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Core curriculum review committee considers questions, meets challenges

| Friday, February 27, 2015

Every 10 years, Notre Dame reviews its core curriculum. The process for the most recent review began with the appointment of a Core Curriculum Review Committee in August 2014 by University President Fr. John Jenkins and Provost Thomas Burish, according to the core curriculum review website.

The committee consists of 12 faculty members from several University departments and is co-chaired by Gregory Crawford, dean of the College of Science, and John McGreevy, dean of the College of Arts and Letters. The committee was tasked with performing a comprehensive review of the entire core curriculum, drawing on feedback from faculty, students and alumni.

“If I were to characterize our [the committee’s] conversations … I think the things we have talked the most about are, ‘What is it that we want students to have when they graduate? What knowledge, dispositions and skills?’” McGreevy said. “This can range from particular courses to writing skills, speaking skills — a range of things.

“Two, [the question is], ‘How best can these be substantiated, incorporating certain requirements and organizational structures, from academic advising to the relationship between First Year of Studies and the Colleges and Schools?’”

The committee is organized into three focus groups: the Advanced Placement (AP) focus group, the academic advising focus group and the Catholic mission focus group.

“One [focus group] is focusing on AP and to what extent should Notre Dame accept AP credit and in what areas and try to get a handle on what our peers do,” McGreevy said.

“The second is focusing on advising,” he said. “How can we do advising better? Is there a way to make the handoff, as they call it, from First Year of Studies to the Colleges more effective? Can we give students better advising earlier about possible careers, certain majors, how they can figure out their intellectual passion?

“The third focus group — the real question there is, how can we instantiate a serious commitment to our Catholic character? It has been done historically through two theology and two philosophy courses and that might be the best way, but we want to take a look at that and think it through. Are there other ways we can instantiate our Catholic character?”

The current core curriculum, which has largely stayed the same since 1969, consists of the requirements of one writing and rhetoric class, two mathematics courses, two science courses, one history course, one social science course, two theology courses, two philosophy courses, one fine arts or literature course and two courses in physical education or ROTC, though a different first-year course will replace the traditional physical education requirement in the fall 2015 semester.

Public Meetings 

The review committee has held a staff information session, hosted several open faculty forums on the topic and spoken with the faculty Senate, Marie Blakey, the executive director of academic communications, said. The committee also spoke with the student Senate and released a survey to a sampling of students yesterday.

In the future, the committee plans to release a survey to alumni, meet with the alumni board in April, receive recommendations from different departments, meet with students selected through their dorms and through their majors and speak with all campus residence hall rectors on the topic, Blakey said.

“Both with staff and with students, we have been really trying to pull them into the conversation on campus,” she said. “We also are reaching out to alums … trying to incorporate everyone into our listening tour.”

At the faculty forums, various staff members and departments have made suggestions, ranging from the importance of integration within the core curriculum to critiques of the appointment system to the committee.

Sustainability and foreign language

Debra Javeline, associate professor of political science, proposed a sustainability requirement for the core curriculum at a Feb. 3 faculty forum.

“We are all deeply concerned about the sustainable issues of environmental change and whether our students come out of Notre Dame to participate in the conversation,” Javeline said.

At the same forum, theology professor Gary Anderson called for reforms to the structure of introductory classes so that students do not have to take as many beginning classes taught by graduate students.

“When I arrived in 2003 and began teaching the intro course, I was told I had to do the University seminar with 17 students because we have to have senior faculty members teaching those seminars,” Anderson said. “Plus, the University requires us to fund our fifth-year graduate students by putting them in these classes, so we are forced to do this,” he said.

Associate professor of classics Elizabeth Mazurek, who also spoke at the Feb. 3 forum, stressed the importance of foreign language courses.

“I think that if you were to explore a thematic requirement of diversity, foreign language would be perfect,” Mazurek said. “You would not be forcing all students to take so many semesters of a language requirement, but it would be an option for diversity exploration.

“The Catholic Church is a world church, and if we are to talk about ecological literacy, I think we also have to talk about world language literacy.”

Diversity proposal

Individual departments also submitted proposals to the committee, suggesting changes or additions to the core curriculum. The American Studies department’s proposal recommended the addition of a “United States diversity” requirement.

“One way, we believe, is to take seriously our obligation to prepare our students to be faithful Catholics and effective citizens by helping undergraduates gain the knowledge, skills, and habits required to respectfully engage difference,” the proposal said.

“We believe, as our faculty colleagues at another institution do, that ‘a critical component of a liberal education is the capacity to see human experience from the point of view of others who encounter and interpret the world in significantly different ways.’”

The proposal draws on diversity requirements from other top institutions, citing the University of Pennsylvania’s current requirement as the most similar to what the American Studies department is proposing.

