As an advancing research university, Notre Dame faces a unique challenge: to pursue knowledge while remaining committed to the framework offered by the Catholic and other intellectual traditions. Our success in balancing these issues in the coming years will be determined by many decisions we are making at the present.
Faculty at research universities pursue highly detailed research in generally narrow disciplines. Specialization has become a necessity. I live in this research world myself with professional interests in the history and philosophy of science, and I respect its values. I do not intend my comments to denigrate our combined research efforts. I do see some need to clarify what “research” means at this university, particularly as it bears on undergraduate education.
Today, our growth as a research university accompanies a new concern for increased research efforts by undergraduate students even in the humanities. All students in the College of Arts and Letters must now write a senior thesis or complete a senior project under the direction of a faculty member, who may introduce them to their own specialized research and lead them to explore refined topics. It is not the need for such research—which I fully support—, but the timing of this emphasis, that I sense needs more reflection. What is at issue is the relation between these research interests—I will designate them for convenience “graduate faculty” interests— and those of the undergraduate college.
We should consider two pertinent questions: First, what are the goals of a general liberal education as distinct from the specialized interests of the graduate school? Second, what is the contribution that general liberal education can make to the life-long learning of our graduates as they engage in specialized research and enter the world of professions and disciplines?
To the first question, I offer some reflection on the proposals of the Ernest L. Boyer Commission Report, “Reinventing Undergraduate Education: A Blueprint for America’s Research Universities,” commissioned by the Carnegie Foundation in 1995 (available at
http://naples.cc.sunysb.edu/Pres/boyer.nsf/)). This report seems to have impacted Notre Dame’s recent emphasis on undergraduate research.
This report calls for a new model of undergraduate education, especially at universities that consider themselves in the research university category. It proposes the ideal of “dynamic inquiry” to replace traditional forms of education. This ideal would change the undergraduate community from a “culture of receivers” to a “culture of inquirers,” in which “faculty, graduate students, and undergraduates share an adventure of discovery.”
But the “culture of inquirers” that the report proposes for the undergraduate level has a very specific definition. It means that undergraduates are to be introduced into the graduate school’s educational model.
“As undergraduates advance through a program,” the report says, “their learning experiences should become closer and closer to the activity of a graduate student. By the senior year, the able undergraduate should be ready for research of the same character and approximately the same complexity as the first-year graduate student.”
From my own perspective as a one-time undergraduate and graduate science student, many of the changes the Boyer Report recommends seem on target. For a dedicated science undergraduate, attending lectures and mastering information by examination was simply a painful preliminary step to the world of creative research. Truly exciting education began when a mentoring relationship was developed with a faculty member who introduced a cadre of students into their on-going research project.
But the Boyer Report makes no distinction between education in the natural sciences and that in the humanistic disciplines. Nor does it recognize the different kind of inquiry that reflective study of the humanities may require. Instead it seeks to obliterate these distinctions, and push the graduate model of science education down ever earlier into the undergraduate university experience.
Before we push our undergraduates to conduct graduate-level research prematurely, some careful reflection is needed. If we at Notre Dame are to develop students shaped in some way by thoughtful inquiry into the human condition and in dialogue with the great Catholic tradition, we must not lose contact with key educational values.
The Boyer model offers no real place for general liberal education, for core curricula in the humanities, for reading and discussing of works of the great traditions as inquirers —both faculty and students—who seek more than specialized expertise. It encourages universities to develop a faculty comprised through and through of research specialists who in turn seek to form undergraduates on a specialized research model.
One manifestation of this model of education may be seen in the loss of the Arts and Letters Core Course at Notre Dame. From 1955-2003, the Core Course was required of Arts and Letters students. Originally conceived as a year-long great books seminar taken by all the students in Arts and Letters, students read in Core the works of a great variety of formative authors. Many alums I have met over the years who took this original College Core have commented on its importance for their later intellectual and personal development. In spite of major changes that took place in the conception of the Core Course in the late 1970s, it maintained an ideal of enquiry into the great questions of life. It is safe to say that the Core died because it lacked administrative and faculty commitment to broad humanistic inquiry over specialized disciplinary research.
My conclusion is that this was a considerable loss to the College, and it will be difficult in the future to restore anything like the original ideal of the Core Course to Notre Dame. One even hears now of efforts to make the first-year University seminars more “research” oriented by assigning research papers in these seminars.
However we now seek to accomplish the goals of liberal education in our current research environment, our efforts to grow as a major research university should not deprive our students of one of the most important benefits offered by a Notre Dame education, notably space to reflect on the great questions of life in ways not aimed at acquiring narrowly confined research expertise. If our students do not encounter a broader humanistic perspective in their undergraduate years at Notre Dame, it is unlikely that they will later find the time or resources to do this as they pursue more advanced training after graduation. Like Dante’s pilgrim at the opening of the Divine Comedy, they may instead find themselves caught midway through life in a deep forest with no knowledge of the way forward, a knowledge uniquely and perhaps only provided by liberal education.
Philip R. Sloan, professor emeritus of the Program of Liberal Studies, taught for 36 years in both PLS and Notre Dame’s graduate program in history and philosophy of science. Twice chair of PLS (1985-93; 2002-2004), he also served as president of the Association for Core Texts and Courses from 2002-2008.