It’s time for a course correction
Post-WWII Dutch immigrants in Canada accomplished an education reform that holds vital lessons for our schools today.
Professor Nicholas Wolterstorff once observed that to do justice to any tradition, one must understand how it interprets its vision, how it expresses that vision and the relevant highlights of its narrative. I accepted this daunting task when I decided to investigate and give an account of the tradition of alternative Christian education promoted by post WWII Dutch, neo-Calvinist immigrants living in Canada.
This is a tradition with which I am intimately acquainted. I grew up in a small Nebraska town and was nurtured into the Christian faith as a member of an obscure German Calvinist church tradition. After graduating from Dordt College, my wife Glenda and I immigrated to Canada in 1971. I was among the first to graduate with the Masters of Philosophy degree from the Institute for Christian Studies in Toronto and in 1976 we moved to Bowmanville, Ontario. I taught a variety of subjects at Durham Christian High School over the next 19 years and we raised our three children as adopted members of the Dutch immigrant community. Two years after receiving my doctorate in the History and Philosophy of Education from the University of Toronto in 1991, I took a position in the education faculty at The King’s University in Edmonton, Alberta, where I spent the next 20 years.
Throughout my forty-year career as a high school teacher and a university professor, I aspired to “teach outside the box.” The influences that shaped ‘the box,’ why my colleagues and I tried so hard to escape its boundaries and how much of a difference our tradition of education was ultimately able to make are themes that I address in my new book, Education for Hope.
The Canadian story of neo-Calvinist education in North America is as extraordinary as it is unknown on the larger stage of school reform. In just 35 years, it was able to build a kindergarten to graduate degree system of education that extended from Charlottetown to Victoria. The tradition’s vision of alternative education was even more impressive than its vast system of schools, but it was – and remains today – the most difficult to implement.
A historical reform movement
The story of Dutch neo-Calvinist education in Canada can be divided into three chapters, the early days (late 1940s to 1970), the hey-days (1970 to 2000) and the latest days (2000 to 2022). The extraordinary efforts of first and second-generation immigrants to build their schools defined the first few decades. These schools emerged within “interpretive communities,” communities that were capable of implementing an alternative vision of education. However, the quality of education was generally poor at this time, and the schools were dependent upon a well-established American parent organization named the National Union of Christian Schools (now named Christian Schools International). This was also a time marked by tensions and division, with most disagreements centred on the purpose of Christian education and curricular content. Toward the end of this period, the quality of teaching vastly improved and teachers demonstrated both an eagerness and ability to tackle curriculum reform.
My research prompted me to view the last three decades of the Twentieth Century as the hey-days of the Dutch Neo-Calvinist tradition of education in Canada. During these decades, a dynamic, grass roots, teacher-led curriculum reform movement characterized the tradition. It was a reform no one else managed to pull off; progressive-minded educators from other backgrounds have championed similar causes, without seeing the same results. This movement spawned two innovative curriculum documents: Joy in Learning for elementary education and Man in Society: A Study in Hope for high school. The stories behind the publication of both documents are equally fascinating.
The movement also gave rise to the Curriculum Development Centre, which many hoped would help teachers break through the curricular and pedagogical barriers that prevented them from fully implementing their vision of a Christ-centred education. The CDC story has faded from our collective memory, but its successes and failures are among the most notable in this tradition, and today’s teachers have much to learn about the state of their tradition’s educational vision from this story.
The next decade
From time to time, the neo-Calvinist education in Canada has needed a course correction to sustain its role as a purveyor of alternative education. This challenge dominated my teaching career in the 1980s when many of us heeded the clarion call of reformers like Geraldine Steensma, Harro Van Brummelen, Agnes Struik and Nicholas Wolterstorff for us to move beyond educating minds and educate for a way of life.
As we move into the third decade of the Twenty-first Century, Neo-Calvinist education again faces a vision crisis; some have reached the conclusion that ‘education for Christian worldview’ does not go far enough, but the alternative ‘education for a life of discipleship’ goes too far. While we ponder the meaning of Christian education, our schools steadily conform to the reigning paradigm in North American education. The key question today is, what course correction can we take to preserve our tradition’s pursuit of an alternative vision of Christian education?
My research leads me to think that the tradition of Dutch neo-Calvinist education in Canada has great potential in this period of uncertainty. It has in place three well established regions of Christian schools, two reputable teacher preparation programs and a graduate studies think tank. We can shift our trajectory to remain rooted in a legacy that calls on the school to be both a dissenting and transforming institution. I am encouraged by the efforts some educators are making to reimagine the tradition’s educational vision as a vision of hope. How education for hope will be interpreted and expressed, and what highlights will define its narrative, are the all-important indicators to watch for in the decade ahead. I challenge those with formative power in the tradition to adopt Augustine’s vision of hope. He said hope has two beautiful daughters: (righteous) Anger and Courage; anger at the way things are and courage to see they do not remain that way. If we educate children to embody this meaning of hope, they will make the greatest difference in our despairing world.