Archived Voice Articles
Gen 300: Dordt's senior capstone course serves as a bridge between the classroom and adult society
Gen 300 instructors, Drs. Jonathan Warner, Patricia Kornelis, and Calvin Jongsma, say teaching the class is a stretch for professors who are discipline specialists, adding that one probably has to be either very confident or very ignorant to agree to being on the team.
Find Your Place in God’s World” is the slogan found on Dordt College brochures and billboards. It helps people get a sense of what a Dordt College education offers its students.
It’s not easy to come up with such phrases or to describe simply what it is that makes a college education unique. For the last few years Gen 300 instructors have asked their students to think about Dordt’s slogan and those of other colleges that appear in magazines or on billboards along roadways. They want them to think about what lies at the core of their college education—and what they will take away from their four years of study. Gen 300, Calling, Task, and Culture, is the capstone course of the Dordt College curriculum. Taken by seniors and some second semester juniors, it tries to be a bridge that helps move students from college life to adult society.
“We draw on the perspective and knowledge they’ve gained throughout the curriculum, developed in the general education program and their majors, and relate it to concrete contemporary issues,” says Dr. Calvin Jongsma, a mathematics professor and this year’s coordinator of the three-person team of instructors.
“We want them to think about how they can impact, transform, and live as Christians in contemporary society,” says Dr. Pat Kornelis, an education professor and another member of the team.
The third member of the team, Dr. Jonathan Warner, a professor of economics, notes that this is not a course any of them are specifically trained for.
“We’re all saturated in our disciplines and know our resources there,” Warner says. “This is more of a stretch.” The teaching team, building on their Christian insight, study and collaborate to learn as they teach. They meet each week to pray about, reflect together, and plan each class.
Student assistant Salome Toryem, a pre-law English major from Nigeria, believes a key strength of the course is the building of awareness. She describes student response cards that say “I didn’t realize this” or “I didn’t know this concerned me.”
Awareness by itself is not enough, though, all agree. The instructors want their students to continue to develop and then use their Christian worldview for kingdom service. They begin by asking how a biblical worldview can help solve problems in culture, communities, and churches. Reading The Scandal of the Evangelical Conscience by Ron Sider helps students understand how important it is for their worldview to permeate their lives if they are to live differently. Sider cites research showing that divorce rates, materialism, sexual behavior, and gender violence among Christians are very similar to that of non-Christians; that the ten percent tithe is not a consistent habit for Christians; that most Christians don’t consider helping the poor a priority; and that racism is prevalent among Christians. He concludes that too often Christians, sinners that we are, don’t put our beliefs into practice. The instructors try to help their students see how Scripture and a biblical worldview might help them live more self-consciously as Christians.
A key theme of the course is living as disciples, say the professors. Following a foundations unit in which the class addresses topics such as the importance of a Christian worldview, how to think about calling, the importance of community and accountability, and the prevalence of relativism and materialism, students are pushed to ask how Christians in community can live concretely as disciples of Christ. With that as background, the class then examines three contemporary issues: technology, poverty, and gender.
“We start with a unit that is more abstract for students, or at least one that seems more distant from their experience,” says Jongsma, who as the natural science faculty member on the team heads up the planning for the unit on technology. From there they go to wealth and poverty—a topic that is a bit more personal, but still, in most cases, not something most Dordt students see daily. Warner leads this section. The final unit is on gender and much more personal. It is led by Kornelis. Students read as textbooks Enough by Bill McKibben, Just Generosity by Ron Sider, and Women Caught in the Conflict by Rebecca Groothuis. These are supplemented by many articles representing varying perspectives.
“We could choose from many different topics for our main units,” says Jongsma. In fact the topics have changed over the years. Each year as a new team begins planning, they decide which topics they believe are important for students to think about and which topics fall broadly within their areas of knowledge. The team is generally made up of one faculty member from each of the humanities, social sciences, and natural sciences divisions. Individual members serve a three-year term, rotating one member off and one member on each year.
The class contains students from all majors. Toryem notes, “We wouldn’t have the same discussions if the class was made up of only one major.” She cites the differences in responses of biology majors and engineers in the technology unit and of business majors and social work majors in the poverty unit as examples.
“It is striking to me that business majors offer insights that education majors would never think of—and vice versa. It helps all of us think more broadly,” adds Kornelis.
Jeff Guttierez, an English major from Alta Loma, California, says that because not all majors deal with these issues in their courses, he believes it is beneficial to have a course that focuses on select contemporary issues.
“I have realized through in-class discussions that many people are unaware of the depth and the comprehensiveness of how issues such as poverty, homosexuality, and technology affect not only the world, but also each individual. It is our Christian responsibility to understand the culture in which we live and to speak to that culture in their language,” he says.
The instructors bring their different views and areas of expertise to the class too.
“First semester is a bit like jazz improvisation,” says Jongsma. Although the team plans together, they each do their own preparation for their presentation responsibilities. They don’t quite know how the class will evolve until they are in it. And because not all Christians agree on every detail of how their faith should be lived out, the instructors sometimes have slightly different responses to issues. But they work hard to help students see how their responses grow out of their Christian faith and worldview.
