Thursday, March 02, 2017

From the Atlantic:
Betsy DeVos's Misunderstood Alma Mater: Calvin College is no fundamentalist Christian school.

Wow, so I have completely lost track of the number of Facebook friends who have posted this article.  Seems like everyone who went to Calvin is obligated to post this article and say something about.

Actually some of the Facebook commentary on this article is more interesting than the article itself.  Among my former Calvin classmates, I've been reading the whole range from, "Wow, what a wonderful place Calvin is," to "I'm really glad I finally got out into the wider world and away from those CRC people"  (I'm paraphrasing, but that's been some of the gist.)

It's a bit tricky to get your finger exactly on Calvin's pulse.  For a school with a predomminately conservative Christian student body, they sure have a lot of liberal faculty.  I think I left Calvin a more liberal person than when I entered it, in part because of the professors there.
But for a school with a lot of liberal faculty, the administration sure does a lot of reactionary conservative things.  So you've got a lot of contradictions at Calvin.

Anyway, since it seems to be obligatory for everyone from Calvin to comment on this article, I'll chime in with my two cents.

On the whole, I thought the article did pretty well.  But I'll just nitpick a couple things:

To quote a few things from the article:

Professors and students at Calvin said they feel that distinction is often blurred when people talk about religious colleges, as is the fact that students at Calvin have long grappled with social and political issues that some fundamentalist Bible colleges have studiously avoided.

Yes, I think this is true enough.  Calvin does encourage debate on social and political issues.  But then to jump forward earlier in the article:

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. 

...Um, to an extent.  But there are also limits to the debate.  Everything at Calvin is approached from a theistic perspective.
Everything in the secular political world is open to debate.  But if you approach religion, there are definitely limits to the debate.
There were several examples of this during my time at Calvin.  One example of many was the controversy when Chimes published the editorial "Were Jesus' Actions Really Without Sin?"  Although Calvin administration didn't censor Chimes, many people in Calvin's community were upset the editorial had been allowed to run.  But plenty of other times the administration did step in and censor material--the Chimes spoof in 2006 (it was spoofing a religious publication) or when Calvin censored the student publication Dialogue in 2001.
I'm sure I'm not the only Calvin grad who had a big culture shock when I got out into the larger world, and discovered how many areas of the world are predominately non-religious.

Moving on to more nitpicking:

A decade ago or so, the school started hosting Rangeela, an annual international student cultural showcase. 
 Oh, it's older than that.  Rangeela was around when I was there in the 1990s.

Okay, more nitpicking:

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 the many breweries in Grand Rapids, including one in a converted funeral chapel. And, as Eigege put it, “It’s college kids … so, yeah, stuff happens.”
Actually drinking is strictly off-limits on campus.  Officially. Even for students 21 and over.  And yeah, stuff happens, because Calvin students are young, and young people inherently like to break the rules.  But that's true anywhere.  (I bet at Bob Jones "stuff happens").  But, for the record, drinking isn't allowed.

More nitpicking.

At least as late as the ‘90s, it wasn’t uncommon to hear “If you ain’t Dutch, you ain’t much” jokes on campus.
Okay, in Calvin's defense, I've never heard that phrase said with a straight-face.  It was always tongue-in-cheek.  And it was never, even as a joke, used to promote white-supremacy--it was always (jokingly) used against people of other Caucasian backgrounds--e.g. Dutch are better than British, or Germans, or French or what-have-you.  I never heard it directed against a person of color.  Someone correct me if I'm wrong.

Moving on to more nitpicking:

 After all, Calvin is a school that has produced both DeVos and Paul Schrader, the writer behind both Taxi Driver and The Last Temptation of Christ, which was roundly criticized by religious institutions as morally offensive. In other words, the school doesn’t spit out cookie-cutter graduates.

Okay, yeah, but Paul Schrader absolutely hated his time at Calvin, so it's not really fair to use him as an example.


Whisky Prajer said...

I would imagine Calvin is similar to any number of Mennonite colleges in that the faculty, who are engaged in critical thinking 24/7 (on subject matter both given and randomly encountered), frequently come up against elements of doctrine (theological and otherwise) that do not stand up well to critical scrutiny. Just another day at the office, but perish the thought they express too loud an opinion on the matter, because [ka-ching!] this is a privately funded institution bankrolled by high rollers who get VERY huffy when their POV on just about anything is challenged in the slightest. Money talks, and bullshit ... well, it usually just stays ensconced where it is most wanted.

Joel Swagman said...

I think you hit the nail on the head actually.

Since my student days are now long behind me, to the extent I know anyone at Calvin these days, it's former classmates who have now become Calvin employees. And I've heard any number of stories that confirm your hypothesis.

At Calvin Seminary in particular, apparently a lot of politics goes on trying to balance what the professors actually think, and what the donors want the professors to think.