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Beyond the crossroads

| Tuesday, February 25, 2014

I was procrastinating on my senior thesis this past Sunday when I found Fr. Miscamble’s Irish Rover article in my Facebook newsfeed. It was entitled, “Notre Dame at a Crossroads: Misplaced Priorities and a Flawed Vision.” Intrigued, I clicked on the link and read the article.

I was struck by the end of the article, when Fr. Miscamble questioned the linkage between the new Campus Crossroads Project and Notre Dame’s mission, “shaping our students to be true missionary disciples who understand well what truly matters in life and who can keep the pursuit of wealth and corporate power in proper perspective.” He suggests this project forms a figurative crossroads for a university deviating from this fundamental mission.

I disagree. I think Notre Dame came to this crossroads a long time ago and has already chosen the path to becoming a factory university.

Education at Notre Dame — and in the rest of America for that matter — has been reduced to an economic function. It is only seen as valuable insofar as it can result in money. My peers and I have been taught our entire lives that education is for the purpose of getting us a job, which has lead to an increasingly preprofessional undergraduate student body. Outside the First Year of Studies, there are 2,013 undergraduates enrolled in the College of Arts and Letters, while there are 1,971 enrolled in Mendoza, 1,118 in Engineering and 1,225 in the College of Science. This doesn’t even take into account students in the College of Arts and Letters who also pursue majors in one of the other colleges, or those who major in Economics, which, if we want to be frank, is seen by many as a more rigorous alternative to Mendoza.

Even in the College of Arts and Letters, though, this economization of education can be seen at the administrative level. The two departments that make the most money in any arts and letters college at any university in the country are the history and economics departments. These departments can produce literature for popular consumption and most frequently win prestigious and lucrative grants for the University. Because of this, the history department just got a swanky new office in O’Shaughnessy, knocking out a couple of former classrooms, and the economics department has recently been on a hiring tear, hiring five new professors in the past year.

This is the modern factory university, a phenomenon seen not only at Notre Dame, but at every major university in the country. The goal of these universities is to offer its students and the public a product for consumption; its end is fundamentally utilitarian, not to create “true missionary disciples.” I am not speaking pejoratively here, nor am I making value judgments about the various disciplines. I am speaking of how administrations across the country now run their schools; if it seems pejorative, that is only because you, the reader, don’t like something about the facts.

Fr. Miscamble, I’m afraid the type of education you are seeking for us, the student body, is becoming increasingly rare in our modern society. I’m not saying it is gone — there are many great professors and people here at Notre Dame who have provided me with a true education — but it is being increasingly neglected and besieged by administrative models that treat education as a business. I’m looking at going into secondary education after graduation, but I am increasingly asking myself if the type of educator I want to be has a place in modern factory education.

When Jesus was doing his earthly ministry, the only human job title that was fit to describe him was rabbi, or “teacher.” Jesus, however, was not trying to seek job opportunities for his students; he was trying to awaken them to their world, to their actions, to their God and to the calling of love that is our purpose. To borrow from Paulo Freire, Jesus practiced, “conscientização,” or conscientization. With the modern emphasis on test scores and economic utility, is there room for this type of education in our modern education system?

In conclusion Fr. Miscamble, I agree with you. I believe this Campus Crossroads Project is a tool for economic competition, not for the type of education of which you speak. I want to up the ante, though. I believe Notre Dame is so caught up in the competition for money and prestige that pervades the culture of higher education that it cannot realize its full potential as a transformational force for good, a good which is founded upon the radical Gospel message that forsakes the prestige and wealth Notre Dame has been so relentlessly pursuing.

Notre Dame has been playing the game of the world and if we Catholics are not the ones who stop and say, “No,” who else will? Jesus Christ said, “it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.” The same applies to universities as well.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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  • Mark Dellamano ND ’70

    What an excellent observation on the changing role of the university in society! I am reminded of the address the President of Harvard, Drew Faust, gave to the Irish Royal Academy at Trinity College 4 years ago. After citing the expanding role of the university in the modernization of the world through science and technology, she cautions against the diminished place of the humanities in the university setting. “We must work,” she said, “to to assure that the understandable effort to promote what is valuable not eclipse our support for what is invaluable.” Universities at their best are agents of change, challenging the status quo, even at the risk of discomforting the economic engines of technology and business.