Notre Dame's Curriculum Review, Part III

by Michael Sean Winters

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Tuesday, I argued that theology deserves a place in the core curriculum at the University of Notre Dame per se. Yesterday, I argued that removing theology from that core curriculum not only endangers the other sciences, which are then invited to fill its gap with intellectual tools ill suited for the task, but that I fear what happens to a culture in which theology, philosophy and the humanities are driven to the sidelines by our cultural fascination with science and technique. If we do not school our young people in the humanities, theology and philosophy, they will never know how to respond to desire and never lift love beyond the sentimental. Today, I wish to pick up that thread.

There is no more trenchant critique of modern, Western culture than that offered by Hans Urs von Balthasar who wrote:

Whenever the relationship between nature and grace is severed…then the whole of worldly being falls under the dominion of "knowledge," and the springs and forces of love immanent in the world are overpowered and finally suffocated by science, technology and cybernetics. The result is a world without women, without children, without reverence for love in poverty and humiliation – a world in which power and the profit margin are the sole criteria, where the disinterested, the useless, the purposeless is despised, persecuted and in the end exterminated – a world in which art itself is forced to wear the make and features of technique.

Balthasar, along with Henri de Lubac and Joseph Ratzinger, founded the post-conciliar journal Communio which has, more than anything else, examined this issue of the relationship between grace and nature. Balthasar especially focused on love and desire as central to the theological enterprise and, as pope, Benedict XVI made love a central theological concept, even extending it to Catholic Social Doctrine and insisting that it take its place there alongside justice and peace. It is one of the central, seminal developments in theology that came from the Second Vatican Council.

Tuesday, in passing I mentioned Gaudium et Spes # 22 – “The truth is that only in the mystery of the Incarnate Word does the mystery of man take on light” – and a thought occurs. So much of post-conciliar theology has brought the insights of other academic disciplines into theological discourse, citing the “signs of the times” as a source of theological insight. This is a wholly welcome development, even if the results are sometimes uneven at first. But, maybe it is time for academic theology to begin exporting as well as importing, to engage the other academic disciplines from the standpoint of Gaudium et Spes #22, or from the truth claim we find in Scripture, in Colossians: “For in Him all things were created.” All things. Not much room for dualism there.

There is an old saying that there is no Catholic way to make a hamburger. That may be true. My friend Charles Camosy, who teaches theology at Fordham, may be agnostic on the making of a hamburger but he thinks there is no Catholic way to eat a hamburger, and has urged vegetarianism on ethical grounds in well reasoned essays that, happily, have not persuaded this carnivore who is looking forward to a piece of kielbasa for dinner tonight. Joking aside, John Courtney Murray, who may be the greatest theologian the U.S. ever produced, once remarked that “the dualism of mankind's two hierarchically ordered forms of social life has been Christianity's cardinal contribution to the Western political tradition.” Yet, the whole object of Balthasar and his colleagues was to challenge dualism at its root, on the issue of grace and nature. Surely, here is an issue, complicated and rich, contentious and difficult, that demands attention, sustained attention with debate and discussion, the kind of attention only a well chosen and well provided-for, deeply faithful and fiercely critical, theology faculty can provide. Here then is an outstanding reason to do everything to shore up the theology department at Notre Dame: There is urgent theological work to be done!

I do not want to leave the theology faculty at Notre Dame off the hook. I hope that reasons such as I have enumerated these past couple of days are the true motivation for their efforts to retain the two theology requirements that Notre Dame currently has. John Cavadini certainly has offered a fine defense in the pages of Commonweal. Of course, human nature is fallen (the one doctrine of the Church that could be described as self-evident and scientifically demonstrable) and so I am sure turf concerns and budgetary concerns are also at work here, but let’s not get into the “cui bono” questions. Churchill, in entirely different circumstances, once remarked, “It is, in any case, fastidiously severe to impute bad motives to good actions.”

