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Getting to the Core: Dordt introduces a new set of required courses for its curriculum

By Sally Jongsma

The Core Program at Dordt College has changed both its name and its requirements. Formerly called general education courses, today the required set of courses that all students must take are called the Core Program, both at Dordt and at many other institutions.

Dr. Hubert Krygsman, a professor of history, chaired the faculty committee that proposed the new core curriculum that was adopted by the faculty last year.

Dr. Hubert Krygsman, a professor of history, chaired the faculty committee that proposed the new core curriculum that was adopted by the faculty last year.

“The core lays the foundation for the common parts of student’s lives and provides a context for their specialized majors,” says Dr. Hubert Krygsman, the chair of Dordt’s Core Program Committee. He compares it to an apple core which allows the rest of the apple to develop. The word core also describes the value of the program to a students’ education, Krygsman believes. At Dordt College, the goal of the core is to complement students’ study in a major so that they develop in ways that help them become not just professionals, but also good parents, faithful church members, and responsible citizens.

“The name change is partly a response to student perceptions that courses designated as general education courses aren’t as important and shouldn’t be as difficult as those in their major,” says Krygsman. The Core Committee believes that these courses give a foundation to the education offered at Dordt College and wants to find new ways to help students see the importance of the classes and learn through them.

“Almost anywhere students enroll today, they are required to take core courses,” says Krygsman. “More than half of the colleges and universities across the county are revising their core program.” So the new Core Program that will take effect next fall at Dordt College isn’t unique in that sense. Many leaders in higher education today believe that core studies are necessary because of the fragmentation in our culture. They believe a core can give students a sense of community, help them make intellectual connections between disciplines and other parts of their lives, and encourage a sense of civic responsibility.

Dordt’s core also fills these needs, but it is designed to do more. One major characteristic of the new program is that its courses are defined less by the encyclopedia of different disciplines than by four curricular coordinates spelled out in “The Educational Framework of Dordt College,” adopted already in the early 1990s. The four coordinates, as they are called, are four focal points Dordt College believes education should address if it is to prepare students to live as God’s disciples in his world:

• Religious orientation – students need to understand that every part of the world belongs to God.

• Creational structure – students need to understand that God made the world as a whole, that things are interrelated.

• Cultural development – students

need to know that everything they do affects the world for good or for evil.

• Contemporary response – students need to know that they live and work in the world as Christ’s disciples.

“We believe that organizing core studies around these four themes helps students understand their world better,” says Krygsman. “Disciplines are necessary, but by their nature they focus on one part of the world without necessarily seeing its context.” Having a unified core gives students a stronger foundation than simply having them take courses that add variety and diversity to their studies as some institutions do.

In addition to a new organizing principle, a significant goal of the new Core Program is to deepen students’ “authentic grasp of a Reformed perspective,” according to Krygsman.

Students sometimes say they get turned off by what they call Reformed jargon in their classes. While Krygsman believes that professors need to be careful not to just use clichés, he wonders if sometimes students don’t really understand the implications of certain ideas and so call them clichés. He and some of his colleagues find that even though students call themselves Reformed, many have never read anything written by people like John Calvin or Abraham Kuyper, and they often don’t know much more about these thinkers than their names. The new Core course that replaces the Western Civilization course, for example, will require students to read at least some parts of these and other writers in the Reformed tradition, giving them a foundation for understanding and talking about a Reformed way of thinking that can’t be dismissed as clichéd. In addition, all students will take a senior level course in Advanced Reformed Thought.

“We want them to critically read and reflect on Reformed writings in their major so that students can make them their own or so that we can help them understand why they don’t agree with what they’re being taught,” says Krygsman.

The new core also aims to make better connections between programs and across areas of the campus. While much of this still needs to be worked out, increased collaboration between the academic side of the institution and the student services side is one area where this is expected to take place. In addition, new courses are being developed that will help students make connections between disciplines. Faculty members were invited to propose new courses that fit the curricular guidelines laid out for core courses, and some exciting new options have emerged (see next page).

The new core is also more flexible than the old one, taking into account individual students’ strengths and weaknesses. Rather than all taking exactly the same courses, students may be able to choose from courses that best fit their interests. For example, if a student’s writing skills are weak, he or she will need to take a basic course in writing. Students with strong writing skills may be able to meet the writing requirement through another course that will help them develop the skills they already have. And as more core course options are developed, students will be able to choose from among several options to meet most requirements, enabling them to take courses they are most interested in or that would be most helpful for their major.

