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The Feeny notion

| Friday, February 27, 2015

Moral education.

In his 2009 commencement address, University President Fr. John Jenkins noted that there existed a “special hope” that Notre Dame will “send forth graduates who — grounded in deep moral values — can help solve the world’s toughest problems.” As a product of 12 years of public education, it suffices to say that world of sin and heathenry, complete with its rap music and short skirts, did nothing for my moral compass. And so then where did I turn?

By now you may be thinking, “Theology. The core curriculum.” You would be wrong.

This is not a column in support of theology or its requisite spot in my Notre Dame education. In fact, I suspect theology proponents will be disappointed about what I have to say. Rather, this is a column about a single concept, perhaps best embodied by the wisdom of the greatest teacher of my generation: Mr. Feeny.

For much of my childhood, there were constants in my life. There was Spanish homework I didn’t want to do. There was my dad’s perpetual disappointment in my lawn-mowing abilities. And there was “Boy Meets World” on television, a show so completely “white middle class” that in retrospect you’re pretty sure it was written by Notre Dame’s admissions office.

“Boy Meets World” taught me, and I’m assuming many of my classmates, some indispensable life lessons. Big brothers can teach you a thing or two when they’re not putting you in a headlock. Topanga taught us that maybe cooties were worth catching. But Mr. Feeny, the teacher at the heart of “Boy Meets World” taught us the most. He was the teacher we all wish we had, and I suspect, the teacher a whole lot of teachers think they are. He was stern but fair; he expected much but genuinely cared for the students he was entrusted with. I guess what I’m saying is he was more or less the antithesis of Community Standards. And as for that “moral education?” In his final words to the class he had watched grow up before his eyes, he told them to do good. Not to do well. But to do good.

In his letter to Basil Moreau upon his discovery of the land that would become Notre Dame, Fr. Edward Sorin wrote, “This college will be one of the most powerful means for doing good in this country.” Now, 173 years later, the need for good in this country and in this world has not diminished but grown.

When I think about what I’ve gained in nearly four years at Notre Dame, I’m led immediately to the growth in my desire to do good. That said, I’m not sure I know a thing more about theology or catechism than when I arrived. I have no clue if I just used catechism correctly. Ultimately, I think there is a distinct distance between that which theology classes impart upon its students at Notre Dame and the greater purpose of Notre Dame’s existence: to send forth those willing to do good.

From four years of dorm mass, my appreciation for my religion has grown, but this is no product of a sudden enjoyment or understanding of dogma. Rather, my gratitude for my Notre Dame experience is that its religious aspects, when manifested through other seemingly secular classes, have furthered that notion shared by both Sorin and Feeny — that the world needs more of us to do good.

Insofar as my classes have touched upon Catholicism, those classes which have applied the church’s teaching to real life — to development, to international relations, to business and to science — have been infinitely more helpful, more attractive and more beneficial than those which have forced the mundane aspects of religion for memorization’s sake upon an often uninterested and unreceptive student body.

Now, I fully expect some will argue that the Church’s teaching and history are the foundation upon which the “good” can be built. I would disagree. The “good” that Notre Dame, Sorin and Feeny discuss knows neither a specific religion nor creed. Notre Dame’s empowerment of its students to do good stops not at the edge of its Catholic students, but rather its student body as a whole. Insofar as the curriculum is limited, courses should be emphasized that enable, empower and encourage students to take up that fundamental call of Notre Dame — to serve others — rather than oblige students to study the esoteric aspects that, while undoubtedly important to some, should not form the core of Notre Dame’s education.

To be clear, I’m not dismissing the value of theology as a field of study for those interested. Rather, I am saying that in a world governed by limited space for classes in a student’s four years here, the religious aspects of Notre Dame’s curriculum ought to focus upon that which students, regardless of background or religion, can do to do good for humanity rather than to understand Catholic doctrine.

Ultimately, I will forever feel indebted for what Notre Dame has given me in terms of experiences, memories, opportunities and growth. I will forever carry with me that desire to do good which Notre Dame has so strongly instilled. That desire, however, was not born out of my theology classes. It was born out of what I believe to be the greater ideals of Notre Dame and their penetration throughout my education in classes outside of any theology requirement.

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

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