After 41 years of teaching, Andrew V. Tackes Professor of History Thomas F.X. Noble retires this May. Professor Noble’s specialization is medieval, mediterranean, and religious history. He taught at the University of Virginia from 1980-2000 before coming to Notre Dame to serve as the Robert M. Conway Director of the Medieval Institute and Professor of History. Then, from 2008-2011, Noble served as Professor of History and Chair of the department. The Rover sat down with Noble to discuss education and the university.
Professor Noble’s interest in history began from an early age as a result of reading his uncle’s medieval romances and epics. It was his prevailing “interest in lots of things” that ensured and sustained his later interdisciplinary focus of medieval studies.
Noble taught at the University of Virginia for over 20 years. One difference between a public, secular university and a Catholic university, he explained, is that at the latter, “We are actually much freer to talk about things than they are.” He continued, “In public universities, there is kind of a soft left orthodoxy to which everyone must hue, or basically, keep your mouth shut. Whereas here we can actually talk about anything, which is really quite remarkable. … I think that when there is an underlying assumption that we know some things to be true, it opens our capacity to explore, and to investigate, and to talk—and even to argue.”
After teaching from 1974 to 2015, Noble has noted both continuity and changes between different generations of students. “The sheer competitiveness has grown,” he remarked. “Credentialing has grown. A whole sense that your worth as a person is somehow dependent on which top schools you got admitted to. … I think students have grown less open and venturesome intellectually. Because the system in which they live and operate … is one of gamesmanship … you don’t learn for the sake of learning, you learn for the sake of your credentials, and your transcript, and your resume. … Faculty would say that our greatest challenge is to get our students to be as good as they are … and I think that I have seen over 40 years a change in students’ approach to their learning, to their education, to taking some intellectual risks, to trying things out. It seems more and more about playing the game successfully. And I think that’s a shame.”
Noble remarked that teachers can serve as models to students of particular behavior and explained what the role of a professor is, who they are, and what they represent. “There are some students who sort of see a certain kind of behavior modeled for them. … That also is what I’ve tried to do: take what I do very seriously. I try not to take myself too seriously, but I take what I do very seriously. And I take the students very seriously. … I have high expectations for them, because I have every confidence they can meet those expectations.
“I think I create an atmosphere in my class that’s friendly,” he continued. “I don’t make political comments in class, I don’t make economic comments in class, I don’t preach a particular line … I think that would be an abuse of my position. … But I think students know that I’m Catholic, I don’t think there’s any doubt about that. But the students at Virginia did too.”
At Virginia, Noble said, his faith often encouraged students to discuss issues with him. “I actually wanted to mark myself off as different a little bit, but I also wanted to mark off a safe space,” he said of his public image as a Catholic. “I wanted kids to be able to come and talk to me. I always had a crucifix in my office. … There were quite a few occasions when a student would come into my office, and maybe they’d picked up some sense of me and who I was, anyway, but then they would see that crucifix and they would talk to me about amazing things. About their trouble with their parents, and their families, and their boyfriends, and their girlfriends, and their schoolwork. … In all these years I had one person come in and object to the fact that I had a crucifix in my office. And I said fine, let’s step out in the hall and talk. And that’s what I did … I wasn’t going to put it away or cover it up.”
Although his faith opened avenues of discussion, he also faced challenges arising from being a Catholic intellectual in a secular environment. He explained a particular incident involving the Virginia legislature’s passing of a parental notification bill regarding abortions. The presumption at the university was that everyone was pro-choice, he explained. During a history department meeting, a colleague said the department should take a public stand against the bill, but Noble objected, citing that not every member of the department supported that position—in fact, he did not. However, he said, “In an open meeting, I was told I had no right to that position.”
He explained his perception of the culture of academia and his position within the culture. “Despite what the wider world thinks, academics are not hard leftists. There’s kind of a soft left orthodoxy … a kind of a progressive orthodoxy, that one can be progressive on virtually every kind of thing. I’m pro-life, but I think, for example, the tea party is a plague upon the land. So where do I fit? The point is, is that I don’t think one has to be orthodox in terms of one’s views, if by that one means that absolutely everything lines up. But I think that that’s the assumption in the academy, and generally: that faculty members would be basically Democrats, they would be pro-choice, and it goes right down the list.”
Recently, several universities have passed measures to preserve academic freedom in response to criticisms that allowing free speech may foster insensitive or painful discourse. Noble called the current debates “seriously worrying.” He continued, “One of the great strengths of the American academic system is precisely its openness … we really can talk about a wide range of things, and explore things from many points of view. We are free, as long as we maintain appropriate scholarly standards … to write about what we wish. And I think that’s enormously important.
