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Save the philosophy

| Tuesday, August 22, 2017

At Irish Rover meetings, I sometimes catch a sideways glance when the staff is reminded that I’m a finance major. At business events, I tend to get a raised eyebrow when I mention I’m a theology minor. 

Does the business world need its next generation wrestling with thorny moral questions? Aren’t think pieces in college newspapers the realm of liberal arts majors?  Fortunately, at Notre Dame I’ve never had to make these distinctions.

Last fall President Jenkins announced “the most significant changes to Notre Dame’s core curriculum since the late 1960s.” These changes will impact the incoming Class of 2022 allowing them more flexibility in course selection. Most significantly students will no longer need to take a second philosophy course. In its place, will be a new Catholicism and the Disciplines requirement.

Although these changes appear minor, they align with an ongoing trend in higher education: the steady decline in philosophy, theology and other liberal arts requirements. The fear is that students will go through Notre Dame without being exposed to the philosophical theological fundamentals of the Christian Faith, but rather bits and pieces here and there. Historically, at Notre Dame the primary vehicle by which the Catholic intellectual tradition is transmitted to students is through the liberal arts curriculum. But with our material success in recent decades, there has come a temptation to forget the past. The University of Notre Dame, like its secular peers on the coasts, owes its very existence to the Catholic Church of the Middle Ages. When the University of Cambridge was originally granted its papal charter, all undergraduate students, were known as “artists” for their commitment to the liberal arts.

The Middle Ages was not a simply an era of blind allegiance to the Church. To the contrary, it was a time of academic and intellectual freedom where faith collaborated with reason to hasten the advance of the academic disciplines. Well known historian and Ph.D Thomas Woods has said, “It was the Church’s worldview that insisted the universe is orderly and operates according to fixed laws. Only buoyed with that confidence would it have made sense to bother investigating the physical world or develop the scientific method.”

For science to be born nature had to be de-animized. Because God is rational and orderly, His creation must be rational and orderly as well. Scientific truth is not subject to the whims of local gods and goddesses, but to the natural laws of nature’s God.

Today, prestigious universities, including Notre Dame, are under pressure to abandon talk of ‘truth’ in favor of political narratives. Yet “truth” remains the foundation of the American legal system, mathematical problem solving, the scientific method and all philosophical thought. Once truth is discarded political narratives replace facts, and the process of free inquiry is halted.

In classical thinking, both the arts and the sciences are rightly ordered toward the search of the truth. The physics of Newton and the biology of Harvey, like rest of the liberal arts, can be viewed as a collection of stories containing essential themes, meanings and truths. These stories tell the tale of a people, diverse and contentious, in a centuries-long, existential struggle to better understand themselves and their relationship to God.

Stories unite a disparate people, creating a culture and defining important societal mores. The Roman Empire, once renowned for its virtue eventually grew corrupt, stopped telling its stories and collapsed. The historian Edward Gibbon described Rome’s degeneration thusly, “The end comes when we no longer talk with ourselves. It is the end of genuine thinking and the beginning of the final loneliness.”

Philosophy is the golden thread that unites the liberal arts, providing a shared vernacular across academic disciplines. A Ph.D in any field stands for “Doctor of Philosophy,” a moniker whose Greek origin means “lover of wisdom,” reminding us that truth is the common language we share and that within philosophy and theology is the structure by which to think about every other discipline.   

As a finance major at the nation’s finest business school, I have become a staunch defender of the liberal arts. In my humanities courses I’ve studied the canticles of Dante, the speeches of Lincoln and the confessions of St. Augustine. These encounters with the great minds of history have taught me that there is more to education than the memorization of numbers or rote professional training. We live in a moral universe where every decision has consequences that extend far beyond ourselves. Eventually, every person will be faced with difficult choices which cannot be escaped. These decisions, the ones that ultimately define our character, will not require a formula, but rather the wisdom to discern good from evil, and the courage to act on that discernment.

In its popular media campaign of the last 10 years Notre Dame rhetorically asks “What Would You Fight For?” Wouldn’t it be nice if, assuming the mantle of leadership our university answered — the liberal arts. In some respects, Notre Dame is one of the last bastions of Catholicism in higher education. If Notre Dame forsakes its commission to teach the great truths of philosophy and theology, who will be left to defend the things we hold sacred?

Michael Singleton


Aug. 19

The views expressed in this Letter to the Editor are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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