On November 4, 2014, Richard Brodhead, the President of Duke University and the former Dean of Yale College (1993-2004), delivered a remarkable address in the University Forum series, “What Do Notre Dame Graduates Need to Know?”  Brodhead’s message to Notre Dame needs to be taken seriously.

A distinguished scholar and an educational reformer with a record of local, national, and international leadership, Brodhead oversaw a major curricular review of core requirements at Yale University.  His signature innovation at Duke University has been DukeEngage, a program of immersive service that involves more than 300 students every summer in on-site learning projects in the United States and overseas.

One might wrongly have expected Brodhead, as an impeccably credentialed, remarkably successful agent for curricular change at other elite universities, to voice support for major changes in the core requirements at Notre Dame too.  He did not.

Instead, both in his prepared remarks and in the discussion after his lecture, Brodhead stated his great admiration for the current core requirements at Notre Dame.  The current core and the rationales given for it “deserve high praise,” he said.  Describing the stated rationales for the requirements as “excellent,” “eloquent,” and “full of spiritual aspiration,” Brodhead opined that students and faculty should “read and reread” them.  The current core at Notre Dame is, in Brodhead’s frankly stated view, “way better than Duke’s and Yale’s.”

He told the members of the core curriculum review committee to keep in mind that “You are starting from strength.”  And he warned them, “Don’t mess up.”

“Don’t mess up.”  To this admonition, Brodhead added the obvious reminder: “It’s possible, after all, to do that.”

How might the University of Notre Dame “mess up”?  While the ways are perhaps countless, Brodhead suggested two that I would like to underscore.

First of all, Notre Dame might undermine the Catholic character of its education, depart from its inherited ideal of “educating heart and mind,” and betray its Catholic mission for the Church and society.  As Brodhead emphasized, Notre Dame’s “differentiator” is its Catholic character.  That’s what makes the University of Notre Dame “distinctive” among the great universities.

Rather than weakening the university’s Catholic character in order to resemble more closely its secular counterparts, Brodhead urged, the University of Notre Dame should remain true to itself.  It should resist the impulse to copy other universities.  Citing the examples of the core curricula at Brown University, Yale, and Duke, Brodhead noted their manifold differences.  Such differences mark the greatest universities and their particular traditions of education, he said.  The result of any desirable change in the core curriculum here at ND should therefore be “to make Notre Dame more, not less, Notre Dame.”

When asked specifically about the current requirements (two courses each) in philosophy and theology, Brodhead did not answer directly, but he repeated the need for Notre Dame to remain distinctively Catholic.

In this regard one might strengthen Brodhead’s response by observing that requirements in philosophy and theology are essential hallmarks of Catholic higher education, which aims at the knowledge of God to the extent that God can be known through reason (philosophy) and revelation (theology).  Every major Catholic college and university in the country—Boston College, Fordham, Georgetown, CUA, Marquette, SLU—has requirements in theology, and virtually all have requirements in both philosophy and theology.

As Professor Cyril O’Regan argued in the University Forum lecture that preceded Richard Brodhead’s, the study of theology is so intrinsic to Catholic higher education that Notre Dame’s Catholic character as a university is inconceivable without it.  “The burden of proof [to the contrary] is entirely on the side of anyone who would dispute that claim,” according to O’Regan.  The rationale approved in 2005 by Notre Dame’s Academic Council states: “No Catholic university can give an account of itself as an intellectual endeavor apart from theology.”

The University of Notre Dame is currently the flagship Catholic university in the United States and perhaps in the world.  It has an internationally renowned Department of Theology.  Notre Dame could “mess up” by renouncing its claim to leadership in Catholic higher education through the elimination or reduction of undergraduate requirements in theology.  It could fail to recognize, protect, and enhance the unique place that theology currently occupies in its curricular requirements.

How else might Notre Dame “mess up”?

It could set aside its current core curriculum, which is “way better than Duke’s and Yale’s,” and replace it with a new core curriculum based on isolated “skills” and “competencies” detached from the disciplines of learning represented in Notre Dame’s different Departments and programs.

Brodhead was not asked his opinion about such a curriculum, but he explicitly distanced himself from Duke’s own current core requirements, which were already in place, he said, when he became president there in 2004.  Brodhead echoed the word of students at Duke who refer to Duke’s core requirements as a “bingo” sheet of overlapping “areas of knowledge” and “modes of inquiry.”  No matter how the core curriculum is defined, Brodhead noted, students will tend toward the “false motivation” of simply fulfilling requirements.

Against such a mentality, against “the empty chatter that passes for thought,” and in opposition to the “increasingly impoverished view of the value of higher education,” Brodhead called for an energetic defense of education in the liberal arts in keeping with a “philosophy of education” aimed at the cultivation of “deep and enduring habits of mind.”  Precisely such “habits of mind” belong to intellectual formation within the academic disciplines.

Notre Dame’s current core curriculum has 10 content areas, for which designated departments and programs are responsible to provide course offerings in keeping with the university’s Catholic mission and the rationales for each area.  The attachment of undergraduate study to the different academic disciplines is thus ensured, making it possible for students to discover and to choose their major(s) and minors, while becoming familiar with a range of different possibilities.

The integration of knowledge across fields takes time, as Brodhead argued.  It requires personal synthesis and often includes surprising moments of self-discovery when students suddenly realize that they like a subject, feel drawn to a kind of work, possess a talent for X or Y.  In this creative process of integration, students frequently switch or combine majors.  Brodhead cited Dr. Paul Farmer, MD, a Catholic graduate of Duke University and of Harvard Medical School, as an example of someone whose process of intellectual integration led him from biology to anthropology to liberation theology and finally to his present work as a global humanitarian.

Dr. Farmer’s Catholicism is telling.  If Notre Dame preserves and enhances its current core curriculum through a new, firm decision for what is best in its own Catholic tradition, it will continue to be and to become the flagship university not only for other Catholic universities, but also for other institutions of higher education.  If it “messes up” by copying others, it will no longer lead.

“Don’t mess up.”


Sister Ann Astell is a Professor of Theology at the University of Notre Dame, where she was appointed in 2007, after serving as Professor of English and chair of Medieval Studies at Purdue University.  Contact her at aastell@nd.edu.