What does it profit a university if it gains the whole world and loses its soul?

Recently it was announced that programs in classics and in classical languages at Calvin University will be cut, alongside several other programs. This is simply the latest episode in an uninspiring decrescendo for the liberal arts at Calvin. Departments have been shrinking, outgoing professors have not been replaced, and programs have been eliminated. 

It is worth remembering that the first students attending what eventually became Calvin College in the mid 1870’s would have received training in Greek and Latin as an essential part of their pre-ministerial education. With the effective closure of the classics department, it seems that Calvin University can no longer even offer the basic liberal arts training that its students could have received during the presidency of Ulysses S. Grant. This is cause for great concern.

It is now clear to any thinking person that Calvin is not immune to the pressures driving the closures of humanities departments across the U.S., nor to their distal institutional causes—financial stresses, shrinking enrollments, and all the rest. 

What remains to be seen is whether or not Calvin is exceptional in its ability to weather these troubling times. This is not the question of whether or not Calvin’s Reformed vision of life and learning is exceptional. It is. What we are instead asking is whether or not Calvin’s commitment to its Reformed vision—including its commitment to the liberal arts—can survive massive institutional hurdles. 

If I can speak this way, we are asking whether or not Calvin believes its own Reformed vision of life and learning. Let’s hope that it does. 

And how far does the Reformed vision of life and learning go? Does it only go so far as to move us to sadness over the fate of Calvin’s struggling humanities departments? Over the shortage of scholars working in liberal studies and foreign languages? Over the puny liberal arts education embodied in recent revisions to the university’s core requirements? 

I’m sure administrators and decision-makers in the Calvin community believe that all of these changes are regrettable. And no doubt we will be told that the liberal arts at Calvin are in such a sorry state in part because incoming students simply do not see the value in them. At this stage, though, we ought to seriously consider the possibility that it is Calvin itself as an institution that does not see the value in them. 

The Reformed view of Christian education and the liberal arts encapsulated in the statement of purpose in “An Engagement with God’s World: the Core Curriculum of Calvin College,” adopted by the faculty in 1997, is breathtaking. The statement is an educational vision document without peer. But what matters most about the convictions embodied in the statement of purpose is that those convictions are really true

And because the Reformed vision of life and learning really is true, you can take it to the bank. I would expect Reformed Christians to know that it is God, in the first place, who builds up the Christian university. The statement of purpose sums this up nicely when it says that “the entire project of Christian education is premised on hope that is in turn based on trust in God’s faithfulness to his people.”

…a Reformed university that does not follow its principles does not deserve to survive. ”

Calvin is invincible until God judges that its time is up. Because the Reformed vision of life and learning is true, a Reformed university that follows its principles can survive. On the other hand, a Reformed university that does not follow its principles does not deserve to survive.