse group of people and communities, not just Christians who subscribe to Bethel’s interpretation of biblical sexuality.”

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It’s got to be a tough job to cover higher education in America. You need to explore a sprawling, complicated landscape dotted by thousands of institutions that are as unlike each other as they are similar, each possessing its own idioms and paradoxes that baffle outside observers. And Christian higher ed is especially opaque to most outside viewers. So DeRuy and The Atlantic deserve credit for running a piece on Calvin that sheds more light than heat.

Of course, it wouldn’t be an article on Reformed higher education without including shot at my own religious tradition:

A 2010 concert by The New Pornographers was scrapped because the school was nervous about appearing to endorse pornography. That’s not to say that the school is some Footloose-style pietistic bubble where drinking and dancing aren’t allowed; students spend plenty of time and money at Grand Rapid’s many breweries, including one in a converted funeral chapel.

But if you — like many Christians and non-Christians of my acquaintance — think that “pietistic” is simply a synonym for “legalistic,” or if you think that only Reformed Christianity can generate institutions of higher education that prepare graduates to seek not just the glory of God but the good of neighbors, whether Christian or not…

Well, here’s some recommended reading material.