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What makes a Dordt education distinctive?

By Sally Jongsma

You don't start with Christ as Savior if you're going to build a curriculum shaped by a Christian worldview, says Dr. Rockne McCarthy, the vice president for academic affairs at Dordt College. You begin at the beginning of the biblical drama-with creation. Starting with the incarnation is like jumping in midstream and may make you miss the breadth of God's sovereign rule over the world that Christ came to redeem.

"What we're studying is God's world and our place in it," says President Carl E. Zylstra. "You can't have a good sense of God's calling without having a sense of God's world."

Dr. Rockne McCarthy

Dr. Rockne McCarthy

These statements have profound implications for academic work. They lie at the heart of why the Reformed perspective that shapes the curriculum at Dordt College makes the education a student receives here different.

Seeing Christ as Lord as well as Savior allows professors and students to take seriously the Bible's own perspective, says Dr. Calvin Jongsma, who leads the new faculty orientation seminar-a program designed to help new faculty members better understand the Reformed Christian worldview upon which Dordt College was established and has grown. A notion of creation is crucial to understanding how the world is structured-how things operate and how they should, he adds.

"When I talk about academic issues with many Christians, it's hard to focus on more of the biblical story than the incarnation and a very narrow view of Christian anthropology," says McCarthy. This usually leads to a one-dimensional emphasis that fails to recognize that the Lord created persons to live obediently in a variety of relationships and institutions.

Where you start makes a big difference, says McCarthy. In political studies, for example, focusing on individual rights is a distortion of created reality. A creational view sees people in community and allows us to study how we should live in the complex world God created.

Many Christians believe they know what a good marriage or family is, based on their understanding of God's Word. Other relationships and institutions are no different, says McCarthy. If Christians are to have a basis for understanding how to live in this world, they need to look at what God created, see how sin changed and distorted it, and understand how Christ's redeeming power will make all things new, says Dr. Doug De Boer, chair of the Curriculum and Academic Policies Committee and professor of engineering. Christians try to show how Christ's redemptive power can change what has been tarnished by sin.

Education prepares people to live and serve in God's world. Dordt College rigorously trains students for their careers. Part of that preparation is helping them wrestle with how they will choose and do their jobs, how they will lead and serve in their churches, how they will nurture and care for their families, and how they will treat the land God created.

Dordt College admissions materials highlight this commitment to a broad view of the Christian life by quoting Abraham Kuyper: "There is not a square inch in the whole domain of human existence over which Christ, who is sovereign over all, does not cry 'mine'."

One way of understanding this quote is to say that to be a well-educated and responsible citizen of the kingdom is to know as much about the breadth of the world as you can, says Zylstra. Another is for students to realize that they can choose from a wide variety of fields as they decide how they will serve Christ and his kingdom. And another is to realize that every part of life must be lived knowing that it is not separate from the Creator's laws and control, says Dr. Hubert Krygsman, chair of the General Education Committee and professor of history.

"That's why the general education program is so important," says Krygsman. "We do the best job we can of preparing students well for specialized vocations, but in doing so we prepare them for giving good leadership in their community, for serving knowledgably on school boards, for voting wisely, and for using their money responsibly."

These goals cannot be separated if God is sovereign over everything.

"Many Dordt graduates are known for having a broad sense of responsibility and living their Christian perspective in their jobs," he says. He cites history graduates who have gone on to law school and who, because of their background and skills, move into leadership positions-writing reports for judges or editing law school newsletters.

Dr. Hubert Krygsman

Dr. Hubert Krygsman

"Students need to understand what Christ's lordship means in the areas we study in very specific ways," says Krygsman. If professors don't concretely describe how their perspective makes a concrete difference, students hear words like 'creation, fall, and redemption' as simply jargon instead of a way of understanding the world and living in it.

"Such a perspective makes lawyers like Micah Schreurs ('97), Matt Nelson ('97), and Danielle Kamps ('99) raise important questions about how and whether the law serves justice and how as Christian lawyers they can serve the cause of public justice," says Krygsman.

De Boer describes how the Reformed concept of creation, fall, and redemption is concretely played out in one of his courses, Introduction to Microprocessors and Digital Circuits.

