“So what is Notre Dame really like?”
I fielded this question frequently this summer, during which I was fortunate enough to leave the Shire of South Bend on a couple occasions to travel for academic conferences and events—to San Diego, Richmond and Birmingham, Alabama (where I did not have any altercations with fans of the local college football team).
I pause when asked this question.
I pause in part because it becomes apparent to me in those situations that what my inquirer expects to receive is a picture painted by the broad strokes of statistics: the number of sexual assaults perpetrated on campus, the number of Masses celebrated daily, the percentage of students who participate in service programs, the percentage of the student body that agrees with the Church’s teachings on abortion when they graduate or how many students are “hooking up” on the weekends.
But no combination of such statistics, revelatory as they are, is adequate to convey the nature of Notre Dame to an “outsider.” The narratives informed by such numbers and statistics don’t quite approach describing the real contours of Notre Dame’s “campus milieu.”
Ultimately, that milieu is shaped by two goals that are incommensurable: on the one hand, in the tradition of the Congregation of Holy Cross, Notre Dame endeavors to educate the minds and hearts of its students. On the other hand, Notre Dame is possessed of a quixotic desire to actually outdo secular schools at what secular schools do best.
The reason that these goals are incommensurable is simple: The respective operative “logic” of each goal in turn entails a particular praxis that in turn gives rise to particular campus “environments” in which those goals are apt to be pursued, and pursued well. Such environments, as the natural “conclusions” of the adoption of each goal, are vastly different.
Notre Dame’s students should be the focus of its institutional efforts. Notre Dame should strive to foster and encourage an environment in which its students are apt to develop the sort of priorities, values and perspectives that make the realization and furthering of the university’s mission actual. But increasingly I feel that Notre Dame is fashioning an environment with a different sort of goal in mind.
I wouldn’t say, as some critics do, that there isn’t a “Catholic culture” at Notre Dame, or that Notre Dame isn’t “effectively Catholic” anymore. There is a Catholic culture here, and there are many “effective” Catholics. The problem is that this culture is not only a subculture but a counterculture, and this demographic a minor constituency.
The dominant culture (or “environment”) here is, without question, one the guiding star of which is careerism.
What do I mean by this? I mean that, in order to compete with the Ivies, Duke, Stanford, Northwestern and the like, Notre Dame must institutionally inculcate certain mentalities, which then trickle down to the students in the classroom, that ultimately render counterproductive to the cause prioritizations of goods other than one’s career or the advancement of the party line and cause.
I base this argument in both anecdotal and “hard” evidence.
To begin with the latter: As the freshmen hear every fall, they are the best thing that has ever happened to Notre Dame, metrically-speaking—the highest test scores, the most high school valedictorians, individuals who presided over two dozen high school clubs, the most robust résumés packed with the most service experience and research initiatives and so on.
Of course, the freshmen shouldn’t flatter themselves too much, since what is true of them now will be true of an even more elite and selective echelon of students in 11 months.
Careerism impels many Notre Dame students even before they come here, because they want to come here. It certainly affects them during their stay. There are a number of students here who are not studying what they love either because their parents mandate that they study something “practical” or because the students simply want lucrative careers and affluent lifestyles.
More importantly, the majority of students here are entirely ignorant of or indifferent to the concept of personal vocation—the belief that each of us has the duty to discern the unique and essential role God has in store for us in the building up of his Kingdom—and the purchase that this concept should have on their decisions. Authentic discernment asks of us a willingness to seek God’s will ardently and to ultimately accept that our lives consist in response and receptivity rather than the existentialist autonomy pervading Notre Dame’s present educational model.
In an environment in which knowledge is a contingent good in the pursuit of affluence, and “discernment” is a dead word, other irreducible goods will be subjugated in the service of careerism. Thus, perhaps the same truncated, utilitarian model of education so rampant and unchecked here itself is largely responsible for the common disregard for other mores and norms the object of which is the safeguarding of the human person’s proper dignity. When the only metric that matters is how much money you’ll net in your first three years, how can sexual ethics and other similarly-immaterial metrics be anything but fungible?
Are Notre Dame’s top graduates all that different than those of Duke, Stanford and Northwestern? Does Notre Dame care if they are? Or have these students succeeded according to the only real metric that matters here, the same metric operative at elite, private, secular research universities—top grades, top jobs, high incomes? How seriously does Notre Dame try to educate the heart as well as the mind?
Ultimately, Notre Dame won’t be able to be tops at both endeavors; it will have to commit to one at the expense of fully realizing the other.
The collateral damage of the university’s adoption of the prestige goal is inestimable. The number of students who are truly “intellectuals”—which I’ll define as “students outside the classroom, and therefore not for a grade”—is infinitesimal. According to the embarrassing rhetoric with which administrators fawn over each class of freshmen, the prioritization of the pursuit of faith also falls by the wayside; just as one illustrative example, the number of Sunday Mass attendees in my own dorm, the largest on campus, is abysmal.
There is not a lack of intellectual opportunities here. Students don’t take advantage of them; for the most part, we’re too busy striving to be tops in the classroom so that we can land the top jobs with the best companies. But this single-mindedness is encouraged by the university, and it can’t really be called “academic zeal,” because the students are not driven by a desire to learn but by a desire to qualify for high-paying careers and all the affluence that accrues to them.
On paper, Notre Dame may lament the collapse of the family and faith within society (though it will never publicly lament the collapse of marriage, because that would be unpopular and therefore out of step with the party line, unlike opposing abortion, which is increasingly a safe thing to do in America); but it breeds a type of young adult who will do nothing to stem the cause of that slow cultural bleeding.
The objection that “Notre Dame, like all universities, is simply working with raw material (i.e. students) that has been malformed by society’s broader values,” doesn’t apply here. By that exact same logic of demographic draw, Notre Dame can’t claim success when students of deep faith graduate from here either. It certainly isn’t doing much to deepen the faith lives of its students, though this may happen as a result of the good ministry of a handful of campus groups, institutes and clubs and the professors who patronize and counsel them.
I am not criticizing the Congregation, for which I have great respect but whose solid vocational and formational efforts are being eclipsed by the monolith that is careerism spawned by its own flagship institution. Rather, my hope for Notre Dame is that it will be willing to “lag behind” in those metrics of success that are only fully realized through the establishment of an academic environment inimical to authentic discernment and spiritual formation. That willingness will have to be embraced by administrators and faculty alike.
Here’s hoping that Our Lady’s university takes up that challenge.
Michael Bradley is a senior studying philosophy & theology. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.