Notre Dame would benefit from Bl. Basil Moreau’s philosophy of education

Notre Dame often turns to one particular quote from Bl. Basil Moreau, frequently reminding prospective and current students, faculty, and staff that “the mind will not be cultivated at the expense of the heart.” 

This holistic focus is central to Moreau’s vision of education. But in the university’s excerpted presentation, the education of the heart lacks concreteness, vaguely evoking the prioritization of people over profit, a spirit of collaboration, and the genuine friendliness of the Notre Dame community that sets the university apart from other schools. This brief reference takes Moreau’s words about education from their proper context, allowing anyone and everyone to read their own meaning into the words. 

No one objects to the cultivation of the mind or the heart at a university. But Moreau’s true meaning is quite countercultural. 

Moreau does not mince words: “Pedagogy […] is the art of forming youth—that is to say, for a Christian, to make of youth people who are conformed to Jesus Christ, their model.” Because education seeks to form students to live in true freedom as Christians, Moreau refers to education as the “work of the resurrection,” which seeks to “sanctify youth.”

In the introduction to the excellent volume Moreau’s Essential Writings, Fr. Kevin Grove, C.S.C., and Fr. Andrew Gawrych, C.S.C. explain: “While the telos of education for Moreau was heavenly beatitude, he understood that both the rigorous education of the intellect and the formation of virtue were constitutive in the development of students. Preparing them to be citizens of heaven meant training them to be contributing citizens in this world.”

A truly excellent Catholic education strives simultaneously to create saints and to foster citizens attentive to the ways that individual gifts can be put at the service of the community. Moreau emphasizes the importance of duty in his approach to education, which contrasts sharply with the nearly ubiquitous espousal of expressive individualism in higher education today. Disregarding the proper telos of education, universities treat students as atomized individuals without responsibilities born of relationships, both chosen and unchosen. Students are told to follow their passions and pursue personal authenticity, resulting in a shallow careerism detached from lived reality. 

But Moreau’s Christian anthropology demands more from education. Today’s students are “the parents of the future and the parents of future generations,” he writes, reminding educators that each student “carries within him or her a family.” Moreau’s vision of education not only recognizes but prioritizes each student’s relationship with Christ, their vocations as parent, priest, or religious, and their lives in the community. 

This holistic vision of education flows forth from a fundamentally different premise than secular education, which cares only for reason while ignoring—if not attacking—faith. Moreau’s educational philosophy corresponds with a true assessment of human nature. The secular university will still contain goodness and truth, Moreau recognizes, but its pursuit of truth will always be limited by its foundational premise—namely, that faith and revelation must remain detached from the pursuit of knowledge. A Catholic university, however, recognizes that faith and reason are both indispensable ways of knowing and seeks to address both mind and soul.

Unlike his contemporaries, who exalted the mind as an infallible guide, Moreau saw Catholic education as a corrective to the weakness of reason. He explains that education cultivates the intellect insofar as it “giv[es] to reason the light that illuminated it before the fall of our first parents.”

The Enlightenment relied upon human reason in reflexive response to Luther’s sola fide, but just as faith alone fails, so too does reason alone. Why? Because natural reason is fallen, whereas faith, given through grace, draws man’s intellect towards greater perfection. For this reason, Moreau conceives of education as the task of “reforming human nature” so that students might know Christ and, by knowing him, understand the world. 

But what does this mean for Notre Dame? The university rightly prides herself on being a crossroads of faith and reason. And with a predominant number of Catholics in the student body and among the faculty, dozens of daily Masses, and an active campus ministry, Notre Dame retains a robust Catholic culture. But if the goal of education is conformity to Christ, does an opt-in model of Catholicism satisfy Moreau’s vision? Or should the university ensure that each graduate leaves not only with a degree but also with knowledge of what the Church teaches? 

Especially as religious affiliation declines among young people, the university should reclaim Moreau’s vision of education and fulfill the duty of evangelization by clearly teaching the faith to all students. Some may disagree with the Church, to be sure, but they will leave Notre Dame having heard the best possible arguments for the faith and her moral teachings, which is more than they will gain from today’s culture. 

And in keeping with Moreau’s vision of education as the preparation of citizens for heaven and society, Notre Dame should shift from a four-year choose-your-own-adventure model of education to a clear articulation of what it means to be an educated person. On a practical level, this might mean restructuring some majors to rely more heavily on specific subject requirements instead of allowing students to simply cobble together electives. Expressive individualism turns education into a project of authentic self-expression, but Moreau understood education differently. 

Finally, just as Moreau judiciously regarded reason as a powerful but fallen faculty, Notre Dame should attend more carefully to the mission of the Catholic university to serve as the crossroads of faith and reason. It is this author’s suspicion that the pesky element in that equation is not the oft-defended faith but, rather, reason. Divorced from faith, rationality easily converges with insanity, becoming so entangled with secular orthodoxies that it begins to believe that men can become women, abortion is a human right, and two plus two makes five. As these messages seep out of secular culture and into the faculty and student body at Notre Dame, the university should continually establish the dependence of reason upon faith for clarity and truth. 

As Notre Dame seeks to cultivate the heart and the mind, she must remain mindful of Moreau’s vision for education, continually seeking to draw souls to Christ and share the life-giving truths of the Catholic Church. 

Mary Frances Myler is editor-in-chief emerita of the Rover and a member of the Rover’s board of directors. She is a post-graduate fellow with the Center for Citizenship and Constitutional Government and is writing a book about Catholic identity in higher education.