In recent months the university’s core curriculum review has received increasing attention from media across the country, as well as in the Observer. From the pages of America, Commonweal, National Catholic Reporter, National Catholic Register, Ethika Politika, and First Things to the pages of the Washington Post, Notre Dame’s curriculum is a hot topic of debate.
What is so important about a university’s core curriculum? Put simply: the core curriculum designates a set of required courses that are meant to provide a common foundation in learning for all students and that signify the knowledge, skills, and dispositions that every student at the university ought to gain through their education. A functioning curriculum seeks to integrate a variety of subjects and disciplines into a coherent course of studies that forms students according to a particular university’s mission. At Notre Dame, the core curriculum is designed to contribute to the university’s mission to “offer an unsurpassed undergraduate education that nurtures the formation of mind, body, and spirit.”
All universities are “dedicated to research, to teaching and to the education of students who freely associate with their teachers in a common love of knowledge,” writes Pope John Paul II in Ex Corde Ecclesiae, and are characterized by a “joy of searching for, discovering and communicating truth in every field of knowledge.” A Catholic university, in addition to exhibiting these characteristics, is distinguished by its privileged task: “to unite existentially by intellectual effort two orders of reality that too frequently tend to be placed in opposition as though they were antithetical: the search for truth, and the certainty of already knowing the fount of truth.” Any core curriculum review at a Catholic university must be undertaken with the intention to strengthen, and never vitiate, the university’s ability to effectively unite these two orders.
The bottom line is this: Notre Dame’s curriculum review is important, and any proposed changes have the potential to significantly affect, for better or for worse, the university’s Catholic identity.
As the review process proceeds into the next academic year and the review committee receives feedback from faculty and students in anticipation of releasing a report of assessments and recommendations next fall, two issues are of central importance. The first is the role that theology and philosophy will play in the core curriculum. The second is the relation between the curriculum review, faculty hiring, and faculty governance.
Theology and Philosophy
The theme of the 2014-2015 Notre Dame Forum is “What do Notre Dame graduates need to know?” Conceived of in close connection with the coincident curricular review, the forum is meant to explore the “knowledge graduates require to face the challenges and opportunities that exist for them as participants in a democratic society, citizens of a wider world and people of faith.” Doubtless it is true that as the years pass and the world changes, the knowledge that university graduates need to know will change, but only in some respects. Those responsible for making suggestions on changes to our core curriculum would do well to remember that in significant respects, the knowledge that graduates of Notre Dame require to face the challenges and opportunities of life has not and never will change.
Curtis Franks, Professor of Philosophy, has written in the Rover of his “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.” This is not to say that the current core curriculum is flawless—Alfred Freddoso, John and Jean Oesterle Professor of Philosophy, has written that the core curriculum for undergraduates has deteriorated “into a series of disjointed ‘course distribution requirements’ guided by no comprehensive conception of what an educated Catholic should know.” The delivery of the core curriculum to students can always be improved, but this does not mean that the underlying framework must go. Required courses in philosophy and theology may not always succeed as they are intended to do, but their very existence in the core is vital to Notre Dame’s Catholic identity.
John Cavadini, Professor of Theology and Director of the Institute for Church Life, has said that, “The core curriculum, with the theology requirement, is probably the most important component of Catholic identity.” And yet there is a real possibility that this requirement will be done away with or altered to allow for its fulfillment by courses outside the purview of the theology department proper. Those who advocate for this change do not advocate for the abolition of theology as a discipline at the university, to be sure, but the removal of theology as a required discipline for all students sends a strong, negative message about the university’s perception of the value of theology and its place at Notre Dame.
Theology as a discipline is constituted by the study of God’s revelation of Himself through Scripture and through the Christian tradition. The study of theology is what distinguishes a Catholic university from other universities as one that already knows “the fount of truth.” Carolyn Woo, former Dean of the Mendoza College of Business, wrote in America: “Theology requirements are analogous to the keystone that holds the academic architectural archway together, not an offering amidst a buffet of dizzying choices to be assembled for the appetite of the day.” Woo argued that “our students cannot serve well what they do not love; they cannot love deeply what they do not know … In all the efforts to define learning goals for a Catholic university, how about ‘to know God’ as a starter?”
Theology is faith seeking understanding, and in order to seek the meaning of faith one must first have faith. How can the university justify requiring that all students take Catholic theology courses when many students do not share that faith or once did but have abandoned it? Gerard Bradley, Professor of Law, writes, “A Catholic college rightly requires every undergraduate, not exactly to do Catholic theology, but to study it. The reason for this requirement is that Catholic colleges exist precisely as Catholic in order to foster understanding and growth in the faith of those who have it, and understanding of the faith as an option worth considering for those who don’t . This is the heart of Notre Dame’s mission, even if at times many at Our Lady’s university seem to forget, or deny, that it is.”
