Notre Dame's Core Curriculum Review

The University of Notre Dame’s Committee to examine the school’s core curriculum issued its reports yesterday. The headline is obvious: Despite pressure to drop the required theology courses for all undergraduates from the current two to a single course, the committee recommended retaining the current two-course requirement.

This decision has consequences for academic theology nationwide. Given its iconic status, had Notre Dame lowered the requirement, other schools would have been tempted to do the same. The concern, so obvious in the culture, that colleges prepare students for the world of work, combines with the concern of many academic leaders about their ranking on those insidious US News & World Report surveys, and both undermine an undergraduate curriculum aimed at making sure its graduates know how to think.

Reading the report, more is at stake than the narrow issue of many theology courses an undergraduate should take. The shape of Catholic education – dare I say it, the Catholic identity of the university – was in play and any fair reading of the report must conclude that Notre Dame is on the correct path.

The committee received a charge from Notre Dame’s president Fr. John Jenkins, CSC. He identified five objectives for the committee:

1. What knowledge, dispositions, and skills should all Notre Dame students possess upon


2. How best can these be instantiated in core curriculum requirements, and what set of

organizational structures—from academic advising to the relationship between the First Year of Studies and the Colleges and Schools—best facilitate their acquisition by students?

3. How can our core curriculum not only sustain but also deepen our commitment to Notre Dame’s Catholic character?

4. What, if any, relationship should exist between core curriculum requirements and advanced placement examinations?

5. How do and should core curriculum requirements work in conjunction with academic major requirements?

Number 3 on the list is of special importance to those like me who believe the Catholic character of our universities is very, very important. How Catholic could a university be if its students can graduate without having ever encountered the study of God? But, I think item 3 is closely related to the first item. Theology is not merely one discipline among many. It should inform the way a Catholic approaches all intellectual pursuits. As the committee report states when it explains how it seeks to “deepen” the Catholic character of Notre Dame:

Four aspects of the Catholic liberal arts tradition seem to us relevant. They are the search for the unity of knowledge across disciplines, the prominence of philosophy and theology, an ethos deriving from Catholic social thought centered on promotion of the common good, and the intellectual resource of a religious and cultural tradition stretching back in time to the first Christian communities and unparalleled in its global reach.

No disciplines other than theology and philosophy really address the “search for the unity of knowledge.” A chemist or a psychologist is indifferent, must be indifferent, by the terms of his field of study to the kinds of questions that must be asked in the search for such unity of knowledge. Artists might make a vital contribution in this search, but it would not be systematic.

Many smart people lack a proper grounding in philosophy and theology but they cannot achieve what a Catholic university expects of its undergraduates, and while they may have little trouble differentiating knowledge, integrating it is more difficult. At a time when the leading presidential contenders in one of the nation’s two parties are in the lead precisely because they lack expertise in governance, this inability to relate different spheres of knowledge one to another seems especially important. Just watch the anguish on the face of the undeniably brilliant Dr. Ben Carson when he is asked a foreign policy question!

None of this diminishes the value and importance of other disciplines, still less their ability to contribute to the university’s intellectual life and, specifically, its Catholic intellectual life. The report states, “Notre Dame’s character as a Catholic academic community in fact presupposes that no genuine search for truth is alien to the life of faith; all academic disciplines explore knowledge that discloses God.” While the philistines at the Cardinal Newman Society fret about the performance of a randy play or a commencement speaker who is not 100% in line with the Church’s teachings on sexual ethics, this review committee at Notre Dame gets to the essence of the Catholic identity of a Catholic university. It is not enough to have lots of retreats and Masses available, nor to exercise a coarse censorship. No, a university teaches, and the Catholicity of the teaching is where its identity must be witnessed.

As well, the report recommends greater effort to integrate the core courses into the overall educational experience, a kind of bridge among disciplines rather than merely checking off disparate boxes by freshmen. “The absence of sustained efforts to bridge disciplines within general education courses at Notre Dame seemed to the committee a regrettable example of the intellectual divisions characteristic of the modern research university,” the report states. The pedagogical challenge here is not small but the report is right to identify this need. The core curriculum must hang together, as it were.

The committee also recommends that the core theology courses be taught not by graduate teaching assistants but by full professors. I am sure this will cause some grumbling among the faculty but I invite them to really reflect on the value of this provision. First, if these courses really are a “core” than they should not be left to the most inexperienced teachers on the campus. Second, I was profoundly blessed as an undergraduate to have taken two courses with the legendary philosopher Paul Weiss. He used to say he preferred teaching undergraduates because they asked more honest questions: Grad students had mastered the craft of asking the question they thought the teacher wanted to get. Third, academic theology can too easily become unconnected from the life of the Church, the chief evidence being that advances in theology seem to have been accompanied by drastic declines in catechesis. It is all well and good for theologians to insist, rightly, that they are not catechists, but their work has to benefit the life of the Church as well as the life of the academy, no? I suspect Pope Francis, with his repeated insistence that “reality is more important than ideas,” would concur. Perhaps teaching incoming undergrads will help theologians find new and creative ways to connect their research to the lived reality of the people in the pews.

In philosophy, the introductory course requirement is maintained and students will be able to take a second philosophy course or select a course from a new category called “Catholicism and the Disciplines (CAD)” which would permit a student to study, for example, Catholicism and Dante, or Catholicism and medieval art history. “Sociological data tell us our Catholic students, certainly, and perhaps also students from other faith traditions, are less knowledgeable about and less attached to their faith traditions than students a generation ago,” the report states. “CAD courses have the potential of deepening student knowledge about a tradition whose reach extends from the Sistine Chapel as discussed in an art history course to an ethical perspective on investing in a finance course.” I applaud this innovation although, had it been left to me, this would have been an additional requirement, and the two philosophy courses would have remained required also.

As you read the report, it is clear that the committee wrestled with a question that should be dominating discussion about colleges and their costs, but isn’t: Is there still value in a liberal arts education or are we to just turn higher education over to utilitarian barbarians? For Catholics, heirs to a great intellectual tradition, this question is not merely about preserving our past in some meaningful way, it is about being able to offer something of significance to our country and our world. The value of a Catholic liberal arts education should be obvious to anyone who listens to the Holy Father. Does any public figure make as much sense as the pope, whether the issue is the economic idolatry of the mostly accepted neo-liberal economic agenda, or the deeper issues of relationality without which our attempts at environmental protection are doomed to fail, or the futility of war? I listen to the candidates for president – in both parties – and do not discern a coherent moral vision. And young people are hungry for the tools with which they can make some sense of their world, find some inspiration for their labors, and direct those labors to the benefit of others. I will give the last word to this hopeful sentiment in the report, with the prayer that Notre Dame’s on-going efforts to shape, define, and deliver a Catholic liberal arts education will flourish in the future as they have in the past and as they do today:

Many excellent universities and colleges begin assessments of their curricula and the undergraduate educational experience with uncertainty as to the underlying purposes of that education and that experience. But even as Notre Dame has become more diverse, welcoming students and faculty from many different religious traditions and none, the aspiration for a superb Catholic liberal arts education appears more widely shared than ever by University faculty, students, and alumni.


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