“The kind of quarrel we’re having now, of course, is among various kinds of groups of people. Sometimes it’s LGBT people, sometimes it’s feminists, sometimes it’s people with particular take on issues of racial tension: they’re saying that free speech is hurtful because people say things that might hurt me, or people like me; therefore, what we really need is protected speech. … Let’s let ideas compete, and let’s let the stronger, and the better, and the worthy ideas prevail. … I see these kinds of things as on a continuum. The attack on free speech from one point of view, and visibly in recent times, is coming from the left … but on the other hand, you have, for example, typically on the right, objections to the new AP standards in U.S. history, because there are people that think high school American history should be taught as an exercise in patriotism. … I see those kinds of things as on a spectrum, as seeking to control speech. So periodically one portion of that spectrum may be more visible than another, but the point is that it always indicates a kind of fear that I’m afraid if I let you talk, your view might prevail. So I’m gonna shut you up. And my view is quite simply: let everybody talk, and it’ll sort itself out.”
Noble went on to discuss the state of public discourse, which he deems to have “grown greatly more coarse over the course of my lifetime.” He continued, “I wonder almost if now [about 20] years of using the Internet has not brought that kind of discourse out in public. … Where have we lost the capacity to talk together, to see where there might be common ground, or at the very least, to try to understand the other person’s point of view? Not imputing bad motives to [others], assuming that they’re stupid, assuming that they’re evil, but saying … that’s not my view, but tell me how you’ve arrived at that point of view … I think we’ve lost that kind of thing. And I think that’s not unrelated to trying to control speech. … There are people who somehow take any criticism personally. It’s always about me. It can’t be about an issue. It takes no more time to be polite than to be rude. And, unless one derives some real personal satisfaction from being rude, I suspect being polite makes people feel better, so why can’t people simply be decent to one another, be courteous to one another?”
He spoke of Notre Dame as having a “distinctive community.” He explained, “I think in the four years that students are here, they’re stamped with a certain kind of Notre Dame imprint, that they carry on into life. … I think on the whole, we do have a more civil discourse here. … People simply show respect for each other. It doesn’t mean that they agree about everything, but I think that there is a greater degree of respect. And I hope that once students graduate they take this with them out into the world. And I think they do. I think they do. I think that students from a place like Notre Dame can make a difference in the world.
“I have the very distinct impression that many more students in their four years at Notre Dame are strengthened in their faith than are weakened in it … and I think that matters,” Noble continued. “There are obviously voices here on this campus and voices beyond this campus that are giving us advice, whether we ask for it or not, that would wish for Notre Dame to be in their view perhaps more Catholic, more orthodox, I might say more sectarian. But if one thinks of place that are like that, Christendom, Ave Maria, Franciscan in Steubenville, they’re not teaching elite students, those students are not going to go out and take leadership positions in society, so they may be wonderfully and devoutly Catholic, but they’re not going to matter in the world in the same way. They are going to matter in their own lives, in their own households. And that’s wonderful. I wouldn’t object to that, and I don’t want to sound condescending. We have the capacity to change the world. They don’t.
“I think Notre Dame students are ambitious, they are driven, they’re focused on success, but they’re also incredibly generous and very giving. All of the volunteer work done on campus, and roughly 10 percent of every graduating class volunteers for a year or two before they get on with their lives—these kinds of things are unusual. And I think Notre Dame students take that with them out into the world. So I think there’s a number of things that it’s almost easier to feel than to articulate. You just have a sense of something that seems very strong, but it’s just hard to put it into words—it’s hard for me, anyway.”
Noble commented on an aspiration he has for Notre Dame graduates: that they might have a “more serious and thorough command of the basics of the Catholic faith.”
He elaborated: “I think of the criticism of cafeteria Catholicism, and that sort of thing arises from the fact that, and one has to be careful of over-exaggerating and romanticizing the past, but there was a kind of basic knowledge that people once had, and they don’t anymore, on a whole variety of issues. … It seems to me, if we’re going to be the premier Catholic university in the world, which by many measures we are, one nice piece of premier would be that we actually send out people who know what it means to be Catholic. Now, if in the depths of their own conscience they disagree with this or that teaching, that’s their business. That’s between them and their confessor and God. But they at least know the rules. … I’m not saying that what this automatically does is make everyone just alike or make them automatons or something, but I think would be a really interesting aspiration.”
However, Noble balances this aspiration for graduates who better understand Catholicism with his concern over the current core curriculum debates—or more accurately, according to him, the debate over distribution requirements. “We do not have a core curriculum,” he stated. “We’re not going to have a core curriculum. We have a set of distribution requirements.”
