Professor Thomas Stapleford is associate professor in the Program of Liberal Studies and concurrent associate professor in History, as well as a convert to Catholicism. He is also a member of Notre Dame’s graduate program in the History and Philosophy of Science. In addition to the history of science, Prof. Stapleford’s intellectual interests also include economics and the study of the human mind. His first book, The Cost of Living in America: A Political History of Economic Statistics, 1880-2000, was published by Cambridge University Press in 2009. He received the Joseph Dorfman Award from the History of Economics Society in 2004 for his dissertation. The father of two children, Stapleford is married to his high school sweetheart; the two married just after graduation from the University of Delaware.
Do you have any comments on the relationship between faith and the constant developments occurring in science?
What we find in science can change the way we articulate what we understand about God and Christian revelation, but it doesn’t change the truth of His existence. You don’t need to be afraid of a scientific discovery undermining fundamental belief in God or core Catholic doctrine.
Personally, I am especially interested in the intersection of Christianity and the scientific study of human beings. Through doctrinal statements, theological texts, and spiritual practices more generally, Catholics have implicitly and explicitly made claims about the motivations, norms, and processes underlying human behavior. I’m fascinated by how Catholics working in the mind sciences (psychology, psychiatry, and neuroscience) have sought to integrate their scientific conceptions of human behavior with what we might call the “Catholic anthropology” that emerges from this religious intellectual tradition. Although I’m not actively working in this area now, in the future I’m planning to pursue a project on the history of Catholicism and psychiatry in the United States.
Can you describe your education? What, and where, did you study?
As an undergraduate, I attended my hometown school, the University of Delaware, in no small part because my father was on staff there and I could go for free! That turned out to be a good thing, because I completed a five-year, dual degree program in mechanical engineering and liberal arts. From there, I went to the University of Edinburgh for a master’s degree in artificial intelligence (with a concentration in robotics). That experience confirmed for me that, as much as I enjoyed my technical courses, my heart lay more with the humanistic study of science and technology than with being a scientist or engineer per se. I then moved to Harvard as a PhD student in the Department of the History of Science, completing my degree in May 2003.
Can you comment on any describable difference between higher education in the United States and higher education in the United Kingdom?
As is often asserted, undergraduate education is a lot more rigorous in the UK; undergrads specialize much earlier, and the bright students are pushed very hard in their particular area of study. That changes, however, at the graduate level. In my experience, graduate school was more intense in the United States. [That said,] the masters program at the University of Edinburgh was a one-year re-training program. Being a mechanical engineer as an undergrad, I had done a few things with artificial intelligence, but not much. The Edinburgh master program catered to those who had only had limited exposure to the subject.
Were you raised Catholic?
I was raised in an evangelical, Christian household but joined the Catholic Church in college. Like any conversion, it was a long and complicated process, with roots in both my immediate undergraduate experience and the particularities of my own intellectual and spiritual formation. (For example, C.S. Lewis was my main Christian intellectual influence as a teenager, but Lewis is really much more of an Anglo-Catholic, and thus my immersion in Lewis actually paved the way for my move away from evangelical Christianity, though I had no inkling of that until later.) Again, like any religious conversion, my journey to Catholicism was partially about adopting new doctrinal beliefs but also equally (and in retrospect, I think more so) about coming to understand and love a new form of spirituality, in this case, one deeply steeped in liturgy and sacramental theology. Looking back on the transformation now, nearly fifteen years later, the latter dimension seems to me to be the more substantial and significant difference, though it was not the initial impetus for my interest in Catholicism and though doctrine is (obviously) not unimportant.
Were you the first in your family to pursue graduate-level education?
No, my dad has a PhD in economics, and for a long time he ran a research bureau in Delaware, my home state. My mom has a masters in environmental science, so I certainly wasn’t the first.
What is your current position in the Program of Liberal Studies?
I’m an associate professor in PLS and a concurrent associate professor in History. I’m also a member of ND’s graduate program in the History and Philosophy of Science, and a faculty fellow in the Reilly Center for Science, Technology, and Values.
What classes do you teach?
On the undergraduate level, I teach in the science sequence of PLS, primarily our second and third science tutorials. The second tutorial, as you know, covers the Scientific Revolution, using that period as a means to explore epistemological questions about the study of the natural world. The third science tutorial examines the scientific study of humans and human behavior, emphasizing human evolutionary biology and developmental psychology. I also teach in our Great Books Seminars, though to date I have only taught seminars I, V, and VI.
I typically teach one graduate course per year. These have covered a range of topics, including an introduction to the history of science since 1750, science & democracy in America, the history and philosophy of statistics, and a short course on Michel Foucault.
How long have you taught in PLS? What did you do before teaching in PLS, and what drew you to the program?
I came to PLS in fall 2003, just after completing my Ph.D. at Harvard. To be honest, I couldn’t believe my good fortune that PLS was searching for a historian of science exactly when I entered the job market. I was already familiar with the program because I had visited Notre Dame as a prospective graduate student and had talked about PLS with Professor Philip Sloan. I was captivated by the ideals of a liberal arts education and by the prospect of participating in the Great Books seminars. When I was in high school, I had been very attracted by the great books program at St. John’s College, but I was planning on being an engineer and there was simply no way to pursue engineering at St. John’s. It was quite exciting to imagine myself teaching in a great books program, especially at an institution that combined a strong commitment to undergraduate education with a top-notch graduate program in the history of science. When I had a chance to meet the students in PLS, that experience only deepened my enthusiasm.
What is your favorite thing about Notre Dame’s campus?
How spirituality is woven throughout the campus, whether at the basilica, the grotto, or in the residence halls. That’s definitely my favorite aspect of Notre Dame: there is a constant set of signs and symbols pointing to faith and belief in the divine.
On a lighter note, what is your favorite Notre Dame sport to follow, and your favorite one to take your family to?
I enjoy watching football and follow college football closely, but my wife and I don’t take the kids to the games- Jane is almost seven and Will is three and a half, so the games are a little long for them! We’ve gone to swim meets before, and I think we went to a volleyball game once. I often take them to lacrosse games, because I used to play lacrosse and still love it.