In the final committee report of the Catholic Mission Focus group, one finds the following remarkable statement:  “We anticipate that most students who graduate from Notre Dame will have read certain major authors: Plato, Aristotle, Augustine, Aquinas, Shakespeare, among others.” Yet, if one reads the draft of the curriculum plan, there is no explicit recommendation or expectation that students should or will encounter even this short list of authors, not to mention other luminaries such as Homer, Sophocles, Dante, Chaucer, Milton, or even several of the authors or texts inscribed in the stained glass windows of O’Shaughnessy Hall, house of Arts and Letters—Cicero, the Bible, and Boethius, among others.

Given the number of surveys that were administered to students in advance of the curriculum review, curious minds might have asked whether there is any truth to the anecdotal claim that “most students” will have read even several pages of some of these authors—or even have heard of them. Based on my experience teaching a variety of undergraduate classes at all stages of the Notre Dame undergraduate career, it is far from obvious to me that one can justifiably “anticipate” that students will have encountered these and other comparably foundational authors, and I have even less confidence that this will be the case with an emphasis on “ways of knowing” of an otherwise content-less, “flexible” structure of the proposed curriculum.

If we were committed to offering an integrated Catholic liberal arts education, at the very least the curriculum should include a common foundational course that would include many of the authors and texts that are named in the Mission report and inscribed in the stained glass windows of O’Shaughnessy Hall.   A requirement in the Catholic liberal arts intellectual tradition that would shatter the artificial separation between “Mission” and “Liberal Arts” courses that has been erected in the proposed curriculum.  What is Catholic and what is liberal arts should not be put asunder:  rather, if there is to be a reduction in the number of philosophy classes, an additional requirement should be added to the Liberal Arts curriculum that would afford students a common, substantive, and foundational education in the Catholic liberal arts. Such a course would eliminate both the problematic “CAD” option that currently has no real intellectual justification as an alternative to a second philosophy course (on what criteria is a student to choose between them?), and would eliminate the need for an artificial “Integration” option that is, frankly, misleading. “Integration” should not be considered a one-off optional requirement, as the current proposal suggests; rather, integration is an aspiration and, one hopes, the achievement of a realized Catholic education, pursued within and across classrooms as well as in ongoing conversations between students and faculty alike grounded in certain foundational ideas and texts embedded in the Catholic liberal arts tradition.

The curriculum proposal studiously avoids any discussion of foundational content by substituting the amorphous phrase and highly elastic concept “ways of learning.” While this would appear to be a concession to student demands for “flexibility,” above all it is a concession to the reality that faculty largely have no shared conception of, nor common commitment to, a Catholic liberal arts education. As the Mission committee concedes when addressing the question of whether works by Plato, Aristotle, Shakespeare, etc. should be required, such a proposal is not “likely to capture wide-spread faculty support.” Having stated that every student should encounter these foundational thinkers, the committee acknowledges that we do not have a faculty that would support that minimal aspiration. The admission that the current faculty would not, in fact, support teaching works and authors that every student ought to encounter implicitly acknowledges our willingness to deprive them of something they should be given.

The proposed curriculum thus already teaches our students something fundamental, before a single class under its rubric has been launched. It concedes that the basic operating principle at Notre Dame is fragmentation, not integration. It teaches an implicit relativism by claiming that you can interchange what should be foundational, such as choices between literature, history, fine arts, serious engagement with a foreign language, and so forth. By making “integration” an option, it teaches by implication that we regard integration to be happenstance, not the very essence that distinguishes Catholic education from the divisions and fragmentation that define the modern academy. And perhaps above all, it sends a strong signal to faculty that they will not be expected nor challenged to develop deep commitments to, or investment in, the core curriculum, and their main task of producing specialized research can proceed undisturbed. In turn, students will continue to learn these lessons well, leaving their superficial careerism unchallenged by a profound encounter with authors and texts that might inspire them to a form of thinking and living that is deeper and higher, scaling ultimately heavenward.

It is probably the case that today only a relatively small number of faculty would eagerly teach courses in the Catholic liberal arts tradition. A curriculum proposal with teeth would insist that those faculty will be lionized and valued; that they will be rewarded in ways that enable them both to partake in ongoing intellectual formation that engagement in a broader liberal arts curriculum demands, while maintaining an active research agenda; and efforts should be made during the hiring process to increase their number, with incentives applied to urge all departments to make core teaching one of their main responsibilities.

The curriculum committee has proposed a curriculum that teaches our students something very different than what the world’s leading Catholic university should aim to teach its students. We are settling for a curriculum that will have to suffice, given the fragmented faculty that we currently have. The proposal before us is the result of “dreaming too small” rather than proposing an aspirational core curriculum possibly more challenging than current faculty are willing to embrace, and then cultivating, rewarding, and attracting the faculty committed to the goals of a distinctive and truly great Catholic liberal arts education.

Patrick Deneen is the David A. Potenziani Memorial Associate Professor of Constitutional Studies.