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With classes, less is more

| Thursday, February 20, 2014

I love this University. But lately I think I’ve discovered a serious flaw.

In writing this I asked as many people as I could the question “What is the biggest problem with Notre Dame?” The answers were many, and I list the most frequently-cited ones here in no particular order.

It turns out that Notre Dame is both too conservative and too liberal. Notre Dame is too Catholic and simultaneously failing to live out its Catholic founding. Our rigid sexual mores stifle everyday interaction with the opposite sex, as evidenced by our rampant hook-up culture. Notre Dame students are too shy and too arrogant. Notre Dame students don’t care enough about politics, and Notre Dame shouldn’t be suing the federal government. Notre Dame students are busy, but not truly involved. Notre Dame students are so involved they can’t really concentrate on learning. And SAO is a suffocating bureaucracy that overcomplicates extracurricular involvement. Admittedly, nobody argued for the other side on that particular point.

These are all legitimate criticisms in the sense that the students who expressed them believe as they do for reasons that are logically valid and based in personal experience and perceptions. But I will counter that the real problem with Notre Dame is that the space necessary to sort these issues out — to debate them, discuss them and act on them to make the University better — is currently occupied, not by Facebook and Twitter or drunken hook-ups or even athletics, but by the time and mental energy necessary to balance five different classes at once.

I wanted to get a sense of whether students at our peer institutions have the same predicament. I did what I could on the research end within the limits placed on me by midterms week and Olympic hockey. What I can tell you is that for those pursuing a degree at Harvard, Yale, Brown, Cornell, Michigan or Emory, taking five classes per semester is the exception, not the rule. Most of the students there take four and they seem unharmed. Other institutions such as Stanford, Northwestern, Dartmouth and University of Chicago have quarter or trimester systems that have their own costs and benefits. The point is that the common practice of taking five or even six classes in a semester is really not all that common outside of Notre Dame.

That so many of our peer institutions do something does not make it the right path for Our Lady’s University. A vast majority of our peer institutions are not Catholic, but I don’t believe we will (or should, for that matter) oust the Virgin Mary from the Golden Dome any time soon. But I think in this case it might be best to take a page out of our secular peers’ playbook. To me this is a clear-cut instance of “less is more”.

I have had this thought since I took a class in American intellectual history last semester. The layout of the class was simple — midterm, 10-page paper on an important American intellectual, final exam. That picture was complicated, however, by the actual content of the course. In addition to intense lectures that consistently yielded a sore right wrist and about six sides of notes, we had to read four books outside of class. Each was separate in content from the lecture notes but provided relevant contextual background (and were tested on accordingly), and a bare minimum of four books or 16 long articles (or some combination of the two) written by the person you chose for your topic (not to mention secondary sources), in order to meet the threshold of  “well-researched”.

This was also one of the three most interesting courses I have taken here, and I recommended it to friends of mine with the following caveat: Don’t take the class unless you’re only taking three other classes this semester.

I’m not suggesting that we’d all be better off with four classes like the one I just described. Rather, I’d like to communicate that in my six semesters here I always felt I had four core courses and one that I cut corners on out of necessity. This diminishes the value of the class that a student skates by in as well as the four core subjects that he or she tries to really engage in. It’s no good for the instructors either. No one wants to grade a half-baked essay from a half-committed student.

In short, the students and professors will benefit if Notre Dame streamlines our current workload into four classes per semester rather than five. I think everything from class participation to outside research to sleep patterns to the robustness of our student newspaper would improve. And we don’t even have to say we got the idea from Michigan.


Alex Caton is a junior living in St. Edward’s Hall.
The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.


About Alex Caton

Alex is a junior political science major living in the caves and ditches of St. Edward's Hall. He has written for the Viewpoint section since spring 2013

Contact Alex
  • John Molony

    Hey Alex. The point of being at ND is to obtain an education. You are arguing for a 20% content reduction. In the real world that missed content will be missed someday. Suck it up big study, you are there to study and learn.

    • Mohn Jolony

      But I think it would be difficult to argue that everyone retains 100% of the knowledge they acquire in any one class at university. Perhaps a 20% content reduction results in more than a 20% quality increase in education.

      Additionally, the things he argues that less classes would increase are political and moral issues. Wrestling with and debating these issues are certainly a fundamental part of the Notre Dame experience, not just “to study and learn” things taught in a classroom. This is a liberal arts institution, not a vocational school.

      • John Molony

        So you argue for an implicit 20% price increase. The debating and wrestling you reference is best left to late night dorm bull sessions as has been the case for decades.
        Oh and I wager that pre med, accounting and engineering students might believe there is indeed a vocational element to their education. ( it worked for me anyway).

        • Mohn Jolony

          The basic tenant of all transactions is that its a value exchange not a price exchange. I do argue for an implicit 20% price increase if the assumption that the quality increases be more than that 20%. Thus the overall value change would be positive.

          If that has been the case for decades, it is no longer the case. Hence the necessity of this article. Students here do not have time for such bull session given the excessive amount of studying required for five or six courses.

          Pre-med certainly isn’t vocational. That’s the whole point of the pre-med program. You can major in whatever you want before going to med school to get your vocational training. It is entirely possible to graduate university as a pre-med student with little to no knowledge of actual medical practice.

          Even accounting and engineering students have more than a few required university courses in philosophy, rhetoric, theology, etc. There are vocational elements, certainly, but a few vocational elements does not a vocational school make. My point was that Notre Dame, at its core is a liberal arts institution. My definition of such an institution allows for some vocational elements.

  • Mike J

    Quite a few years ago, when I was in medical school, I recall lectures from the brilliant cardiologist who inferred that his topic was the most important in the world. The message was “if you don’t learn this, you are going to kill somebody.” The lecture was followed by the brilliant endocrinologist and then the brilliant pulmonologist… The message with the same. In each case the lecturer then proceeded to present more information than a human could learn. We students worked very hard to learn all that we could–under substantial duress.

    Did this method make me a better physician? Did I learn more than I otherwise would? Or even, did I cultivate the lifelong love of pursuing information that I had always found intrinsically interesting?

    I’m not sure of the answer but your story hints at the same questions. Rat facts are important in the generation of a useful database. But especially in youth, one needs time to cultivate an ear for “the still sad music of humanity” and an eye for the immense beauty in the intellectual and spiritual and physical realms all around us.

    Eventually, it’s all you’ll ever know. God bless you ND students!