Monday, November 17, 2014
Here are some comments that I emailed in, in response to a request by the University of Notre Dame's Core Curriculum Review Committee. They connect with and echo things that various MOJ-ers have said and thought about over the years, and I thought they might be of interest:
[It] seems to me that the University of Notre Dame, given its aspiration and its vocation to be the world's great Catholic research university, should be proud, and not afraid, to affirm that there are indeed things that a student who graduates from a great Catholic research university should know. It seems that, in some quarters, it is thought unfashionable, nostalgic, or reactionary to insist that there really are things -- propositions, names, dates, facts, arguments, hypotheses, etc. -- that an educated person should know, and should know as *true.* We cannot think critically and well, after all, if we don't know enough to know what we should be thinking critically about. The move at many universities, including the ones I attended, away from "core" curricula and courses to all-elective programs is often defended as liberating, but I think this move, if taken too far, is a mistake. A Catholic research university, even one with students as gifted and accomplished as ours, should still embrace proudly the responsibility to make sure our graduates not only know how to do certain things but also *know* certain things. And, as Richard Brodhead (the past President of my own alma mater) suggested, Notre Dame should not worry too much about doing what other top-tier research universities are doing, at least when it comes to questions about the relationship between the University's interesting and distinctive -- and interesting *because* distinctive -- character, on the one hand, and its decisions about the curricular content and moral formation, on the other. We already have a Princeton and a Duke (and an Ohio State and an Illinois), and others like them, but there's really only one Notre Dame.
What those things are is, of course, a question the Committee is considering and answering that question is difficult. My point here is just that, in my view, a university like ours should have a Core Curriculum and it should care, at least to some extent, about the content of what is actually conveyed in required or requirement-satisfying courses, and not just those courses' general area (e.g., "history", or "philosophy"). If we are not willing to attend, at least to some extent, to the content of, say, the courses that satisfy the Theology, Philosophy, and History requirements, then it is arguably more difficult to justify the requirements themselves. It is important not just that our graduates have taken a "history" course, but that they be conversant -- at the level we want citizen-leaders to be conversant -- with the basic outline of American history and of (speaking very broadly) the story of the West. It is worth saying, I think, not just that students should take two courses in "theology," but also to say that students will be familiar with the teachings, history, traditions, and sacred texts of Christianity. This is not because our mission is to do remedial catechesis, but because part of our proposal to the broader society, as a Catholic research university, is that Christianity is not only true, but also worth knowing about.
I realize that this way of thinking about the questions might sound a little dated. We talk now more in terms of "competencies" and, to be sure, there are many such competencies that we want to help form in our graduates. My suggestion here is simply that the competencies and skills should not crowd out or substitute for the content; it is important that a student know how to think critically about a text like "The Brothers Karamazov" (or the Gospel of Mark) but it is no less important that they know about, have read, (texts like) "The Brothers Karamazov" (or the Gospel of Mark).