"The class begins by studying created structures-binary numbers, Boolean Algebra, and logic gates," De Boer says. "We have come up with nice ways to describe these logical theorems and axioms, but we didn't create them. They flow out of what the Lord created, and they hang together with real beauty." He makes sure his students are very aware of that fact, but obviously doesn't stop there.

"We need to figure out how we can use these created structures to make a computer," De Boer says. "Computers aren't designed by God but by humans, using what God has given us to work with."

Students soon sense there's something quite different between God and them as designer, De Boer chuckles. Because of their creatureliness and the fall, the students can feel a change in the air when they begin to study designs that have strong human origins, such as the design of a computer. It's more confusing, less symmetric, and in a sense shows our human foibles compared to the study of binary logic in the early part of the course."

It's also hard work to come up with truly good designs. It takes sweat and hard work as well as discernment about how to use the resources of creation and use the technology for the good of Christ's kingdom. "I talk with them about this change in the feel of the course and why I believe it happens," De Boer says.

Other faculty members can give illustrations from their disciplines.

Dr. Karen De Mol, who teaches music and is chair of the faculty, says, "I'm continuously struck by the fact that the 'stuff' out of which we make music comes from creation. Without time, we couldn't have rhythm, without the physical properties God created in sound we wouldn't have pitch, without the many different substances God made we wouldn't have different tone qualities."

"It's as if God said, 'I put these things in your care. See what you can make of them and have a blast creating joyful and stewardly music," she says. "Materials are in our trust to care for and develop."

De Mol, too, notes that because the Christian life doesn't start with the cross, Christianly composed and performed music isn't limited to songs about salvation, but includes both choral and instrumental music that rejoices in God's good creation. A joyous and playful song about a woodpecker praises God, as does a devout hymn. Such a view allows the music department to see everything it teaches as God-glorifying-violin lessons as well as learning musical theory-and not separate them into sacred and secular or religious and non-religious categories. Discernment about how music is God-honoring becomes an integral part of the curriculum.

Jongsma's example of the difference his Reformed worldview makes is from his discipline, mathematics.

"Many Christians teaching mathematics look for ways to find analogies between biblical themes like predestination or the Trinity and certain mathematical concepts. They want to use mathematics to make an argument for the rationality of faith so Christians can witness to non-Christian colleagues," he says. He takes another approach, finding the basis for his understanding of mathematics in creation. God is the source of the mathematical realities discovered and studied by mathematicians. Mathematics explores certain aspects of God's rich and diverse creation; it is not a human invention. It has important insights to contribute to our understanding of the world, but its role is complementary and limited. This is an important idea to convey in a world where being able to quantify something is often the measure of its value. Not everything should be quantified, but mathematics also has a valuable and integral role in our world. Because mathematical concepts flow from created structures, the courses are like those taught anywhere-almost. Jongsma makes sure his students are knowledgable about mathematical theories and procedures, but also that they know hoe to apply them to solve problems and that they are familiar with the historical and philosophical context to the mathematics they are studying.

Dr. Karen DeMol

Dr. Karen DeMol

Seeing a common perspective worked out in courses across the curriculum is important if students are to understand what a Reformed worldview means for their studies and their lives, say faculty members. This is particularly true as the college is blessed with a growing numbers of students from non-Reformed backgrounds-and as many students from Reformed backgrounds are themselves less familiar with their Reformed heritage.

At the same time, Dordt College does not try to remain insulated from other Christian traditions.

"There are things we should learn from other faith communities," says Krygsman. A deep biblical piety is one. "At the same time, we need to realize that the Reformed Kuyperian perspective is a gift, much appreciated by others when they encounter it. It is not simply our possession or something we want to impose on others. It is a gift of the gospel." In fact, Krygsman continues, sometimes people who come from other traditions committed to the gospel see its value more sharply than those who grew up with it and take it for granted.

