General Education as a Story
by Curtis Gruenler, Director
Hope College’s official literature about its mission ends with this statement: “Hope graduates are educated to think about life’s most important issues with clarity, wisdom, and a deep understanding of the foundational commitments of the historic Christian faith. They are prepared to communicate effectively, bridging boundaries that divide human communities. They are agents of hope who live faithfully into their vocations. Hope graduates make a difference in the world.” If that is the goal, how does the college propose to help you get there?
When you arrive at Hope, already well on your way, you pass through a First-Year Seminar. Your FYS may be about any topic under the sun, but they all share a common format. A seminar is an advanced form of instruction for those ready to take more initiative in their own education. The word “seminar” comes from the Latin word for seed. It is a sort of greenhouse for sprouting seeds that encourages you to express your interests and questions and to develop the skills of reflection, inquiry, and conversation needed for participating in a mature community of learning.
Through FYS, a Hope student enters the two main components of liberal arts education: general education and a major (or more than one, and maybe a minor or two). One part is about breadth and the other about depth, like a tree spreading its branches while it puts down roots.
General education takes you further into all of the basic kinds of knowledge that make up our common culture: the sciences, both natural and social; the arts; and the disciplines known as the humanities that deal with language, literature, history, philosophy, and religion. Your path through these areas of study also gives you a chance to develop fundamental ways of knowing: through both numbers and words; through analytically breaking things down and synthetically grasping the whole picture; through critical distance and interpretive empathy; in writing and in conversation; with both clarity and imagination; drawing on the past and looking to the future.
Along the way, the Christian tradition is both a particular object of study and a source of courage, honesty, and care for every kind of study. In the Christian liberal arts tradition, God is like the sun: sometimes a focus of thought, but always the source of illumination for seeing everything else.
Another special focus in general education, dealt with in various disciplines, is the diversity of human cultures, the different ways under the sun that people live and think, both nearby and around the world.
Taking general education courses may feel at times like wandering through a maze of paths in the woods. There’s lots of interesting stuff to look at, but it’s hard to see where it all leads. At some point you’ll locate the particular path that will take you through the forest, and all of this hiking will also give you a valuable sense of the lay of the land. (You may even find a magic door in the woods that takes you off campus for more exploring.) Through general education, you come to a better understanding of your world and of yourself—body, mind, spirit, relationships—that will help you flourish in that world and succeed on your particular path of study and work.
As you near the end of your journey through Hope, your senior seminar is like finding yourself, along with a company of other seniors, in a clearing at the top of a hill. From there you can see both the forest you’ve come through and another one that you’re about to enter, as soon as you cross the river just ahead at the foot of the hill. It’s a chance to put together what you’ve learned up to this point and articulate your view of life. Many majors have similar “capstone” courses that synthesize what you’ve learned in that discipline, but senior seminars deal with basic questions that go beyond any one discipline. They are also meant to be particularly oriented to the light from above—in particular, to thinking about Christian faith and how it might illuminate life. Regardless of what you believe, however, the senior seminar helps you identify reference points, on the horizon or in the sky, that you can continue to steer by, and strengthens the skills of reading, writing, and conversation that will help you keep them in view.
Now you will be better prepared to find your way and plant yourself as an agent of hope living faithfully into your vocation and making a difference in the world.