Jim Wilhoit, professor of Core Studies and Scripture Press Chair of Christian Formation and Ministry, has taught at Wheaton College since 1981. He has seen just about everything, yet he’s anything but jaded. Wilhoit, in fact, can barely hold back his passion when discussing the College’s commitment to the Christ at the Core curriculum, which has begun its second year on campus. Wilhoit, who taught the Core 101 course, “Christian Spiritual Practices,” this fall, notes that Wheaton has made a huge financial commitment to Christian liberal arts education through the new curriculum.
Christ At the Core
That commitment goes beyond professor salaries. The school has even altered its architecture to provide seminar rooms so intimate class discussion and new ways of thinking can germinate.
Wilhoit points out that the old lecture class Bible and Theology 111, through which most alumni learned about a Christian worldview, is gone. In its place, tenured faculty— not adjuncts—teach numerous seminar classes across in which 18 to 20 students grapple with vital issues the disciplines.
“You cannot get a more expensive class in the academy than this,” Wilhoit says. “Wheaton is spending money in getting students to understand the implications of the gospel. We’re taking seriously our Christian liberal arts identity.”
Student response has been electric. Wilhoit has heard, for example, of students reading and discussing course texts while doing laundry in the dorms. “This is just what you’d expect,” Wilhoit says. “There’s a level of excitement.”
And that excitement also extends to faculty, who see the curriculum as an important means of their own development. They are now better equipped to teach how different disciplines fit into liberal arts as a whole. Wilhoit notes that the new curriculum helps faculty teach the gospel so students “can begin to live into it.”
“We have people waiting in line to teach the first-year seminars,” he notes. “Christ at the Core is valued and seen as cool.”
Christ at the Core, a key component of the From the Heart, For the Kingdom capital campaign, can be divided into two main emphases. The first, called the Shared Core, offers common courses, including “First Year Seminar: Enduring Questions” and “Christian Thought.” The second, called the Thematic Core, aims to reach shared outcomes for students in particular courses of study. These classes might include “Aesthetic Enrichment and Creative Expression” and “Historical Perspectives.”
Arend J. Poelarends, assistant professor of physics and astronomy, is very excited to be team-teaching a Christ at the Core Advanced Integrative Seminar, “Core 307: Cosmology,” with Robert O’Connor, associate professor of philosophy. The course’s combination of science, philosophy, and faith enables students to explore how God might be involved in scientific issues such as the flatness of the universe, fine tuning, dark matter and energy, and the Big Bang.
Poelarends compliments the curriculum not only for its Christian worldview focus, but for its pedagogical flexibility. “It allows for team-teaching,” he says. “This would have been very difficult in the old curriculum. But Christ at the Core allows for creativity in the classroom, in writing classes, and in developing curriculum.”
Depending on the subject matter for each session, Poelarends or O’Connor leads the discussion, helping students to ask good questions and begin formulating answers from a Christian perspective. The other instructor offers criticism and insight to move the discussion forward.
“We will be taking students by the hand and helping them ask good questions and work through those questions,” Poelarends says.
The new curriculum, even more than the old, encourages students to see the connections between faith and learning, he notes. One way is by developing learning goals for students. “It was implicit before,” Poelarends notes. “Christ at the Core makes it explicit.” He says that this emphasis on Christian application is “very beautiful and very helpful for students.”
Alumni should know, he says, that “students will have a deeper understanding of all kinds of issues—and not only knowledge but transformation, Christian formation, and wisdom.”
Wilhoit agrees wholeheartedly.
“I think we’re doing a better job of engaging students at the level of Christian discipleship,” he says. “What we’re talking about is not feel-good spirituality. We’re talking about discipleship and virtue development. One of the things that all parents hope is that their sons and daughters will graduate with ‘cement in their pockets.’ They want to see the character formation continue as graduates become good spouses, parents, and members of their communities. These are things that, at the deepest level, you hope come out of a college education.”
And when they do in the lives of today’s students, don’t be surprised if Jim Wilhoit’s passion erupts.