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Making learning serve justice

| Tuesday, April 1, 2014

I was hanging out one Friday night with a friend of mine when the conversation took one of those serious turns in conversation when things cease being flippant and light-hearted and you begin to share things that matter. This particular conversation turned into a conversation about wealth, business and society. I have a very skeptical view of wealth and the business world, something I usually try to guard in these conversations, lest I say something that would offend my friends on this predominately business-minded campus. My friend, however, an econ major, opened the conversation with, “You know, it’s pretty screwed up that we even have a business school here at Notre Dame.”

Finally, someone who agrees with me.

Let me begin with a few disclaimers. There is nothing wrong with finance, accountancy, information technology, entrepreneurship, marketing or management consulting. All are worthy disciplines in which one can find fulfilling work. The problem is Notre Dame claims in its mission statement that the aim of its undergraduate education is, “to create a sense of human solidarity and concern for the common good that will bear fruit as learning becomes service to justice.” The Mendoza College of Business does not accomplish this goal, and neither does the core curriculum, nor the engineering curriculum, nor the science curriculum, nor the arts and letters curriculum nor even the curriculum of my own beloved Program of Liberal Studies. In none of these is engagement with issues of social justice a prerequisite.

Notre Dame does deserve credit for even having this as its mission statement in the first place. A cursory look at the mission statements of other top universities yields no singular statement that is as rooted in concern for neighbor. It is something that makes Notre Dame unique. It is something that makes Notre Dame Catholic. If one would trace the origin of this mission, one would readily find it in the social teaching of the Catholic Church, something that has a long tradition in the Church and direct roots in the Gospel. To both the days of Jesus and our modern world, the Gospel preaches a radical ethic of love of neighbor that stands in direct opposition to the self-interest at the heart of modern economic and political systems. Notre Dame’s mission statement pays lip service to this legacy, but its undergraduate curriculum is hardly reflective of it.

By way of example, Mendoza frequently extols that it seeks to produce leaders who, “serve society through business,” but if one digs beyond the website headlines and looks at the actual curriculum, the only required courses that ostensibly address this mission are the paltry one-credit business ethics courses along with scattered in-class case studies, all of which are hardly life-changing. This isn’t unique to Mendoza, however: there is no curriculum at Notre Dame that explicitly demands students to engage with societal issues as a constitutive part of their curriculum. The fact of the matter is the majority Notre Dame’s curriculums are deliberately designed to help people make money. That is the reason why students come to Mendoza over other business schools, not for heightened ethics.
The one place at Notre Dame I’ve seen “learning become service to justice” is at the Center for Social Concerns. The CSC is an amazing resource for education in this regard, but the current curricular structure at Notre Dame unfortunately forces the individual student to approach the CSC. This makes social justice education at Notre Dame ad hoc, where the student pursues their primary course of study and picks up some interesting trinkets along the way. Hopefully, one of these trinkets is from the CSC, but this is never required of the student and many graduate from Notre Dame never having heard of nor engaging with the CSC.

Can you imagine a university that directly engages its students with issues of social justice in a way that makes solidarity, the common good, service and love of neighbor a central part of their intellectual formation? Such a university would truly fulfill Fr. Sorin’s vision of a school that would be “one of the most powerful means of doing good in this country.” What is preventing us from making these changes? Nothing, besides our own comfort. The type of Catholicism practiced by the majority of Americans today is a docile Catholicism. It doesn’t shake us. It doesn’t move us. It is compartmentalized to our private “spiritual” lives and ordered to stay there. It isn’t allowed to seep out of its box and actually affect how we live our lives. A level of comfort is achieved by this, as it allows us to have both God and Cesar, us switching masks as is appropriate. This is the comfort that must be abandoned.

Notre Dame likes to brag about its Catholic identity, portraying itself as a city on a hill, a place that has the daring and courage to be different because to be different is to be in the right. This is a radical vision. The only question is whether or not we have the courage to realize it.

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

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