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Catholics in the classroom

Darryl Campbell | Sunday, February 8, 2009

Emergencies abound at our fair university, and if a plummeting endowment, rising tuition costs, squirrel attacks, the erosion of intellectual life and the occasional sports embarrassment (to say nothing about the perennial furor over the Vagina Monologues) were not enough, you can add the disappearance of Notre Dame’s “Catholic identity” to the list. Apparently, the Bernard Madoffs of the educational community have swindled us into an intellectual Ponzi scheme founded on faculty research, higher tuition costs and building booms. Now, we face a severe crisis of reputation – an academic liquidity crisis, if you will – as indicated by the huge drop in the proportion of faculty members who call themselves Catholic, less than two-thirds of what it was in the 1970s. As the reasoning goes, a Catholic professoriate is one that cleaves appropriately to Catholic tradition and the guiding principles of Notre Dame, and because we have let go of the former, we are losing the latter.

But have you noticed that the loudest voices calling (at least, in this paper) for Notre Dame to reassert its Catholic identity in the undergraduate classroom tend to belong to people who spend the least amount of time in it? I am not sure how teachers promote or stifle Catholic identity in the classroom, unless they roundly abuse their position. I doubt that it would matter much whether you have a Catholic as opposed to a Hindu teaching organic chemistry, a Catholic as opposed to an atheist close-reading the Iliad or a Catholic as opposed to a Protestant solving a differential equation.

The job of a professional academic (yes, graduate students count, too) is to impart knowledge, promote analytical skills, all those other nice-sounding educational catchphrases – and nothing else. Students should be able to figure out their professor’s or TA’s intellectual interests, areas of expertise and maybe a favorite extracurricular activity or two based on their time together in the classroom. They should not, however, be able to figure out whether their teacher is or isn’t Catholic. So unless faculty members go beyond the considerable boundaries of academic freedom and begin promoting religious or ideological viewpoints instead of free inquiry, the classroom will never be a place where the university’s Catholic identity is fashioned. It should not matter whether the faculty is 1 or 100 or some in-between percentage Catholic. Saying otherwise is simply untrue, and arguing that the University should promote it is absurd. If Catholicism were a prerequisite for a job hire, it might not affect how classes are taught all that much, but it would send a clear message that in the eyes of Notre Dame, research and teaching skills are less important than one’s religious orthodoxy. I probably don’t have to spell out what that would do to the University’s academic reputation.

But campus culture is not made in the classroom. However much the quality of instruction, of students and of curricular range differs between universities, an English course at Notre Dame will still be recognizable to a student from Harvard or a student from Linfield College in McMinnville, Ore. Extracurricular activities, clubs, athletic competitions, administrative and marketing decisions and even the public debate that goes on in the pages of campus newspapers shape a campus’ identity far more than what happens in discussion sections and lectures. And by that standard, Notre Dame’s Catholic identity is doing fine: Just take a look at the event flyers in O’Shag, the activities sponsored by the University’s various institutes, centers and offices and even the Faithpoint column that runs in this paper every other week.

If that’s not enough, I suppose those worried about Catholic identity might demand that one of the two TVs in the LaFortune main lounge be permanently set to the Sat 2000, the 24-hour Vatican TV network. But then the lack of ESPN might cause the sports fans to wonder if the University is losing its athletic identity …

Darryl Campbell is a second-year Ph.D. student in History. He can be contacted at [email protected]

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