What I have to say here about the core curriculum review process underway at Notre Dame may be superfluous. The November 2015 draft report of the decennial CCRC has now been widely circulated, and its approval by the administration, which disseminated it, would seem to be a fait accompli. And this is understandable. For one thing, as I noted in a previous letter to the CCRC, once such a reform process is initiated—once one has established multiple committees and subcommittees, and held numerous referenda with faculty, students, and individual departments—it becomes, like a moving train, hard to stop. It becomes exceedingly difficult not to do something, not to implement the proposed changes, even when no changes are necessary, simply in order to justify so time-consuming an enterprise.
How indeed can one mobilize an entire university and have nothing in the end to show for it? Even a wise person, who with good intentions set the process in motion, would be hard pressed not to tinker with this or that part of the curriculum—just to save face, as it were, and assure us that the large-scale review process was not for nothing. Which, of course, is a huge part of the problem, because it virtually ensures that every ten years something will be done to the curriculum even if it should be for the worse; and that every ten years, in the name of progress, or, as the case may be, the latest trends in higher education, the administration will be tempted to abandon Notre Dame’s founding principles, and take the broad way of all the other great American universities, whose religious foundations are today totally unrecognizable, except to those who might look closely at their original seals. Consider Harvard, Yale, Princeton; think of Dartmouth, Brown, Columbia—all of them, without exception, were explicitly founded upon religious principles, but today none of them requires even a single course in theology.
What confidence, then, can anyone have that Notre Dame will not end up like them, given that the theology and philosophy requirements, which used to be the pride of a Notre Dame education, have gradually been reduced—to the point that in the current curriculum, not to mention the current proposal, merely the remnant of its traditional core remains?
For that matter, the god of civility, which has a low tolerance for protestants and prophets, urges acquiescence, making one reluctant to say anything more than has already been said. Indeed, to raise any questions about the wisdom of the latest proposal at this point would seem almost churlish—an impression any contributor to this discussion would wish to avoid—especially since there is much in the proposal to appreciate beyond the time and labor many colleagues have spent upon it. One thinks in this regard of the retention of the two theology courses, of the emphasis upon integration, and of the desire to see all of the disciplines—and not just theology—involved in the mission of Catholic education. Even the most uncompromising of conservatives—the kind who are wont to greet all change with apprehension, as though all change were necessarily for the worse—should see in these aspects of the CCRC proposal a sign of good will on the part of the administration, and rest assured that, at least for the foreseeable future (i.e., or at least until the next review ten years from now), it remains committed to some of the core principles of Catholic education. So why bother to say anything at this point—other than the fact that the author felt obliged to do so to honor a good student’s earnest request? Why throw a Hail Mary for Notre Dame at this late moment in the game?
Notwithstanding the admirable aspects of the CCRC proposal, there is still sufficient reason to be worried that Notre Dame might lose the game of Catholic higher education—and if not now, then soon enough in the future. Why? One cannot possibly develop a sufficient answer here, but for the sake of brevity one might enumerate the following concerns:
1) We can do much better. Like most products of a committee, for which no individual can be blamed, the proposal is wanting purely on intellectual and aesthetic grounds: intellectually speaking, it is incoherent, as others have pointed out; and aesthetically speaking, if one looks at the chart, for example, it is ungainly.
2) Never mind the meaning of the acronym, the proposed CAD courses are parasitic on the traditional philo-theo (faith-reason) core and obviously undermine it.
3) Instead of standing at the center of the curriculum, the philo-theo (faith-reason) core has been relegated to a set of “mission” courses, which ghettoizes both disciplines and deprives them of their own teleological centrality to the liberal arts themselves.
4) The liberal arts have been “spiffed up” in such a way that everything is now justified in terms of some form of “analysis”—e.g., “historical analysis” and even, believe it or not, “aesthetic analysis.”
5) Established disciplines have been replaced by a frankly juvenile and questionable set of “ways of knowing” suitable (at best) for a marketing brochure to high-school students, but not for a top-tier university curriculum.
6) Since it does not begin with disciplines but with “ways of knowing,” the ordering of the curriculum to disciplinary majors has likewise been undermined.
7) There is no literature requirement, which is almost unthinkable.
8) Nor, as one might have hoped for a Catholic university, is there any “great books” course, as Professors Weinfield and Deneen laudably recommended in the February 11 issue of the Rover, which would provide a common literary basis for intellectual conversation among the student body and would serve the purpose of integration far better than the vague and, frankly, poorly integrated “integration” course (which for many reasons, aesthetic not least of them, should be eliminated), and the equally vague CAD course, which should be eliminated for reasons already stated. Moreover, a PLS-designed “great books” course, such as the one proposed by Professor Weinfield, could be taught perhaps chiefly by faculty in PLS, but also by faculty in many other disciplines—history, political science, etc. Such a course could truly become a hub of Catholic intellectual life.
Unfortunately, one could say, and lament, much more—for example, about the transformation of a great university into a vocational training school. To sum it up, though, and to end this jeremiad, one could say that what is lacking is a truly expansive vision of Catholic education and of how to integrate all the disciplines for the sake of it—a vision centered not in vague “ways of knowing,” but in a genuine understanding of knowledge (scientia) as ordered to wisdom (sapientia), of the ordering of philo-sophia to the “Seat of Wisdom,” i.e., to Notre Dame, and of the ordering of Notre Dame to Christ, the Logos and Wisdom of God (1 Cor. 1:24).
John Betz is Associate Professor of Systematic Theology.