Settling for Less [at Notre Dame]: The “Core” Curriculum and a Genuine Catholic Education
Father Bill Miscamble, CSC
Professor of History
February 12, 2016
The draft report of the Decennial Core Curriculum Committee is a disappointment for those who believe, to quote the report, that Notre Dame should offer its students “a superb Catholic liberal arts education” in which every undergraduate receives a “common foundation in learning.” The draft report whets the appetite with its introductory testament to the importance of liberal arts education and its moving reflections on the unity of knowledge and on the preparation of students to be good citizens both for “society” and for “heaven.” Yet, it fails to deliver on its promise. Ultimately it serves up a revision of the present core curriculum, the purpose of which seems to be twofold: to give more choice and “flexibility” to students and to break the hold of certain departments over required courses in the existing curriculum. The latter is accomplished by the replacement of discipline-based requirements with a more vague “ways of knowing” approach, which will allow a larger number of departments to offer courses that fulfill certain of the projected requirements.
Those who genuinely want Notre Dame to offer a Catholic liberal arts education should be very clear on what the draft report does not accomplish. It makes no serious effort to provide a coherent and integrated core curriculum appropriate for the leading Catholic university that Notre Dame regularly proclaims itself to be. Some years ago, my philosopher colleague Fred Freddoso rightly pointed out that our existing core curriculum had deteriorated “into a series of disjointed ‘course distribution requirements’ guided by no comprehensive conception of what an educated Catholic should know.” The review committee had the chance to seriously confront this circumstance, but it balked at the gate and sadly declined to engage the challenging matter. The committee essentially left the “disjointed distribution requirement” approach in place. It has not recommended that departments shape courses that relate to and build upon those offered by other departments such that students might sense some genuine connections—dare we say “integration”—as they fulfill their core requirements.
The committee report has been received without either real enthusiasm or strident opposition. The committee cleverly avoided goring any particular academic “ox” too badly. While math and science take a “hit,” so too do the humanities, social sciences, and fine arts. Theology retains its two-course requirement, and this seemingly placates those—including even the Holy Cross community on campus––who worried that it might be reduced at notable cost to Notre Dame’s Catholic identity. A deceptively named “integration” course throws a bone in the direction of folk who would like to teach interdisciplinary (a more accurate term) courses on various issues du jour. The “Catholicism and the Disciplines” (bearing the unfortunate acronym CAD) possibility allows for a committee genuflection toward Catholic thought. It even might produce some decent specialized courses, but most students likely will not encounter them.
Sadly, if the committee report is adopted we can expect that far too many students will continue to graduate from Notre Dame without experiencing a deep sense of engagement with Catholic intellectual life. At a time when so many students lean in the direction of a “consumer” approach to their education, Notre Dame largely will abdicate its responsibility to offer an education that aids its students to address important questions regarding ultimate ends, the central goals of the human person, and the means for pursuing the common good. When the “core curriculum” offered our students is so disjointed and anemic, is it any surprise that so many succumb to the gospel of prosperity (Notre Dame version) and skate quickly past genuine learning and the pursuit of truth in order to gain specialized utilitarian training?
Surely the need is to provide a much richer and genuine core for our students. Notre Dame must move far beyond the tepid “ways of knowing” approach and have the courage to provide its students with some meaty instruction in what should be known by a thoughtful and committed Catholic today. All students who come to Notre Dame should understand that to study here is to engage a great intellectual tradition. If students want mere training in business, Wharton is for them, and if only engineering appeals, then Carnegie Mellon presumably can accommodate them. To study at Notre Dame should not mean ticking off required “boxes,” whether they be termed disciplines or ways of knowing. It must mean engaging in some coherent way great thinkers and key ideas as well as important literary and artistic works so as to allow a true education of the “whole person.”
The review committee must re-focus its efforts on content rather than on methods and techniques. Working together, the theology and philosophy departments must collaborate with departments in the humanities and social sciences to fashion core courses that assure that every Notre Dame undergraduate gains knowledge of at least the following: the Hebrew scriptures and the New Testament, Plato and Aristotle, Augustine and Aquinas, Dante and Shakespeare, Leonardo Da Vinci and Michelangelo, Bach and Beethoven, Jane Austen and John Henry Newman, the Federalist Papers, De Tocqueville and Lincoln, Darwin and Nietzsche, G.K. Chesterton and Flannery O’Connor, such essential documents of Vatican II as Lumen Gentium and Gaudium et Spes, and subsequent important Church teaching as revealed in such encyclicals as Veritatis Splendor, Evangelium Vitae, and Laudato Si.
The tiresome objections as to who would teach such courses and how they might be taught are sure to be raised. I suggest a year-long Catholic thought and culture sequence drawing on faculty from a number of departments to complement what might be covered by theology and philosophy. Surely possibilities of this sort should be explored by the committee before suggestions of a genuine core are pronounced dead on arrival. A failure to explore such possibilities would be an admission that Notre Dame has become a “research university” filled with such narrow specialists that its undergraduate students will be short-changed in seeking a rich Catholic education. It will only confirm that interested students must actively seek out certain supportive faculty if they desire an education that deepens their appreciation for the Catholic incarnational and sacramental vision, and which allows them to explore the deep mysteries of God and the challenges of this world. The others—undoubtedly the majority of undergraduates—will be forced to settle for much less, to their cost and to the cost of Notre Dame’s credibility as a Catholic university.