The purpose of any academic curriculum in any setting would seem to be a genuine search for the truth, wherever that may lead us, including the truth about the human person, human society and institutions, and the world we live in. As the University of Notre Dame’s mission statement states, “Notre Dame’s character as a Catholic academic community presupposes that no genuine search for the truth … is alien to the life of faith,” noting that there is “a special obligation and opportunity, specifically as a Catholic university, to pursue the religious dimensions of all human learning.”
As I am a finance professor in the business school, I will give an example by applying this principle to business. In particular, what is (the truth of) business, particularly in light of Catholic social teaching? In my understanding—with the caveat that, like Ross Douthat, I do not have any degrees in theology or philosophy—the starting point of business in light of Catholic social teaching is the recognition that business is done by, with, and for human persons. Accordingly, I would define a business organization as a community of persons, (i) working together in cooperative relationships, (ii) towards a shared purpose (i.e., a common good), (iii) within a market environment.
The purpose of business, then, is to contribute to human flourishing (i.e., towards integral human development) in the common good (characterized by human dignity, solidarity, and subsidiarity) for the glory of God (based on normative ethics following from human nature as made “in the image of God”). One of the conditions necessary for businesses to contribute to human flourishing is for them to be economically sustainable, though, as Pope Saint John Paul II explains in Centesimus Annus, the creation of sufficient financial wealth is not the only indicator that we should care about.
This view of business implies a curriculum that integrates religious-philosophical, social, and economic questions, seeing these as inherently interrelated. One effective way to proceed would be to explain, distinguish, and relate the concepts of God’s eternal law (or “plan”) versus the divine law (revelation), natural law (reason), and human law (as legislated, practiced, and enforced).
A key element in the core curriculum would thus be to give students a good understanding of the human person based on Christian anthropology, Catholic social teaching, natural law, and virtue, and then to compare and contrast such an understanding with other traditions or competing norms in our culture. I thus strongly endorse the three main recommendations of the November 2015 draft report of the Core Curriculum Review Committee, namely (i) a renewed commitment to distinctively Catholic dimensions within the liberal arts, (ii) an enhanced commitment to a broad liberal arts education, and (iii) the introduction of curricular innovations that foster the integration of disciplines.
In the remainder of the space available here, I would like to make a most immodest proposal of one specific way in which to practically advance the implementation of this triad of recommendations, namely, to come up with a short-list of works (literature, history, art, music, etc.) that each student should actually encounter in the core curriculum. This short-list would not be limited to but will still express our university’s distinctive Catholic character, be inclusive enough to reflect a broad liberal arts education, and allow the very difficult but necessary integration of the core curriculum into the curriculum present in each of the students’ particular, chosen field of study.
On the one hand, I recognize that it is likely impossible to come up with such a short-list of works that a majority of faculty will agree with. I am afraid that is what committees, a democratic process, and positions of leadership are for. There are many other possible objections related to academic freedom, the length and breadth of such a list, and other practical constraints. I would hope we can deal with those, as other universities have, especially because we are a community with a particular and distinct mission.
On the other hand, the formulation of such a short-list would have several interrelated advantages. While the exact content of the short-list is necessarily somewhat arbitrary (do we include Fides et Ratio or Veritatis Splendor or both/neither, Gaudium et Spes or Lumen Gentium or both/neither, Antigone or MacBeth or both/neither?), could change over time, and would be subject to endless debate, having such an ongoing debate would actually be quite useful. Without such a short-list, do we know what we are actually talking about when we discuss providing a common foundation in learning, which is the stated central goal of the core curriculum?
Any core curriculum will consist of some set of course requirements, but that does not constitute a common foundation. A short-list such as the one I propose could help the development of a “culture of encounter” at the university, facilitate interdisciplinary conversation, and stimulate broader faculty development. Further, students then could expect to encounter these works in a variety of different courses and contexts and receive a diversity of possible interpretations, which is exactly what would enable them to formulate their own integrated view. How can you implement integration across courses and fields of study if you do not have a common core of works and ideas that you can refer to and build upon?
Finally, we then would have one major topic of common conversation and common complaint at Notre Dame—along with the weather and football—namely, the core curriculum short-list.
Martijn Cremers is Professor of Finance in the Mendoza College of Business.