“College Conduct” at Calvin in the 1920s
Some of the Calvin College students in the cover image of this post look like they could be rascals; one or two look studious. There were troublemakers of various sorts on campus in the 1920s and 1930s, as at pretty much any school. But what did the college expect of its students?
“A well-bred college girl observes the following manners,” says Calvin’s College Conduct manual of that era. For details, check out the image below. The quoted material looks to be taken from a late-nineteenth or early-twentieth century etiquette book.
We’ll get to Calvin’s expectations for “college man” in a little bit. (Note the wording: not “college boy.”) But first a few general observations, some of them to be explored in future blogposts.
In my years at Calvin as a faculty member, I’ve often heard faculty and staff with pride emphasize that Calvin is not an elitist school. We’re a place that welcomes first-generation-to-go-to-college students, many from blue-collar and rural backgrounds. We want to give every potential student a chance to succeed. We have a democratic ethos. This anti-elitism, the lore is, reflects the roots of the theological school and preparatory program in the late 1800s—when, needing to train pastors, some of its students were raw young men from farms and small towns in Michigan and the wider Midwest.
There is an element of truth to this myth, but the history is more complicated. From its origins in the early 1900s into the 1950s, at least, the college arguably was elitist in some notable ways: culturally, socio-economically, and intellectually. (To fair, there was some debate on all these matters.)
This blogpost focuses on social and cultural elitism—in demanding bourgeois manners of students. But first a couple of quick notes on other forms of elitism.
- Socio-economic: Should Calvin “democratize”? This became an urgent question in the late 1940s and early 1950s, when a flood of young men returned from World War II. Money from the G.I. Bill made college affordable, and veterans flooded Calvin. Federal and state governments also began providing support for young women and men who had not served in the army. Calvin expanded from about 400 students to well over a thousand in the couple of years after the war. Some faculty were not happy about this. “The plain and unpleasant truth . . . is this,” one faculty member insisted, commenting on new ideas about universal college education in America: “the presence on campus of everybody’s son and daughter will work havoc with the educational standards of the colleges.” He opposed watering down the education of “our denominational college.”
- Intellectual: Calvin faculty into the post-war era generally emphasized an old-fashioned liberal arts education, many looking askance at professional education of any sort. More specifically, many faculty’s understanding of the liberal arts was classical in its suspicion of modern literature, art, and music.
- Religious: Elitism perhaps is not the right word; exclusive is better. Should Calvin permit non-Christian Reformed students to attend? (A few did.) Were they a threat to the faithful orthodoxy of “our” Reformed young men and women? Or was excluding them an un-Christ-like limitation of the potential of the college to witness to non-Reformed students? This too remained a live issue into the 1960s.
But back to “College Conduct” and social-cultural expectations at Calvin in the 1920s.
We’ve seen the expectations for college “girls.” What about the college boy? Or rather, the “college man,” as the conduct manual had it. (The manual seems dated in many ways from a contemporary viewpoint; and the college’s expectations for women were more restrictive than for men into the 60s and 70s.) Scroll up to the previous image for some of the rules for “college men,” and see the one below for more.
The College Conduct booklet reveals that the college expected its students and alumni to be respectable, cultured, bourgeois members of society. Decorum, morality, and faithful Christian life demanded no less.
There is no date on the booklet, but the copy we have was owned and marked up by a student from the late 1920s named “John Bult.” The Calvin Prism yearbook has a John Lucas Bult graduating in 1929. He went on to graduate from the seminary in 1932 and to serve churches in Michigan, Illinois, Indiana, and Minnesota, retiring in 1965. As far as I can tell, he’s the only “John Bult” from that era (20s and 30s).
Young Mr. Bult did not think much of College Conduct’s fussy bourgeois pieties. He was at Calvin in the “Roaring Twenties,” the era of the flapper, the jazz age. And, to the discomfort of many of the college’s faculty and Christian Reformed Church leaders–and likely their parents–he and his fellow students were to some degree children of their time. Not just “in” that world, but “of” it, influenced by its sensibilities, and not convinced that being a modern was entirely incompatible with being a Reformed Christian. Calvin students during the interwar years would ignore and push against restrictions on “worldliness”—attending movies and playing cards—and vex college faculty and church leaders to no end.
We know something about Bult’s views of the College Conduct code from his comments in it. “This is a lot of apple sauce,” he wrote in the inside cover. In other words, nonsense, balderdash, bunk, piffle. About the “conduct” advice on page 6, for when a man escorts a “girl” in public, he wrote: “Who said so?” About “Calvin parties” being “always chaperoned” by faculty: “Too bad.” And about its advice on eating, proper use of knife, fork, and spoon, and not shoving too much food into one’s mouth, he offered his own hand-written suggestions:
What do we make of Bult’s scoffing at College Conduct and what does it suggest about Calvin as a Christian institution?
It’s impossible to know for certain what Bult thought religiously, but we can assume that he took the Bible and Reformed theology seriously. He was a pre-seminary student, after all. He also was a member of the intellectually serious Plato Club (more progressive) and Nil Nisi Verum (“nothing but the truth”; more conservative). However rebellious some young Calvin men and women were culturally, by Christian Reformed standards, most also were earnest in their faith. The most intellectually engaged of them pushed Calvin faculty to take more seriously the college’s own stated Reformed ideal of applying faith to all areas of life—including modern culture and social issues.
We don’t know what Bult thought of the College Conduct manual’s quoting 1 Cor. 13:5. He didn’t comment on that page. But we can imagine that he thought college and church leaders sometimes were looking for evil in the wrong places and feeling provoked for the wrong reasons. And we can wonder whether he thought the use of the text here was good hermeneutics. Was the apostle Paul really concerned about such matters as the proper use of knife, fork, and spoon?
We also can wonder whether, in later years, as older adult, a pastor, and a father, Rev. Bult came to worry about “the youth,” whether in the late 40s and early 50s, amid a wave of fear about comic books and juvenile delinquency, or in the 60s and early 70s, and the counterculture and protest movements. Bult’s graduation photo and chosen quotation certainly look like that of a solid citizen.
We cannot conclude much from Bult’s comments. We do know that his cohort of students included rebels, notably Sadie Roelofs and Peter DeVries, both editors of Chimes, the student magazine, both of whom tried to set off student revolutions during their editorships. In the November 1929 issue of Chimes, when Roelofs was the editor, a seminary student wrote an article that lamented that the teaching of theology and the Bible at Calvin was lifeless and without poetry. The writer was “Bert,” not Bult; but Bult also was at the seminary that fall and doubtless was in classes with Bert. He may not have agreed with Bert’s complaint. We don’t know. But he might have enjoyed rebellious writing in Chimes, agreed with some of it, and laughed when his fellow students tweaked the foibles of their faculty and church leaders.
William Katerberg is a professor of history and curator of Heritage Hall at Calvin University.
The graduation image is from the Prism yearbook of 1929. All images courtesy of Heritage Hall.