He then offered his point of view on the current debate over the theology and philosophy requirements. “Should our distribution requirements also and significantly address the Catholic tradition? From one point of view, the answer is obvious—yes. Now, how do you do that? The answer has been, reflexively, two theology, two philosophy. Why? Why, as things are currently constituted? Any Notre Dame student could take two philosophy courses and never read a Catholic text or encounter a Catholic author or understand the relationship between philosophy and theology in the Catholic tradition, which is really important, actually, or know how to think Catholically, whether he or she wants to continue doing that. … Now, you could acquire all those things. But there’s nothing in the requirements that will make that happen.”
Noble would like to see a guarantee that the theology and philosophy requirements do teach Catholicism. He stated, “My concern is, I have no empirical evidence in front of me that those four courses teach our students the Catholic faith, or mark them as different from students who took some philosophy classes or some religious studies classes at another university. They might. But I have no empirical evidence that that’s what those classes do. … I don’t think having these courses is anything like as important as asking what’s in them.
“If [the Theology department] had a program of courses that were really coherent and really grounded in the commitment to teach the Catholic faith, then I’d say more power to them. But that’s not what they now do. And they can make various pious preachments about, well, theology is actually about an encounter with God—but what guarantees that in a theology class? … A certain amount of pious rhetoric doesn’t impress me. I’d rather see the results. My unwillingness to lend full-throated support to the theology requirement here has to be tempered by the fact that I wish every Notre Dame student graduated knowing the Catholic faith. To me, that really matters. I don’t say, well, we’ve grown up and gotten beyond that and we don’t need theology any more.”
Speaking to the dissent over the role and place of Notre Dame’s Catholic character, Noble stated, “I think it’s enormously healthy that here at Notre Dame we fret about these things. There’s a lot of other places that simply don’t. They just don’t. It’s a non-issue for them. I think it betrays a very high degree of awareness and of confidence that we talk about these things, that we care about these things, that we argue about them. I think that sort of thing is healthy … as long as we do it with a decent respect for the views of others, and don’t assume bad faith on anybody’s part but try to understand people’s points of view, then I think it sort of keeps the issue in front of us all, makes us think about it. Which I think is kind of a first step. You can’t solve a problem until you admit you’ve got a problem.”
Noble related his concerns over the curriculum review to the role of university faculty. “We don’t tell people what to teach in their courses, you must teach this and this, and you can’t teach that and that. But we’ve lost, in this university and most others, we’ve lost some sense of a common enterprise, of a common good; that you take a hit for the team. I’ve always thought of faculty members as owing three levels of service.
“One, I think you owe service to the student body as a whole. Some part of your teaching should be of use to, of interest to, of value to any student—no faculty member’s going to teach every student, but you should be able to teach them. Second, part of your teaching should be particularly addressed to and of interest to majors within your own department, within your own field—those are your upper-level courses. And some part should be addressed to graduate students, to research students if you’re in a department with a graduate program and you’re training the next generation of leaders. There are fewer and fewer and fewer people who’d agree with me about point number one. They just want to teach their specialty. And they repeat the same classes over and over and over, and they only want to teach what they’re actually writing about and doing research on.”
Noble concluded by offering a few words of wisdom. “Be curious,” he advised. “Just be willing to be puzzled by the world around you, and to be interested in the world around you. And when you’re puzzled, and when you’re interested, follow it up, and follow it up wherever it may go. Don’t ask is this going to help me get a job, is this going to get me a line on my resume, is this practical? Just have a certain sense of wonderment in the presence of your friends, in the presence of this university, in the presence of your teachers, in the presence of this world we live in. Just be curious. … You asked before about things that I’ve seen change in my years of teaching—anxiety. It just rises exponentially, year by year. Students here don’t need to be so damned anxious. They’re going to be fine. They are. We know that, empirically we know that. So let go. That’s where the curiosity can kick in.”
He continued, “Don’t ever think you’re finished. … When you leave college, you’re not done … You’re going to have probably several jobs, maybe even different careers, people will shift from one place to another. If you devoted the first 16 years of your life and a quarter of a million dollars of your parents’ money to getting your first job, boy have you done something stupid. Then you should have gone to the local state university and gotten the cheapest degree you could get. … Just keep thinking of yourself as a work in progress. There’s always the possibility to learn something new, to discover an interest you never knew you had, to discover gifts you didn’t know you had, to discover interests.”
Finally, he concluded, “Be grateful. There are people in this world who are truly suffering … but overwhelmingly we are so lucky. We are so blessed. Coming to the end of my career, coming to the end of this phase of it anyway, I look back and that’s what I feel, really. … I just feel incredibly grateful, that I got to do what I’ve done all these years. And not everybody gets to say that. So be curious, be unfinished, and be grateful.”
Stephanie Reuter is a freshman PLS major. She counts herself lucky to have been in a year-long seminar with Professor Noble that explored the theme of education from ancient times to modern day, focusing on what it means to be an educated person. She loves to discuss what the end of education is, so please join in her musings by contacting her at firstname.lastname@example.org.