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Curriculum problems are faculty problems

| Thursday, January 29, 2015

In the midst of discussions over curricular developments at Notre Dame, I am mindful of a remark made by Otto Bird, the founder of the Program of Liberal Studies: “In the 1950s I was a member of the Faculty Hiring Committee, a body appointed by the administration to put pressure upon the department heads to seek for and hire the best candidates they could find for positions that became open. As it turned out, I became the one member of the committee who asked the candidate, when he was not a Catholic, about his ability and willingness to live and function in a Catholic university.”

These remarks came out in his 1990 memoir “Seeking a Center: My Life as a Great Bookie,” in which he noted that Notre Dame is a better university than it was in 1950 “measured by the secular standards of non-Catholic universities … Yet it certainly is not as manifestly Catholic as it was.” One might argue over the merits of a less manifest Catholicism — like arguing over the merits of a less incarnate God — but he also writes of PLS: “I do not think that the program today is as good as it was in its first years. In theology and philosophy it has been watered down … There is … less in the way of discipline and rigor … As a whole the program is less ‘intellectualistic’ than it was in the beginning.” I suspect that these remarks could also be applied to the “core curriculum” offered at Notre Dame as a whole.

Mission-oriented hiring and a coherent core-curriculum curriculum are deeply interrelated. Dennis Quinn once remarked, “You teach what you are.” If this is so, then students’ reactions to the core curriculum and their very limited appreciation and understanding of its purposes and goals may only be a reflection of who has been hired to teach them. Indeed, the breadth and integration of a true core curriculum can only be attained through a faculty of broad knowledge and commitment to integration. Such a focus departs from contemporary academic standards that praise highly specialized depth in research and writing. Further, contemporary standards imply prejudices reinforcing the divides between science and religion, literature and mathematics and philosophy and theology. Therefore it may be, as philosophy professor Curtis Franks noted, that “Notre Dame stands to gain much more by further distinguishing itself from other universities than by striving to ‘keep up’ with them.”

One mode of distinguishing might be a reframing of questions concerning Notre Dame’s “core.” Indeed, the first place to start may be recognizing that “curriculum problems” might actually be masks covering faculty problems. I don’t mean to suggest that our faculty members are under-qualified or unable to perform the tasks they were hired to do; rather, the problem might be the tasks they are hired — or not hired — to do. When Otto Bird retired, he noted that he was the only member of the hiring committee who considered it a priority to ensure that faculty members were both willing and able to live and function in a Catholic university. Presumably this has changed as Notre Dame has recently placed great efforts in seeking out “mission hires,” but these efforts underscore that such hiring is not the norm. Nor do I expect that hiring committees prioritize faculty who have been educated with a coherent core and maintain a relationship to core studies that can be passed down in teaching core classes.

Nonetheless, Notre Dame does have many an outstanding faculty, including many Catholics and non-Catholics striving to provide a coherent education to their students that both comes out of and aids Notre Dame’s unique mission as a Catholic university. To this end, I would suggest placing an emphasis on aiding faculty in continual formation consistent with this mission. Formation efforts could include encouraging faculty to attend core courses, increasing course offerings joint-taught by professors from different disciplines, hosting regular forums where professors can speak on how their teaching and research relates to Notre Dame’s mission, recreating a university club, encouraging non-Catholic faculty to engage and constructively challenge their Catholic students and colleagues and constantly seeking to bridge gaps between seemingly disparate disciplines.

Most importantly, we ought to reframe Otto Bird’s question. Students, faculty, and staff should not only ask whether we are willing and able to live and function in a Catholic university. Rather, we should ask: “Are we, as members of this community, willing and able to live and function as a Catholic university?” If we teach what we are, then what are we?

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

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