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Philosophy belongs in the core curriculum

| Friday, February 13, 2015

I will never forget when my Introduction to Philosophy seminar professor taught me that “which begs the question” was not just a flashy phrase I used to introduce new paragraphs in my ACT Writing section. It turned out that begging the question was a specific kind of circular logical fallacy, and I had been using the term wrong for a very long time.

The University is now undergoing its decennial review of the core curriculum, the required courses every student must take to graduate and has given numerous indications that the two required courses in philosophy may soon get the axe.

Core curricula exist on a continuum. On one end is Brown University, where students have one required writing class and a major and pick the rest for themselves. Conversely, the University of Chicago prides itself on “The Core,” a roughly two-year gauntlet of liberal arts requirements that is closer to what we have currently.

Defending the two-course philosophy requirement requires us to establish three things: first, that it is worthwhile to have a core curriculum of required classes; second, that philosophy is important enough to explicitly include in those requirements; and third, that the current two-course system is the best way to do so.

While the question of whether having a core curriculum at all is plenty interesting, I am confident that at the end of this review the University of Notre Dame will still have a core curriculum of 10-14 classes. So I’m going to move on to the second and third more interesting questions.

In arguing that philosophy should be required at Notre Dame it is tempting to list the “peer institutions” which also include philosophy in their general education requirements and then conclude that Notre Dame should also require philosophy. For those interested, those colleges include Georgetown, Boston College, Princeton (one course in “Epistemology and Cognition”) and the University of Chicago. But listing peer institutions is a shoddy way of arguing that philosophy is a necessary part of a real liberal arts education, first because Brown, Harvard and Duke don’t explicitly require it (so much for peer institutions), and second because philosophy can stand on its own merits.

Philosophy is important for a number of reasons, and I will try to list the ones that are as divorced as possible from value judgments about the intrinsic worth of the humanities, reflections on “the unexamined life,” and the centrality of philosophy in an institution claiming a Catholic heritage and worldview. I believe these arguments wholeheartedly, but also recognize that they appear romantic and impractical to those not already convinced when the cost of a Notre Dame degree is $62,000 per year. For those keeping score at home, that is about $10,000 more than it was when I first arrived on campus.

Philosophy is worth keeping in Notre Dame’s core requirements because it structures your thinking in ways that very few disciplines can and does so very quickly. It improves your writing, forces creativity and punishes arrogance. It alerts us to the fact that sloppy and dishonest argumentation has too strong of a hold on our public discourse. If we believe that Notre Dame students will be leading that discourse down the road, then we better prepare them to do it well.

If Notre Dame’s philosophy requirement as currently practiced has fallen short for some students, I think it speaks to the need to improve the quality of the philosophy 100- and 200-level philosophy classes taught here. It does not mean that philosophy forfeits its position as a subject Notre Dame undergrads should engage. Put another way, my struggles in statistics and calculus and the pencils I broke in the process do not invalidate the need for a University requirement in math.

Finally I would like to note that Notre Dame is a sufficiently impressive institution that it does not need to check in with other schools for final verdicts on its curriculum or any other matter. Internal committee documents, including a four-page list of the core requirements at Harvard, Chicago, Duke, Columbia and others circulated to Arts & Letters faculty in October by professor of French JoAnn Della Neva are indicative of this approach. These outlines can be instructive and I am not about to question the commitment of a two-time National Endowment for the Humanities Fellowship recipient. But adopting a general attitude of “I saw Harvard wearing army pants and flip flops, so I eliminated my philosophy requirement,” is a silly rabbit hole to fall down.

When the committee completes its review Notre Dame will still have a core curriculum of required classes. It should keep philosophy among them. If my arguments for taking two semesters to learn some of this discipline are not convincing (and they may not be) then I will defer to our President, Fr. John Jenkins. I hear he likes Philosophy too.

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

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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

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  • Wittgenstein

    I agree, although that means nothing.

  • Heraclitus

    Haven’t we stepped in this river before?

  • Marx

    The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point is to change it.

    • Jared

      You forgot to put quotation marks around that sentence; Marx wrote it. It’s also worth recalling that Marx himself was philosopher himself, one who spent roughly the first half of his career writing about and criticizing other philosophers (Hegel, St. Simon, etc) before touching economics.

  • Dun Smythe

    That Notre Dame administrators and faculty are even considering the possibility of reducing or eliminating philosophy and theology in its core curriculum shows further evidence of an identity crisis. Administrators’ obsessive comparisons of ND to “peer institutions”–higher education benchmarking–and their resultant adjustments will eventually recreate ND into an higher education institution that is the average or the mean or the lowest common denominator among private, non-profit research universities in the US (Carnegie Classification).

    ND and many other colleges and universities are too fixated on the survival and flourishing of their respective institutions in a legalistic, competitive (e.g., rankings), risk adverse higher education market. Given the market, there must be ongoing benchmarking (“best practices”) against other competitors to reduce liability through standardization, which reduces uniqueness because uniqueness can bring about liabilities, such as sticking-out in the market (e.g., being “too Catholic” or having a unique residential system), which can be risky. All this leads to a regression toward the mean.

    As Father Theodore Hesburgh said in 1979: “Whatever you value, be committed to it and let nothing distract you from this goal. The uncommitted life, like Plato’s unexamined life, is not worth living.” Notre Dame: Be committed to your original, Catholic, Holy Cross mission and values and don’t let the so-called “higher education market” distract you from this goal. The real risk is losing your soul.

  • Less Than Three Mean Girls

    I appreciate the paraphrasing of the great philosopher Tina Fey there at the end.

  • T Off

    “Attention students of Notre Dame, we are gradually
    eliminating any field of study that teaches you how to think and replacing it
    with the pleasingly over-saturated market of fact and data regurgitation. We are now implementing methods to form you
    as a well-sharpened tool, so that the last question you ever ask or answer when
    leaving our university is ‘Why?’.

    Your ever-most trying harlot,

    Notre Dame”