In 1962, the late Father Theodore Hesburgh, CSC, wrote in America that in our modern, secular, pluralistic society, the Catholic university is one of our most important institutions. He wrote that against the strong tide of this culture, “the Catholic university must demonstrate that all the human problems which it studies are at base philosophical and theological, since they relate ultimately to the nature and destiny of man.”
Father Hesburgh claimed, “The truest boast of the Catholic university is that it is committed to adequacy of knowledge, which in effect means that philosophy and theology are cherished as special ways of knowing, of ultimate importance.” If the Catholic university fails in this commitment, “it may indeed become a great university, but it will not be a Catholic university.”
While contemplating ways in which to improve and build upon our curriculum and shape it into a coherent course of studies guided by a comprehensive conception of what an educated Catholic should know, we should be wary of losing the forest for the trees. Proposals for innovations and new requirements in the core are legitimate during the review process (for example, a formal proposal was submitted by a group of faculty to the review committee on February 28 advocating for an “ecological literacy” requirement), but the goal of the review process is to strengthen and bring into action a coherent conception of a true Catholic education. In this scheme, theology and philosophy are not just trees in the forest like any of the other disciplines. Without requirements in theology and philosophy, the curricular life of the Catholic university ceases to be, in any formal respect, tied to the Church—and therefore the university as a whole ceases to be Catholic.
Faculty and the Curriculum
Closely related to the review of the core curriculum is faculty hiring. No matter what courses are required under the core curriculum, without faculty (both Catholic and non-Catholic) committed to advancing the university’s Catholic identity and offering a distinctive Catholic education to students, the university is bound to fail in its educational mission. Father Bill Miscamble, CSC, Professor of History, has written with regard to faculty hiring for mission that, “Only if this task is successfully accomplished will Notre Dame rest secure in its Catholic identity. This must be appreciated by all, but especially by those who undertake the curriculum review. We must have the faculty willing to teach the courses that a Catholic university must provide its students.”
The curriculum review has also raised the question of faculty governance. In a letter to faculty dated March 16, Provost Thomas Burish wrote, “Because of the importance of the core curriculum, open-minded, respectful, yet vigorous faculty involvement is important, welcome, and in the end, critical to ensuring that multiple perspectives are considered.” But many members of the faculty are dissatisfied with the review process thus far, evidenced by a number of comments that have been made on an online faculty bulletin board designed to encourage dialogue and the sharing of ideas amongst members of the faculty during the review.
The review committee has hosted two faculty forums and intends to collect input via surveys and meetings with various groups of students and faculty before issuing its draft report this fall, at which point faculty will be invited to comment on the report. A final committee report will be submitted to the Academic Council (comprised of 52 members, including 18 elected faculty members) for a vote on any proposed changes. Changes adopted by the Academic Council will require the approval of University President Father John Jenkins, CSC.
The faculty conversation currently being generated by the review committee is not a genuine conversation and consists mainly of disjointed individual contributions. It is marked by the difficulty of different disciplines speaking to one another about the goals of an undergraduate education considered as a whole in a way that transcends disciplinary boundaries. The result of this strain is that the only genuine conversation takes place within the review committee—made possible mainly due to its small size relative to the faculty as a whole. And even within the committee and the three focus groups formed by the committee, genuine conversation may be hard to come by.
Faculty dissatisfaction has to do with the fact that the review committee does not accurately represent the faculty as a whole. The members of the committee were not selected by the faculty and cannot be said to represent the faculty—all of the members were appointed at the will of the university administration. Thus any change in the curriculum proposed by the review committee constitutes an administrative proposal and not a faculty proposal. And yet the curriculum of the university, and its occasional review, is undoubtedly the proper province of the faculty, and not the administration—thus the faculty dissatisfaction.
Cyril O’Regan, Catherine P. Huisking Professor of Theology, noted that the constitution of the review committee was problematic during his public debate with Mark Roche, a member of the review committee and Chair of its Catholic Mission Focus Group, on February 9. “As a rose is a rose, a slant is a slant. And the origins and constitution of the committee cries slant,” O’Regan said. “Thus far, and regrettably, we seem to be dealing with another example of how the administration is able to hold together the maximum of procedural democracy and the minimum of transparence.”
Under its current construction, the curriculum review process simply does not encourage faculty engagement, as the effort required to provide serious and constructive contributions to the conversation far outweighs the effect any such contribution has due to the lack of genuine faculty control. These considerations raise serious cause for concern about any changes that might be proposed by the review committee, and, even aside from concerns about the Catholic character of the university, illuminate serious procedural flaws in the current structure of the review process.
Tim Bradley is a junior studying theology, economics, philosophy, and constitutional studies, and hailing from St. Edward’s Hall. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.