The most common complaint I hear voiced about the core curriculum is that it is a vestige from a time when the university had a different identity. The core curriculum is unlike what students at “peer institutions” are navigating, and for this reason should be viewed as antiquated, even as an obstacle in the university’s mission to become an ever more excellent venue for educating college students.
I disagree with this sentiment from top to bottom.
Modern universities face a number of challenges nowadays, from MOOCs, from cost-benefit analyses of the market value of a college degree, from a growing sentiment that a good portion of course content falls somewhere on a range between ideological posturing and straight-up political propaganda, etc. For several good reasons, we within the academy might not take these challenges seriously. But there is one good reason to take them very seriously: the fact that, increasingly, other people do. We could argue about whether or not considerations like these are ill-founded, but it doesn’t seem to me that such a debate would do much to benefit anyone. We could, instead, ask why these challenges exist in the first place, and to what extent the very fact that these questions have been raised is an opportunity for universities to redefine themselves. My own amateur diagnosis is that universities invite these sorts of misgivings, and not unreasonably, when they become disenchanted with their own unique missions and begin to view themselves as competitors in a marketplace of higher education.
One of the things I like the most about Notre Dame is our (often bold) unwillingness to conform to the practices of other universities. To take one example, many people find it odd that university faculty are not, as they are elsewhere, more directly involved in admissions and other campus life decisions. I have come to understand that this reality reflects a deliberate choice to make the university’s commitment to “educate the whole person” concrete. If this phrase is to be more than a slogan, there have to be occasions in decision making about whom Notre Dame educates, as well as how and to what end Notre Dame educates students, when specialists in other than intellectual matters take the reigns.
One can reasonably ask whether such phrases ought to be more than a slogan. I definitely think they should. I am not a Catholic, not even a Christian, and in fact I have not managed to understand very much at all about Catholic Social Teaching or Christian doctrine. I would not even feign an understanding of what it means, in these traditions, to “educate the whole person.” But in general I think it is a good idea to find ways to allow the Catholic identity of the university to help shape the makeup of its faculty and the structure of its curriculum. This is the sort of thing that Notre Dame can do most effectively to forge a unique identity, so that in meaningful ways it will have no peer institutions. It is the sort of thing that will allow Notre Dame to define its own goals on its own terms and project an identity that is immune from the sort of cultural critique aimed at a monolithic, but amorphous “world of higher education.”
For these reasons, my hope is that the current review of the core curriculum will lead to its strengthening. If some of its contours are deemed vestigial or out of date, I hope that this judgement is made against the standard of the university’s own current vision and not against a standard set by other universities. Notre Dame stands to gain much more by further distinguishing itself from other universities than by striving to “keep up” with them.
But this is not to say that the core curriculum is in no need of review. My students routinely express dissatisfaction with their theology and philosophy requirements. My understanding is that their attitude is not due so much to the fact that they have to take classes in these departments as with their impression that the classes they end up taking are not as rewarding as they’d hope they would be. I think I know why. In my own department, we speak of “majors level courses” as distinct from the rest of our curriculum. There is a sense in which a great many of our courses are specifically designed for students who are only enrolling in a philosophy course under duress. The cycle is self-perpetuating. If we design classes in this way, our classrooms will not likely be effective forums for educating our students. Their feeling of duress is for that reason justified. If the idea driving the two course philosophy requirement is that every student should get a bit of exposure to the sort of education a student of philosophy receives, that this sort of exposure will contribute to their holistic education, then I applaud the idea even as I report that it is not fulfilled by the current state of affairs.
So it seems to me that the core curriculum is the right sort of thing for the university to reexamine at this time, not because it of its faults but because of its potential. It does have faults, I believe, some that I think I can identify and doubtless some that I haven’t noticed. In general, I suspect that it is hard to predict how curricular initiatives will be put into action, what sort of feedback on the part of instructors and students will ensue, and how this will result in successful or unsuccessful implementation. But I think it would be unwise to be conservative at this time. I doubt that much is to be gained in the seemingly low-risk strategy of minimizing our distinctiveness, scaling back the unique features of our curriculum. I hope that the current review process is focused more on new ways to make concrete the ideas that motivate the current core curriculum and less on revising those ideas themselves.
Curtis Franks is a Professor of Philosophy at the University of Notre Dame.