I studied engineering at a large, respected provincial university, an education made up almost entirely of specialized engineering courses. At the time I was told I was getting the best education available, but I have since realized that something was missing.
In contrast to many large public universities, a Christian liberal arts education includes a set of “core” courses that all students must take. These core courses typically span many topics, ranging from foundational courses in theology, philosophy and history as well as courses in science, social sciences and humanities. As a Professor at Redeemer, Calvin and Dordt, all my computer science students were required to take a variety of core courses alongside their technical ones.
To be sure, students frequently complain about the core and about “getting it out of the way.” After all, what is the benefit of requiring students in professional programs, like engineering or computer science, to read Shakespeare, take world history courses, music and fine arts, or study theology and philosophy? Ironically, the answer is often expressed by alumni who, once they are engaged in life and work, attest to the value of the breadth and perspective they gained in the core curriculum.
A broad core helps to guard against reductionism – the tendency in academic studies to reduce all of created reality to one thing. To understand this, think about a flower. A flower is not just an object of beauty but functions in many other ways as well. It possesses mathematical and geometric aspects in the symmetry of petals and leaves. It also has physical and chemical properties, such as the ones that make photosynthesis possible. Furthermore, a flower is a living thing that functions biologically and as part of a larger ecosystem. Moreover, at times flowers may possess economic value (as is the case in a floral business). Flowers can be associated with social occasions, to communicate feelings, or as religious symbols. Christian philosophers refer to this notion as the multi-aspectual nature of created reality since things cannot be simply reduced to just one thing.
A reductionistic view of a flower might perceive it as just as an economic resource, or as just cells or proteins, or just the random interaction of particles. A liberal arts and science core reflects a holistic view of created reality in courses taken from diverse areas of study to help equip students with different ways of knowing. As someone who teaches engineers and computer scientists, I understand how critical it is for students in narrow technical disciplines to be exposed to the wider aspects of reality. Woe to the data scientist who looks at a flower and sees only data. Even computer programs cannot be reduced to code but need to be understood as having cultural, social, justice, economic and ethical aspects. Some of the most pernicious challenges we face will require this kind of broad, holistic ways of thinking.
The core at a Christian college also brings coherence to an undergraduate education. The collection of core courses is not just a random smorgasbord of independent content; rather the courses are interconnected by the thread of a common Christian worldview. This thread will include the centrality of Christ, themes from the biblical story such as creation, fall, redemption and restoration, and enduring questions like “what does it mean to be human?” These themes will help underscore that, although created reality is diverse, all things cohere in Christ (Col. 1:17).
A thoughtful core will also avoid a reductionistic view of students themselves, seeing them as more than just “brains on a stick.” Seeing students holistically demands an education that is about more than just information transfer and seeks to form whole persons in and out of the classroom.
I am grateful to have taught at three Reformed, Christian institutions, each with a vital, thoughtful core curriculum. A thoughtful core program is not just about content delivery but about shaping students. In the words of a 1970 Calvin College curriculum report, the purpose of a core is to “equip students to become a vital citizen of the Kingdom of God as it is manifested in the contemporary world.”