Settling for Less at Notre Dame: The “Core” Curriculum and a Genuine Catholic Education

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.

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4 comments on “Settling for Less at Notre Dame: The “Core” Curriculum and a Genuine Catholic Education

  1. A Question of Academic Freedom [for Authentically Catholic Professors at Notre Dame]

    By Gerard V. Bradley
    Professor of Law
    December 6, 2015

    Father Miscamble has publicly stated that he is “required to end my involvement with the NDCatholic site and am not at liberty to say why.” Nor does he appear to be at liberty to say who is requiring him to stand down (and to say nothing further about it). But everyone in this university community—especially but not only every faculty member—should want to know the answer to that question. For we have here a grave incursion upon academic freedom. The website has to do with the academic life of Notre Dame. It is meant to help guide students in selecting courses that would contribute to their obtaining a genuinely Catholic education at this Catholic university. Father Miscamble was instrumental in getting the site up and running. In doing so, he exercised professional judgment about academic matters. Even someone who thought the effort imperfect, or doubted its overall usefulness, should not doubt his right to act upon his own judgment about how best to serve Our Lady’s University. Academic freedom means at least that much.

    But someone in authority has overridden Fr. Miscamble’s professional judgment and ordered him to cease and desist and to be silent about who, or why. There are really just two possible sources of this command. One is the university or, more exactly, someone in the higher reaches of Notre Dame’s administration. If the provost or the president or some other officer is the commanding authority, then he or she must say so immediately, and explain why this extraordinary action was taken. If transparency and accountability are anything more than glib slogans at Notre Dame, then ordering a senior professor to be silent must be publicly explained and justified (if it can be). Anything less is cowardly. And if the university had nothing to do with Fr. Miscamble’s silencing, then the university ought to publicly announce that fact right away.

    The only other possible source of this command to stand down and to be silent is a religious superior within the Congregation of Holy Cross. The vow of obedience that Fr. Miscamble made is essential to the life of his religious community. It is admirable that he honors that vow in these circumstances (if that is what’s going on). Even so, the exercise of religious authority—again, if it is so—concerning Fr. Miscamble’s work on NDCatholic nonetheless represents such an extraordinary intervention in the academic life of our university that it too calls for explanation and justification. Indeed, such an exercise of religious authority would seem to be exactly the sort of “external” ecclesiastical interference in academic life that Father Hesburgh (among others) so famously denounced in the 1967 Land o’ Lakes Statement.

    The university ought to defend the academic freedom of its faculty members—including those professors who are priests or religious—by stating publicly that it is seeking a formal accounting from the religious superior who (by hypothesis, for the moment) ordered Fr. Miscamble’s silence. The university ought also to commit itself to sharing the results of its inquiry with the entire academic community.

    • Indeed, such an exercise of religious authority would seem to be exactly the sort of “external” ecclesiastical interference in academic life that Father Hesburgh (among others) so famously denounced in the 1967 Land o’ Lakes Statement.

      What? The libs aren’t following their own nefarious guidelines? Hahahahahahahahaha.

    • Quote: “If the provost or the president or some other officer is the commanding authority, then he or she must say so immediately, and explain why this extraordinary action was taken. If transparency and accountability are anything more than glib slogans at Notre Dame, then ordering a senior professor to be silent must be publicly explained and justified (if it can be). ”

      Right, but if the high-ranking Notre Dame administrator who gave this order is an emotionally-unstable homo with an obvious conflict of interest in imposing a heretical anti-Catholic agenda of progressive modernism at Notre Dame, there is the explanation for this outrage, especially if he is a heretical priest on a flamboyant fruitcake power trip to discipline and silence orthodox Catholics out of fruitcake spite because they will not bend over for his anti-Catholic progressive agenda. This isn’t that hard to figure out. We’ve all seen this song and dance before.

  2. [At Jesuit Marquette]

    Marquette has a way of quietly making professors go away

    By M.D. Kittle / February 22, 2016 /

    MILWAUKEE, Wis. – John McAdams’ professional fate remains in limbo more than a year after Marquette University initiated the process to fire its outspoken political science professor.

    It would appear that Marquette administrators – caught between a rock and a possible lawsuit in their pursuit to penalize free speech – are slow-walking McAdams

    In an interview last week with Wisconsin Watchdog on the Vicki McKenna Show, McAdams said a Marquette faculty committee late last month finally came back with its recommendation on what to do with the long-time political science professor. That recommendation, however, remains confidential.

    The committee was supposed to have met 90 days after McAdams was told in January 2015 that the university was pursuing removal of his tenure for comments he made on his blog about a graduate student teacher. She reportedly closed off opinions against same-sex marriage in her class.

    The committee did not first meet until late September. It was to have a recommendation within 90 days of meeting, but the committee missed that deadline by nearly a month.

    “So this thing has dragged on and on,” McAdams said.

    And it doesn’t appear to be moving to resolution any time soon. McAdams said administrators have said nothing to him about when they will come down to a decision.

    A Marquette spokesman has not returned calls seeking comment.

    “One of the theories why they are taking so long is that maybe they know they are in a pickle and they are casting around to try to find a face-saving way out,” McAdams said. He has threatened to sue the university if it fires him on what he believes are groundless charges while failing to honor its contractual agreement on academic freedom.

    “Maybe they think if they just delay long enough, I and my lawyers will just go away,” McAdams added. “That’s not going to happen.”

    He noted Marquette has a “history of sometimes being able to quietly get rid of professors.”

    Case in point, criminology professor Richard Zevitz.

    The Marquette Tribune reported in December 2013 that Zevitz was accused of telling students that if an active shooter came into his classroom that he would shoot the shooter, and then joked he would possibly take some shots at a few students he didn’t like.

    “Some students reportedly felt uncomfortable enough to report it to the dean of the College of Arts & Sciences,” the newspaper reported.

    While several students came to the professor’s defense, noting that he just had a “dark sense of humor,” Zevitz’s last two classes were canceled, he was put on paid administrative leave for the spring semester and was banned from campus.

    He never came back.

    Zevitz could not be reached for comment.

    “Another issue here is the suspicion that the judgment of the Department of Social and Cultural Sciences might not be completely unbiased in dealing with this case,” McAdams wrote on his blog in January 2014. “Zevitz has been in conflict with some of the more politically correct members of the Department, and at least some of his ‘colleagues’ might look favorably on tossing him out – or at least inducing him to leave.”

    McAdams says Marquette, like so many universities across the nation, are drowning in political correctness, but it’s freedom that is dying.

    “Emotional vulnerability has been weaponized,” he told Wisconsin Watchdog. “People claim to be offended. People claim to have been harassed. Of course, there is such a thing as real harassment. The problem is on campuses today people claim to feel harassed simply hearing things they disagree with.”

    As Wisconsin Watchdog reported last week, Marquette once again has been named to the top 10 list of worst colleges for free speech, according to a new ranking compiled by the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education.

    The speech battle has been going on since November 2014, when McAdams wrote his pointed piece about the instructor’s decision to restrict a student from voicing opinions on same-sex marriage during a class discussion. The student wanted to talk about why he opposed gay marriage; the student teacher thought that offensive.

    Marquette, a Jesuit institution with a penchant for political correctness, suspended McAdams and began the slog of a process to fire him.

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