Still, I hope that the theology faculty will ask themselves two questions that are, I think, important. First, does the current configuration really serve the purposes Cavadini has outlined and which I have defended? Do the course offerings correspond to the designation the faculty seeks, are they “core” both in terms of content and in terms of quality? I hate to admit it, but we had four required theology courses at Catholic University when I was an undergraduate, two of which were specified, and none of which contributed an iota to my subsequent interest in theology. All I remember is that the nice Italian priest who taught “Modern Critiques of Religion” had a St. Bernard, which made me like the lecturer more than his lectures. Conversely, I remember all four of the philosophy courses I was made to take and still retain on my bookshelves the volumes we read in Phil 101: The Ancient Mind and Phil 102: The Modern Mind. In applying this memory to the issue facing Notre Dame, I would ask the theology department to ask and answer the questions: What courses should satisfy the requirement? Does a course in Buddhism do so? Or some more experimental course in say, theology and gender? I hope not.

It would be good if the department offered a few options for the first course requirement, say, an introduction to five great theologians, or a survey of the documents of the Second Vatican Council, courses that would impart to the student a real sense of how theology works, how its debates are framed, within what limits, based on what data, so that the student can, upon completion of the course, distinguish between a theological claim and a scientific one, between a sociological argument and a theological one, between authority and argument. In short, one of the two requirements should demonstrate why a theology course is considered part of the intellectual core of the university.

For the second requirement, why not offer a series of courses that would be relevant to different fields of study, for example, shouldn’t politics and economics majors be encouraged to take a course in Catholic Social Thought? Wouldn’t a nursing or pre-med student benefit from a course in bio-ethics? And, students of the natural sciences would surely benefit from a course that highlights the Church’s teachings about the relationship of faith and reason. That course I disparaged in a previous paragraph on theology and gender? That might be suited to those pursing degrees in sociology – but nobody else!

Let me register another concern. Academic theology, and the same can be said of other disciplines, has become highly specialized. To get published, professors must write articles that break new ground. To the degree that theologians engage the issue of justice, it is in a specialized form, justice for this person or on that issue. I remember reaching the decision not to complete my doctorate in Church History. I had finished all my course work. I was not worried about the foreign language or Latin exams. But, I was encouraged to write a dissertation on as narrow a topic as I could imagine, and that did not appeal to me. I recognized that in order to secure tenure I would have to write and publish articles on yet more narrow topics. The idea of publishing an article on gay Eskimos in St. Cecilia’s Parish, 1920-1925 in the Northwestern Minnesota Theological Quarterly did not seem like the kind of vocation that would be fulfilling. If the case I have been making that theology deserves a place in the core curriculum is true, than a theology department must resist this hyper-specialization and focus, as well, on the large issues. The specifics do not warrant a place in the core curriculum. The large issues – the origin and destiny of man, the first principles and last things, who is God and what are his attributes – these warrant a place in the core curriculum. The core curriculum is foundational and so those departments that have a share in it must be comfortable teaching that which is foundational, not only that which is edgy or avant-garde.

Let me raise another, related concern. It is frequently said that a professor’s true objective in her career is to no longer teach undergraduates. No professor had a greater influence on my undergraduate studies than Paul Weiss who taught me Metaphysics. He was ancient by the time I studied under him, but he was brilliant. Each morning, as I sit down to write, I can look up and see two drawings he did and was kind enough to give me. I remember asking him why he still taught undergraduates and I remember, too, his reply: For these kinds of issues, undergraduates ask the more honest questions. He had a graduate teaching assistant, but Professor Weiss delivered all the lectures and peppered us with questions. The assistant helped us with our papers and conducted a kind of seminar every third class. I hope that any department that claims a place in a core curriculum will create a culture within its faculty that is dedicated to teaching undergraduates.

