Notre Dame's Curriculum Review, Part I

Controversy has returned to the University of Notre Dame. Unlike the debate six years ago regarding the school's decision to invite President Barack Obama to its graduation ceremony, this controversy is actually important. At issue is an examination of the school's core curriculum and specifically whether it should retain its current requirement that all undergraduates take two theology and two philosophy courses.

Let me stipulate at the beginning that it is not my place to tell Fr. John Jenkins how to run Notre Dame. He is doing quite fine without me. But this issue will inevitably involve many other Catholic universities that look to Notre Dame to set the standard in Catholic higher education. And more importantly, higher education generally is facing some important and searching questions about its future and its place within the culture that have long warranted attention by all of us. Surely I am not the only one who cringes when the president says that our colleges and universities must "prepare young people for the jobs of the 21st century," as if a university was primarily a vocational program, a feeder program for corporate America, as if universities must not also prepare the citizens and the artists and the intellectuals and the contrarians of the 21st century.

Whenever a university looks at its core curriculum, controversy is bound to ensue. In addition to the issues that concern me, there are very practical issues involved. The size of a department's faculty is tied to the number of students it teaches, and having a couple of required courses adds to the number of students. Of course, that is a bit ironic because most senior faculty do not teach the entry-level courses most students take to satisfy a requirement; those are assigned to graduate students and adjunct faculty. Separating where a department's interests stop and its ideals begin is an impossible task, but surely it is not a bad thing for a university to come together periodically and ask basic questions about how it is, or is not, attaining the educational ideals it sets for itself.

It is not clear why this controversy has boiled over now. The school is at the start of a two-year look at its curriculum. Of course, sometimes a committee can decide to send the train in a given direction, and it is very hard to subsequently get the train returned to the station, turned around, and set on a different direction, and even harder sometimes to conclude the train should be left alone entirely. It is quite obvious to me that the issue of the theology requirements has taken center stage given the long, often heated and entirely misplaced discussion of Notre Dame's Catholic identity. I addressed that issue in a column last autumn that you can read here. But let us start with the issue of the theology requirements today and face it head-on.

There have been some interesting things published already on this subject. Amanda Osheim, who teaches theology at Loras College in Dubuque, Iowa, wrote a very thought-provoking commentary at the blog "Daily Theology." Osheim employs Avery Dulles' famous text Models of the Church to pose a series of questions that each of those models raise about the Catholic identity of a Catholic university. All of the questions are interesting, but for purposes of this discussion, I would call attention especially to those questions posed under the heading "Church as Herald." There, Osheim asks:

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  • How do we listen together for the call of God through attentiveness to scripture, tradition, and the signs of the times? What is our response?
  • In what ways can our academic disciplines, professional expertise, and personal experiences inform that listening and our response?
  • How is our identity rooted in the Gospel, and how does that identity translate to our educational mission?
  • How is our witness as institutions of higher learning shaped by the wisdom of the cross and the hope of the resurrection?
  • What prophetic stances do we take?
  • How do we raise our voices in praise of goodness and in objection to evil?
  • How do critical thinking and research inform our ability to discern the right and avoid the wrong?

These are all good questions, and anyone serving on the core curriculum review committee should be able to answer them. The rest of Osheim's article is worth a read, and I especially applaud her for insisting on the need to put the issue of Catholic identity in a plural form! But these questions, especially the second and the last, seem particularly important in deciding whether or not to keep theology requirements.

It has been a temptation of the modern era to consider religion as something essentially to do with feelings and emotions. As Catholics, we must reject such a consideration. I dug out my dog-eared copy of Newman's Idea of a University this past weekend. My dog-ears mostly focused on the subtle ways Newman was already breaking through the dualistic view of grace and nature, even while he insisted on that dualism and even celebrated it. (He was writing before Gaudium et Spes No. 22, "The truth is that only in the mystery of the incarnate Word does the mystery of man take on light," although he was laying the groundwork for it. That issue of grace and nature is actually at the heart of the issue being discussed here, but it will require smarter people than me to get to the root of it.) This passage from Discourse II, section 5, seems on point:

I open the Minutes of the Committee of Council on Education for the years 1848-50, presented to both Houses of Parliament by command of Her Majesty, and I find one of Her Majesty's Inspectors of Schools, at p. 467 of the second volume, dividing "the topics usually embraced in the better class of primary schools" into four: the knowledge of signs, as reading and writing; of facts, as geography and astronomy, of relations and laws, as mathematics; and, lastly sentiment, such as poetry and music. Now, on first catching sight of this division, it occurred to me to ask myself, before ascertaining the writer's own resolution of the matter, under which of these four heads would fall Religion, or whether it fell under any of them. Did he put it aside as a thing too delicate and sacred to be enumerated with earthly studies? Or did he distinctly contemplate it when he made his division? Anyhow, I could really find a place for it under the first head, or the second, or the third; - for it has to do with facts, since it tells of the Self-subsisting; it has to do with relations, for it tells of the Creator; it has to do with signs, for it tells of the due manner of speaking of Him. There was just one head of the division to which I could not refer it, viz. to sentiment; for, I suppose, music and poetry, which are the writer's own examples of sentiment, have not much to do with Truth, which is the main object of Religion. Judge then my surprise, Gentlemen, when I found the fourth was the very head selected by the writer of the Report in question, as the special receptacle of religious topics. "The inculcation of sentiment," he says, "embraces reading in its higher sense, poetry, music, together with moral and religious Education." I am far from introducing this writer for his own sake, because I have no wish to hurt the feelings of a gentleman, who is but exerting himself zealously in the discharge of anxious duties; but, taking him as an illustration of the widespread school of thought to which he belongs, I ask what can more clearly prove than a candid avowal like this, that, in the view of his school, Religion is not knowledge, has nothing whatever to do with knowledge, and is excluded from a University course of instruction, not simply because the exclusion cannot be helped, from political or social obstacles, but because it has no business there at all, because it is considered a taste, sentiment, opinion, and nothing more? 

For Catholics, in Newman's day and before Newman's day and for all time, religion is about knowledge, knowledge of the Truth, the revealed, dogmatic Truth of our faith. I understand that an overemphasis on the niceties of theological discourse at the expense of what some of our Protestant friends call "heart religion" leads to a cold and infertile faith. It is shocking -- is it not? -- that in the 50 years since the Second Vatican Council first pointed the Church in the direction of a preferential option for the poor, it occurred to none of the popes, none of the cardinals, not one of the bishops or priests who daily or annually walked through St. Peter's Square to install showers for the homeless men who call that piazza home.

Still, ours is a dogmatic faith. It makes truth claims that should, like other disciplines that make truth claims, take its place in any academic curriculum. Shame on secular schools for not doing so, but let their shame not be our shame. I do not know how you educate someone and not consider the "last things" that correspond to the deepest questions the human heart can raise, but if secular schools think they should so ignore such questions, that is their business. It is inconceivable to me that a Catholic school should think such a thing, better to say, unthink such a thing by sentimentalizing religion.

How do we, in our own day, sentimentalize religion? By equating Catholic identity with a spiritual wrap-around, in which there are plenty of Masses offered, lots of retreats on offer, plenty of opportunities for service. That is all to the good, but a university exists to teach and to learn, and surely our Catholic identities must be tied in with the most basic work of the institution. A god who made no claims, authoritative claims, about how we live our lives, their origin and destiny, is not much of a god. Such a god bears little resemblance to the Christian God. Our God does make such claims, and it is the task of Catholic higher education to examine those claims, how they apply, how they develop, how they cohere one with another, and so, how they fill a distinctive role in a curriculum of study. Whatever else Notre Dame's committee does, I hope they ask these kinds of questions. More is at stake than keeping a department afloat financially by being able to justify the faculty salaries.

Richard Broadhead, the president of Duke University and former provost at Yale College, recently addressed the issue. You can find an article about his comments here. He equivocally praised Notre Dame's core curriculum, comparing it favorably with that of Yale and Duke. He related the issue of core curriculum to what makes Notre Dame distinctive. According to the Irish Rover:

Rather than weakening the university's Catholic character in order to resemble more closely its secular counterparts, Brodhead urged, the University of Notre Dame should remain true to itself. It should resist the impulse to copy other universities. Citing the examples of the core curricula at Brown University, Yale, and Duke, Brodhead noted their manifold differences. Such differences mark the greatest universities and their particular traditions of education, he said. The result of any desirable change in the core curriculum here at ND should therefore be "to make Notre Dame more, not less, Notre Dame."

Broadhead said, "Don't mess up" to the committee examining the core curriculum, and specifically warned against "the empty chatter that passes for thought." More on that tomorrow. I will only note for the moment that much of the discussion about curriculum review takes place within an administrative class that seems to have bought into the latest jargon about "skills" and "learning outcomes," the kind of jargon I associate with the culture of professional consultancy which represents the largest waste of money in our contemporary culture. Better to save the money spent on "consultants" and buy more Doritos.

The bottom line for retaining theology's role in any core curriculum is, again, stated best by Newman (Discourse II, Section 3):

I do not see how it is possible for a philosophical mind, first, to believe these religious facts to be true; next, to consent to ignore them; and thirdly, in spite of this, to go on to profess to be teaching all the while de omni scribili. No; if a man thinks in his heart that these religious facts are short of truth, that they are not true in the sense in which the general fact and the law of the fall of a stone to the earth is true, I understand his excluding Religion from his University, though he professes other reasons for its exclusion. In that case the varieties of religious opinion under which he shelters his conduct, are not only his apology for publicly disowning Religion, but a cause of his privately disbelieving it. He does not think that any thing is known or can be known for certain, about the origin of the world or the end of man.

I also don't see how it is possible. If we believe the truths that the Church teaches, how can we not perceive the vital need to make sure that knowledge is part of what every student encounters? 

The issue is really larger than theology requirements alone. And, tomorrow, I will extend the discussion further.


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