Moving hand-in-hand with the change in the Core Program is a commitment to improving the way core courses are taught. Faculty aren’t always as excited about the time and energy needed to teach large core courses as they are about their smaller classes with students in their major. Large classes make it easier for students to remain anonymous and unengaged and keep faculty from knowing their students as well as they could or should. Steps are being taken to decrease class sizes and to provide teaching resources that will encourage faculty to be creative in these settings and to sharpen their teaching strategies.

“Evaluations have shown us that what students value most about Gen 100, the introduction to college course taken by all freshmen, is the small class size. We’ve seen it produce students who are more responsive in class. We see this happening in upper level major classes, but for the core to be more effective, students need to be engaged earlier on.”

All faculty dream about facing students who sit eagerly on the edge of their chairs, actively engaging the ideas being presented. No one is guaranteeing that will happen as a result of a new core, but any steps in that direction will be good for both students and faculty.

Three samples of what the core’s change offers students

One characteristic of the new core is its interdisciplinary approach. Many of the new courses being developed will focus on social, cultural, and personal issues. Yet, in the process of examining these issues, students need to see how disciplines like psychology or business or mathematics allow them to understand them from different vantage points.This approach, faculty believe, can help students learn how the God’s world is not only specialized and diverse but also intimately interrelated. Last year, faculty members were invited to submit proposals for interdisciplinary courses that would fit into one of the four new categories in the core: Unfolding the Biotic Creation, Unfolding the Physical Creation, Persons in Community, and Justice and Stewardship. These three sample proposals give a sense of what possibilities the new core offers students.

1. Technology, Lifestyle, and Self (Persons in Community)

Students in technical areas already deal with the effects of technology on society, but all people today live in a technological world, says Computer Science Instructor Nick Breems.

“We have the perception that we control our technology choices, but technology also exerts its ‘will’ on us,” says Breems, who believes it is valuable for everyone to think about the implications of their choices. “I’m not at all dissing technology, but I do want people to think about its effects on their lives,” he says. The course proposal lists several topics for exploration: what it means to be human, the role technology can play in helping develop the self, the effects of technologically-mediated communication, the role of authenticity in a simulation-filled world, and what is required to follow Christ’s radical call in the lives of Christians. If offered, Breems would team-teach the course with someone from the social sciences.

2. Faith and Social Justice (Justice and Stewardship)

Abby Jansen from the Social Studies Justice Department says her proposal grew out of a department discussion about what professors perceive to be a growing and strong interest in justice issues by their students. Jansen and her colleagues believed they could be more explicit in helping students explore how faith influences action in these areas. She attributes this interest to two things: increasing numbers of students who have been out of the country and the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. Everyone who has been out of the county on a study abroad, mission, or internship experience has a heightened awareness of justice issues, she says, noting that more students today go out of the country. And 9/11 changed people’s frame of mind, she believes. They’re less comfortable.

Proposed topics include exploring the biblical call to do justice, reading current literature on social justice issues, and applying a social justice perspective to how Christians are called to live. Specific topics could address things such as food distribution, poverty, the environment, clothing, and coffee.

3. Energy, Materials, and the Environment (Unfolding the Physical Creation)

Engineering Professor Kevin Timmer began teaching Environmental Studies 152 this year, but since he knew it could be a candidate for an introductory course in the new core program, he began organizing it around the parameters laid out for that program. Timmer describes the course as an introduction to energy and material use in western society and the resulting impact on the environment.

Timmer wants the content of the course to be relevant to the rest of students’ lives. He begins by asking “Why care about energy and energy stewardship?” In the process he has them read a book titled Remember Creation by Scott Hoezee.

“One of my main goals is to have them pay attention to creation, including technology, and how people were made to be a natural fit with the physical world,” he says. A main goal is to equip students to be lifelong stewards.

Since the course is part of the science core, Timmer wants his students to be able to do some basic measurements that will give them practical tools to evaluate the impact of their actions. He’ll have students learn to measure the amount of water they use in a shower and the economic impact in energy costs. He’ll have them figure out how many bales of cornstalks it takes to be able to take a warm shower.

Most of these and other proposed courses are cross-listed as a course in a major, although all have a conscious interdisciplinary approach. Other examples include titles such as “Environment and Creation Care,” “Biology, Care, and Production of Domestic Animals,” “Apian Biology: the Biology and Role of Honeybees in Creation,” “Ecological Economics,” and “Economics, Justice, and Christian Stewardship.The Core Committee expects to keep adding to the number of such courses from which students can fulfill their core requirements.