A follow up on a Notre Dame gender studies course for high schoolers


Editor’s Note: This is the second in a two-part series examining the Summer Scholars course for high school students entitled “Gender and Culture in American Society.”


The Rover previously reported on the announcement of a new gender studies course, “Gender and Culture in American Society,” which is one of 19 summer courses for high school students.  Dr. Abigail Palko, the Director of Undergraduate Studies for the Gender Studies program, will instruct the course.

The course aims to introduce students to the field of Gender Studies by addressing questions such as, “Are you male or female? How do you know?”  The discipline of gender studies discusses similar questions and posits that gender is “a social construct rather than an innate biological characteristic,” according to the course website.


“I understand that the course examines issues related to gender, sexuality, domestic violence, workplace equity, and other important themes,” Vice President for Mission Engagement and Church Affairs Reverend William Lies, CSC, told the Rover.  “These topics should be critically explored at Notre Dame, where we can bring to bear the teachings of the Church.”

Director of Gender Issues for Student Government Kristen Loehle shared her excitement for the program with the Rover.  “I think this seminar will be very beneficial in broadening the perspectives of young adults about gender issues and exposing them to topics they may not typically consider,” she said.

Loehle explained the importance of exposing high school students to gender issues.

“Early on, students would have the chance to become familiar with topics such as relationships within and between genders, gender issues in the media, common gender stereotypes, related social issues like sexual assault and consent, domestic violence, dating relationships, body image expectations, gender nonconforming youth, and other cultural norms,” Loehle explained.

The World Health Organization (WHO) distinguishes between sex and gender, defining sex as “the biological and physiological characteristics that define men and women,” while gender “refers to the socially constructed roles, behaviours, activities, and attributes that a given society considers appropriate for men and women.”

The WHO emphasizes this distinction by labeling the different sexes and genders: “‘Male’ and ‘female’ are sex categories, while ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’ are gender categories.”  Additionally, the WHO states: “Aspects of sex will not vary substantially between different human societies, while aspects of gender may vary greatly.”

One of the goals of Notre Dame’s Gender Studies program is to teach students the difference between sex and gender by presenting gender as a social construct.

The Gender Studies department website invites readers to consider Amy K. Levin’s report to the National Women’s Studies Association, which states that there is consensus among various educational institutions about what students should learn from gender studies.  Notre Dame’s own department of Gender Studies lists most of the same objectives as the report, including, “[t]he difference between sex and gender; social construction of gender; gendered construction of knowledge and social institutions; and white privilege, male privilege, and heterosexual privilege.”

When asked how the summer course “Gender and Culture in American Society” comports with Notre Dame’s mission as a Catholic university, John McGreevy, Dean of the College of Arts and Letters, told the Rover that he “would need to study the syllabus in greater length to answer.”

“I was not aware of the course as it is run through the admissions office as part of a program for high school students,” McGreevy said.  “I found out about it when a colleague sent me a copy of the article in National Review [O]nline.”

The aforementioned National Review Online article notes that the course “will ask them [high school students] to explain how they know for sure whether they are male or female.”  The article also insinuates that the idea of gender as a social construct might undermine the Catholic Church’s teaching on the duality of the sexes.

“There are only two ‘gender identities’: male and female.  Those are the two modes of human being which God created, and so made it possible for us to know and to enjoy the great good of marriage, with its perfection in children,” Gerard Bradley, Professor of Law, told the Rover.  “Any other account of ‘gender’, ‘sexuality’ or ‘sexual identity’ is not only false.  It also undermines any sound understanding of marriage, sexual morality, and the family.”

Director of the Gender Relations Center Christine Caron Gebhardt and Assistant Director for LGBTQ Initiatives at the Gender Relations Center Maureen Doyle both declined to comment.


Hailey Vrdolyak is a junior studying political science, theology, and Spanish who refuses to accept the impending cold and will continue to wear shorts until November. Contact her at hvrdolya@nd.edu.