“We’re pretty agreeable,” says Warner. The team emphasizes that they are not trying to convince students of one simple ‘position’ but of the need to become more socially aware and apply biblical principles as they analyze and respond to problems and issues in the culture they live in. On that basis, faculty urge their students to take a position and support what they believe.
“This approach can be frustrating for students,” says Kornelis. On the one hand students want answers about how to think about issues; on the other hand they don’t want to be told what to think. Faculty help lay a biblical foundation for how to think about issues, and do not hide their responses, but challenge students to come to their own conclusions based on what they learn. In short they try to model intelligent, biblically-based Christian response to contemporary issues.
The Gen 300 instructors do not want to undercut students’ beliefs, but to strengthen their understanding of why they believe what they do, making sure that they understand that issues have breadth and complexity. They observe that some students still tend to separate their spiritual/devotional lives from their response to cultural concerns.
Student response to the class has always been both positive and negative. Many students appreciate the opportunity it gives them to apply their worldview to concrete problems and issues of everyday life that they will face as employees, parents, citizens, and church members. Students report intense conversations in apartments, in the coffee shop, in small groups where students can talk more easily about thoughts they don’t care to share in a class of 120 students. Others begrudge the time required for something they believe is irrelevant to their career and life after college. Some believe the professors are too conservative or too liberal; others don’t want to engage the issues. Yet others say it has changed the way they think about living as kingdom citizens.
Rachel Palmer, from Norfolk, Virginia, says “I have really enjoyed Gen 300 this year. The subjects that were covered are incredibly relevant. These subjects absolutely need to be considered by Christians. If we want a share in the dialogue surrounding these issues in the secular world, we must become aware of the factors, contributing problems, and possible solutions. I have come to learn just how many diverse opinions (both right and wrong) are represented within the Christian community, and even within the Christian Reformed Church. This class has served as a platform or a starting point from which to become exposed to those ideas, to evaluate opinions and ideas, and to determine whether or not they comport with Scripture.
“While the professors sought to be unbiased and present their ideas fairly, their biases were displayed slightly in the reading requirements. Overall, though, I have really appreciated the dialogue about these things. It has been an appropriate application of my four years at Dordt to real world issues. It seems like it is an appropriate segue from the enclosed college world to the bigger world out there. In effect, it asks the student to ‘step into a larger world’ (to borrow the slogan). It asks us to apply our black and white Christianity to the shades of gray found in the culture around us.”
Kris Walhof from Manhattan, Montana, says that although he hasn’t yet had time to step back from Gen 300 and reflect on the course, he thinks that in the future he will have been glad that he was able to wrestle with these contemporary issues. Although there are some things about the course he’d like to see changed, he says:
“The issues dealt with in Gen 300 are things that we should be discussing and praying about all the time, but often we do not take the time to work through the intricacies of each one. As a result we simplify the issues in our own minds and do not deal with them adequately. Many people come in with stances on these things; others are more confused. I think that one positive thing that Gen 300 does is to show us that there is always infinitely more to be gleaned on a particular topic than we are able to grasp. Thus, we must be humble and cautious in taking the stances that we do. As Christians, I believe that our calling for this world is to be humbly in prayer at these points of controversy, respecting their complexity and relying on God to lead us into discerning His truth.”
The professors grow through the course, too. Kornelis says, “When we first began to talk about technology, it was like a foreign language for me. The very thing we want for our students was happening for me. I was overwhelmed and stretched but it has made me more aware of issues in biotechnology, global warming, and poverty—and has affected the choices I make.”
Warner says he was stretched in a similar way in the gender unit. Thinking about issues outside of one’s discipline, he believes, allows professors to make connections in other classes. He believes more integration across the curriculum would be a good thing.
Jongsma says a highlight of his term on the team was working with colleagues that he ordinarily doesn’t work with or get to know in the way he did as part of the GEN 300 team. He too acknowledges the value of being forced to focus his energies outside of his discipline. As result, he is more aware of contemporary issues and a more active and responsive citizen to issues of policy and injustice. He hopes the students will be able to say the same.
Professors aren't the only ones who present in Gen 300. Student groups share what they've learned reading books on a wide range of topics that are part of everyday living and decision making.
Gen 300 is an interdisciplinary course that encourages students to explore key issues they will encounter in their lives, evaluate them from a Christian perspective, and live out the values they form. It helps students to continue to reflect upon, develop, and articulate a Christian worldview for Kingdom service.
The mission of Gen 300 is to acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord over all.
We are called to seek first His Kingdom in a culture where many actively deny His Lordship.
As redeemed image bearers formed into a witnessing community, we explore how we should demonstrate love for our Creator and His creation in today’s world.
As part of this course you will:
- deepen your insights into the implications of a reformational worldview for living counter-culturally under Christ's lordship.
- engage in critical self-examination and reflection upon calling and what it means to live as Christ’s disciples in our cultural context. further develop your understanding of the inter-relatedness of God’s world and your place within it.
- become more aware of how religiously grounded historical and social forces have given rise to and shaped contemporary problems.
- develop a Christian perspective on key social issues that transcends traditional secular polarities.