“Our colleagues at the University of Pennsylvania agree with us in suggesting that a U.S. focus is needed,” the proposal said. “Their ‘Cultural Diversity in the U.S.’ requirement ‘aims to develop students’ knowledge of the history, dynamic cultural systems and heterogeneous populations that make up the national culture of the United States.’

“Their requirement defines ‘diversity’ as courses that focus on ‘race, ethnicity, gender, sexuality, class, and religion.’”

The proposal states this requirement could be double-counted with other requirements, allowing it to be integrated across the core curriculum. The proposal also suggests that the requirement can be fulfilled across departments, allowing a wide range of classes to fit the requirement.

The theology requirement

Changes to other requirements have been proposed as well, most notably the theology requirement.

“The current curricular discussion is not driven by the status quo, but by a vision of what we expect 21st century graduates of Notre Dame should know,” Mark Roche, professor of German and chair of the Catholic Mission focus group, said in a Feb. 9 debate about the place of theology in the core curriculum. “Vision should be the guiding force at a University.

“Theology and philosophy were privileged in our vision and are important in the core, but they are not the only carriers of vision or even of Catholic vision.”

Reforming the theology requirement would fix current problems in the curriculum, Roche said.

“Only 53 percent of students who have taken a first theology course agree or strongly agree that the course would be worth taking, even if it were not a requirement,” Roche said.

“Of course, we should require students to take some courses that they otherwise would not take, but we hope that after taking a course, they recognize the intrinsic value of the course that they took.

Roche said the University needs to look into offering more demanding theology courses.

“Of all the University’s required courses, theology has the lowest scores on intellectual challenge,” he said.

“Right now, students who have had multiple years of intensive theology at premier high schools have to take the introductory theology course. Shouldn’t we be offering them options to place up, to take more demanding course? The ‘grade 13’ problem is longstanding.”

To fix these problems, Roche proposed implementing new ways of looking at the foundational theology courses.

“Why not add a course on students’ highest priority: theological understanding of the Catholic faith?” Roche said. “Why not add some theme options, such as the Cross and the Trinity, which is more likely to create wonder?

“Student choice has advantages, as we know students learn more when they are actively engaged and have an existential interest in the subject matter. Some level of choice is likely to aid the overarching goal of inspiring further learning in the area. “

While the review itself is a beneficial activity, it also runs the risk of losing sight of what the University already does well, theology professor Jean Porter said at the Feb. 3 faculty forum.

“Notre Dame is an institution that prides itself on giving our undergraduates a first-rate, humanistic education,” Porter said. “We initiate them into certain critical thought, we initiate them into the learnings of the Church and I think we do it at a very high level.”

The idea of possibly changing the theology requirement has raised some concerns from both students and staff.

“I do believe there is something seriously wrong with the emerging ethos at Notre Dame, which I believe is very much symptom in one regard as the runaway enthusiasm of our irresponsible invention represented in the core curriculum review,” theology professor Cyril O’Regan said in a Feb. 9 debate on the place of theology in the core curriculum.

“Despite the fact that the first universities in the west were all Catholic institutions, since the 19th century, the notion of a Catholic university has been problematized,” he said.

O’Regan argued that while other courses may be able to integrate Catholic identity, only theology is able to teach revelation.

“The purpose of theology is not strictly the reproduction of received faith as such, but is the generation of educated faith, which can not only render a bold account of witness to revelation, but can comprehend revelation as far as it can be comprehended and deal with the difficulties —  interpretative, intellectual and moral — that faith presents throughout history and especially in the modern world,” O’Regan said.

“I think this is a moment of common reflection, of what and who we are and of what and who we are becoming.”

Many students posted on various social media outlets, defending theology in the core curriculum with the hashtag #loveTHEOnotredame.

Next Steps 

At the student Senate meeting on Wednesday, students voiced concerns, suggestions and questions in other areas of the curriculum review, including the suggestion of a technical literacy requirement and an international education requirement. Other concerns included AP credits, transfer credits and the amount of credits required for the core curriculum.

The committee, however, is in the very early stages of the review and focused mostly on discussion of the various directions that the core curriculum can go, McGreevy said.

“I would just really stress that we are really just talking and even more than talking, we are listening, trying to figure out what our College faculty and our students think every Notre Dame student should know,” McGreevy said.

“Our hope is to have a report sometime next fall [fall 2015] with recommendations. That would then lead to another long round of discussion between faculty and students and the entire campus community.

“Ultimately, we imagine through the normal processes of faculty government, there will be votes taken and recommendations that we may take and changes implemented.”

To learn more about the Core Curriculum Review, visit www.curriculumreview.nd.edu.

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About Kayla Mullen

Kayla is a senior political science major and the Managing Editor of The Observer. She hails from Philadelphia, PA and was previously a resident of Howard Hall.

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