"We need to be respectful of and sensitive to students from varying denominational backgrounds," says De Mol. "But," she adds, "it's fair to be upfront about our Reformed vision and to expect that students can articulate what they've learned even if they don't endorse it themselves. Dordt College does not hide the fact that it stands in the Reformed Kuyperian tradition. While we respect other traditions, we tell students that this is where we stand, and why, and invite them to stand there too."

"Dordt College is not a church, we're an academic institution," says Zylstra. "A degree from Dordt College doesn't mean you believe certain ecclesiastical doctrines. We're not certifying anyone's Christian commitment or grading their faith. But we are presenting what we consider to be a biblical point of view and then prod them toward it."

We need to be accommodating and respectful toward students and not assume that they understand what we mean by a Reformed perspective-even those who come from Christian schools, believes Dr. James Schaap who has written many books that draw on his Reformed heritage and has taught English at Dordt College for twenty-five years. "It's a matter of helping them find their identity as Christians," he says. That cannot be done in a vacuum. "This is who we are-Calvinists. It's our identity and gives a basis for interpreting the world around us." Students need to decide if they want to take on that identity for themselves.

"In a postmodern world, we need to have a sense of who we are and where we've come from if we're to offer students a foundation upon which to build their lives," he adds.

Students sometimes charge faculty with assuming that all students have a common background, making those who don't feel like outsiders or that their point of view is dismissed. As the student body has changed, faculty, too, have had to learn to be more conscious of how they explain and explore ideas.

"When I talk with students who don't share a Reformed doctrinal point of view or background, they sometimes say they wish we would be more sensitive to students from other traditions on campus. But I've never heard them say they think Dordt College should be less Reformed," says Zylstra.

As the student body changes, faculty are changing how they teach-but not the perspective from which they teach. Introductory theology classes don't assume the same familiarity with the Bible-even from students who come from traditional supporting churches and schools.

"It has always been difficult to develop a thoroughly Reformed worldview in students," says Jongsma. "North American Christianity has been largely doctrinal or pietist. But we believe a Kuyperian understanding of Scripture gives a more holistic view of the world and so in a deeper way helps prepare students for lives of service"-service in the broad sense of everything they do.

To accomplish that, faculty work together out of a common vision. Getting bombarded with different perspectives makes it difficult for students to form their own perspective at an important time in their lives

Dr. Doug De Boer

Dr. Doug De Boer

That doesn't mean all faculty see eye to eye on all issues, as many will testify after long debates over concrete curricular changes. But when new faculty members are hired they have read and agreed to foundational documents that outline a Reformed worldview. The new faculty orientation seminar allows them to further develop their own ideas and evaluate whether Dordt College is the place they want to be, says Jongsma. He guides them through readings and discussions of the history of the college and its Reformed worldview as well as issues in educational philosophy, pedagogy, and Christian scholarship.

Faculty members hone their Christian perspective in their discipline through a systematic program in which the division deans and the faculty status committee oversee two, four, and eight year papers or projects that demonstrate how their Christian perspective is made concrete in their discipline.

Another way faculty and departments continue to wrestle with perspective in their subject area is through periodic program reviews.

"It's an opportunity to challenge each department to see how these ideas are incorporated into the curriculum," says Curriculum and Academic Policies Chair De Boer. "We live in a world where there are strong trends in how education should be done. For the most part, we use the same texts as any other college or university. Our message easily gets diluted-or blended," he says. He dreams about what Dordt College could do if we could put more resources into the academic program, including writing textbooks.

"If we could buck some trends, some incredible things might happen," he says.

"Our programs are distinctive, but they could be even better."

De Boer and the others say that the longer they teach the more consciously they try to influence students to change from a North American to a Reformed Christian worldview. "That's more important than making sure they get everything that's in the textbook," De Boer says.

"Ultimately teaching is a matter of passion," says Schaap. "We can't tell students what they have to believe, but we can speak passionately and committedly to encourage them to think about why they believe as they do and not just be generically Christian."

"We need to keep rethinking how our curriculum can proclaim our 'otherness,'" he says. "I became enamored with Calvinism as a student on the basis of a desire to help redeem the world. That was incredibly arrogant for a child of a small ethnically exclusive community, but it made me want to do things for God in a big way. That's the impetus of the Kuyperian vision."