The core curriculum is critical because it strikes to the “core” of what makes and could make Notre Dame special. I never attended Notre Dame, never had a core curriculum requirement, and never even benefited from a Catholic education, so I have no real personal experience or expertise on the core curriculum. I do have a very good sense of what an elite secular education is like, so I will reflect on what I received, what I missed, what a Notre Dame education could be like, and the role the core curriculum fills in this education.

There is a great deal to like about an elite secular education. I received an amazing undergraduate education (in engineering) at Cornell University and an equally amazing graduate education (in economics) at the University of Chicago. I enjoyed and cherish my years at both.

Overwhelmingly, I met people of good will who were dedicated to making the world a better place. I made lasting friends with people with different backgrounds, different nationalities, and different faiths. At both universities, I took courses with Nobel prize winners who opened my mind to worlds of ideas. Both schools make deep contributions to human knowledge in the sciences, engineering, business, the social sciences, and even the humanities. They have made tangible and undeniable contributions to human flourishing—for example, through cancer treatments. Notre Dame is not unique in these ways.  

Nor did I ever feel alone as a Catholic student at either university. Rather than drifting away from the faith, I grew closer to God during these years. I was involved in thriving Catholic communities led by wonderful pastors. I went on spring break service trips to Appalachia and made close friends with people at church. I even met my wife at Mass. These things do not make Notre Dame special.

As much as I loved my education, there was something essential that was lacking. I did not receive a holistic education from either institution. Of course, we had breadth requirements; I took courses in history, literature, foreign languages, etc., but broad is not the same as holistic. I was never given a sense of how or whether things fit together across these disciplines. There was never any integrated vision of the world, humanity, history, and my own place in it. Any implicit vision was not one I could readily adhere to as a believing Christian. I received a great deal of knowledge, professional training, and skills, but I am not sure I ever heard the word “wisdom” mentioned even once in class. To be frank, the intellectual offerings in both places were unenlightened because they lacked any reference to the Light of the World. In trying to draw connections, I was forced to grope around in the dark on my own.

This is the truly distinctive feature that I believe a Notre Dame education should offer. The world does not need another Cornell University, or even another University of Chicago. The world already has these universities (and countless others). There is no point in replicating them. What it does need is an integral vision of life. In the words of Pope Francis in his recent encyclical Laudato Si, “We urgently need a humanism capable of bringing together the different fields of knowledge, including economics, in the service of a more integral and integrating vision.”

Cornell University can offer courses on the environment, and they may indeed find solutions to global warming and global hunger, but as an elite university, only Notre Dame has the potential to offer this integral vision. Our local churches can baptize the souls of believers, but very few places in this world can effectively baptize their intellects as well. If Notre Dame has something to give the world, this is it. We do this, but we have the capacity to do it better, if we have the will and are open to grace.

Finally, we come to the goals and centrality of the core curriculum. Both Catholic intellectual life and the holistic Catholic vision are grounded on faith and reason. These values are most clearly represented by theology (faith) and philosophy (reason). For this reason, these departments have a privileged position in the university: they form the foundation of all other coursework. With this privilege comes an increased obligation to faithfully teach a foundation for Catholic intellectual life. A holistic vision requires that many other disciplines participate in the conversation, of course. Disciplines themselves, however, are fluid. One of the reasons to reflect on the core requirements is to think about how the curriculum might best be faithful to God, Revelation, and human nature (which do not change) and yet satisfy the intellectual needs of actual minds and actual society (which are constantly changing). Finally, beyond holistic foundation and breadth, I think the core ought to help students more easily integrate their disciplines and their faith life on an intellectual level. This is the goal of my own course on economics and Catholic social thought, and I believe it is the goal of the proposed new “Catholicism across the Disciplines” requirement.

Joseph Kaboski is the David F. and Erin M. Seng Foundation Professor of Economics.