Since I began this series on Tuesday, a good friend chastised me for quoting a reference to “learning outcomes” and labeling such language jargon. It is true that a university should be able to justify to its students, to say nothing of the parents who are paying, that the courses they are taught will benefit them. I hope it does not take a curriculum review to examine such a concern! But, I stand by my claim – the words sound like jargon and I suppose the life of a university is no more resistant to jargon than the life of a corporation. But, we should resist. In this case, the phrase “learning outcomes” may jar, but it speaks to a concern, a concern that is real and, in the event, the jargon is employed in part because we lack the proper, concise language to address that concern precisely. Again, I return to Newman’s Idea of a University where, at the very beginning of Discourse VI, we read:

It were well if the English, like the Greek language, possessed some definite word to express, simply and generally, intellectual proficiency or perfection, such as “health” as used with reference to the animal frame, and “virtue” with reference to our moral nature. I am not able to find such a term; - talent, ability, genius belong distinctly to the raw material, which is the subject-matter, not to that excellence which is the result of exercise and training. When we turn, indeed, to the particular kinds of intellectual perfection, words are forthcoming for our purpose, as, for instance, judgment, taste, and skill; yet even these belong, for the most part, to powers or habits bearing upon practice or upon art, and not to any perfect condition of the intellect considered in itself. Wisdom, again, is certainly a more comprehensive word than any other, but it has direct relation to conduct, and to human life. Knowledge, indeed, and Science express purely intellectual ideas, but still not a state or quality of the intellect; for knowledge, in its ordinary sense, is but one of its circumstances, denoting a possession or a habit; and science has been appropriated to the subject-matter of the intellect, instead of belonging in English, as it ought to do, to the intellect itself. The consequence is that, on an occasion like this, many words are necessary, in order, first, to bring out and convey what surely is no difficult idea in itself; - that of the cultivation of the intellect as an end; next, in order to recommend what surely is no unreasonable object; and lastly, to describe and make the mind realize the particular perfection in which that object consists. Everyone knows practically what are the constituents of health or of virtue; and every one recognizes health and virtue as ends to be pursued; it is otherwise with intellectual excellence, and this must be my excuse, if I seem to any one to be bestowing a good deal of labour on a preliminary matter. 

“Learning outcomes” cannot dispense with the “good deal of labour on a preliminary matter” that Newman undertook. That is the problem with jargon: It is the language of the person who thinks he has solved the riddle in all its complexity, who knows the language of expertise, even if he cannot very well communicate it and so, relies on jargon. Newman did not shy away from the complexity of the riddle he set himself to unravel, namely, what is the idea of a university. The committee at Notre Dame charged with evaluating that university’s core curriculum cannot shy away from that complexity either. The answers they devise cannot be reduced to things that can be quantified and measured in any coarse way. The answers may or may not have any bearing on the university’s ranking from U.S. News & World Report. And, in all honesty, I can see why those rankings would make a difference to a talented applicant when choosing between, say, Yale or Harvard, but Notre Dame is so distinctive, would a slightly higher or lower ranking have an effect on anyone who is otherwise determined to spend four years braving the brutal winters of northern Indiana because they want to attend Notre Dame?

An observation: Had Newman not been schooled as he was in philosophy and theology and the humanities, could he have written a book that still, all these years later, addresses all the most important questions with an intellectual perfection that remains unequalled? No, of course he could not. The question is unfair. A mind like Newman’s only comes along every century or so. But, without a schooling in philosophy, theology and the humanities, will our graduates even be able to grasp Newman, let alone appreciate him?

Which leads to the last, and inarguable reason, why Notre Dame should robustly resist the trend toward “learning outcomes” that encourage giving eighteen year olds more say in their own curriculum than they should be allotted. We have all encountered, socially or professionally, people who are very smart, who may have gone to very good schools, even Ivy League schools, but they can’t use Cartesian in a sentence, know nothing about Augustine, have no real grasp as to how our Western intellectual tradition got to where it is, possess a dismissive attitude towards questions that animate theology and no awareness that such questions have engaged the finest minds over several millennia, in short, they are not the kind of people you want to be seated next to at a dinner party or on a train. Newman, on the other hand: Can you imagine being seated next to him? There may be no single word in English that corresponds to intellectual excellence, but I will tell you this: If our great universities abandon a broad-based approach to core curricula, one that insists an educated person be educated in theology, philosophy and the humanities, we will stop looking for that missing English word that corresponds to intellectual l excellence, because there will be nothing to which it could be expected to correspond. 

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