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Ideas proposed to improve intellectual climate

Sarah Mervosh | Thursday, October 29, 2009

Senators discussed a perceived lack of intellectual discussion among students outside the classroom at Notre Dame, as compared to peer institutions, and discussed suggestions for improvement at the Student Senate meeting Wednesday.

“We can talk about sports, our internships, our study abroad programs and the jobs we want to pursue later in life at lunch at dinner time, but we don’t talk about Plato or great American works,” Duncan Hall senator C.J. Kelly said.

Knott Hall senator Andrew Bell said he had a professor who came from Princeton, who said at Princeton, Notre Dame students were considered inferior in their ability to have intellectual discussion.

“But we were really good at taking notes and taking tests,” Bell said. “It sort of offended me at first, but it got us thinking. What do people say about us and how can we use what people are saying about us to improve our intellectual atmosphere here at Notre Dame?”

Community relations chair Denise Baron said it is socially unacceptable to talk about intellectual topics in social situations at Notre Dame.

“There is this sense of keep it for the classroom. So when you do bring it up, you get shot down about it or you have to preface a lot of what you say with this is really nerdy,” Baron said.

Martha Bordogna of Ryan Hall suggested assigning a required reading book for incoming freshmen and then having a discussion about the book during freshmen orientation.
The book would give students a common ground got intellectual discussion, she said.

Bordogna also said discussion needs to play a larger role in the classroom.

“I am a political science and history major and most of those classes you would think would have a lot of discussion,” she said “I am a senior and I can count on one hand the classes that I feel like I really had a lot of discussion in.”

Farley Hall senator Elise Jordan suggested having discussions in a more informal setting. Jordan said over fall break she visited Yale University, which offers a class similar to tutorials, but more informal.

“Sometimes these would be in the middle of the week at 9 p.m. and there would be four or five kids from your class and you would talk about what you learned,” she said. “It might be even in an informal setting with coffee.”

Gender Issues chair Patrick Tighe agreed and said he wanted to change the social culture at Notre Dame by having classes in the dorms, to combine academic and residence life.
“Having seminars with the people you live with and actually having people come and teach in your dorms,” he said.

Campus Technology chair Walker Anderson said improving intellectual discussion would improve community at Notre Dame.

“Community building is facilitated by intellectual discourse and it builds a community of scholars,” he said.

“[Currently], the community aspect breaks down into two things from what I’ve been hearing,” Anderson said. “There is this division between the academic life and residence life.”

“So maybe our focus and our goal as we try to find tangible ways to get around this is try to blur that line,” he said.

Keenan Hall senator Chase Riddle said the reason he came to Notre Dame was because of its balance between academics and social life.

“I can’t be in those institutions where it is all about academics,” he said.

Maria Lynch of Breen-Phillips Hall agreed, and said balance is part of what makes Notre Dame unique.

Lynch said students at Brown University and Providence College were envious of that part of Notre Dame.

“They were so envious of all our school spirit. While they can maybe talk about Uzbekistan at dinner, they are really jealous of our community here,” she said.

Student body vice president Cynthia Weber clarified that Notre Dame is not trying to become like an Ivy League school, but to look at the weaknesses of our intellectual environment in order to improve them.

“This is Notre Dame. We are not an Ivy League and we aren’t trying to be an Ivy League,” she said.