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Weirdo colleges

| Thursday, August 31, 2023

“You better save my seat,” I warned my friend, Isaac. That night we had the Cronin Award Dinner, the Program of Liberal Studies’ (PLS) annual end-of-year celebration that presents an award for the finest piece of writing from the past year, and I was going to be late for another commitment. When I arrived, thankfully my threats worked and his coat was sprawled across a chair for me. 

For a Biology major or Economics major, something like Cronin would be foreign. Every student and faculty member fits comfortably in a small dining room, wearing suits and dresses, eating from a gourmet buffet, being tended to by waiters and waitresses wearing suits and making toasts with sparkling apple juice. One by one, people walk up to the podium and speak about how much they love the program or some inside jokes directed toward people in the audience, like a sort of wedding. 

During one of those toasts, my jaw dropped as one student mentioned an article about Hillsdale College from The New Yorker. He was so impressed that they mentioned Notre Dame’s little old PLS in a national publication. However, that student had forgotten some key context: The article quoted a history professor who dubbed PLS as part of “a group of ‘weirdo colleges’… that still believe in teaching a canon of great books.” As such, the article hardly complements PLS but rather criticizes it for its outdated, exclusive ways. 

The New Yorker article is centered around Hillsdale College and all of its idiosyncrasies and challenges. A small Christian liberal arts school in Southern Michigan, Hillsdale College has become a model for many conservatives — including Ron DeSantis, Republican presidential candidate and governor of my home state, Florida. DeSantis has been making steady efforts to proliferate Hillsdale’s model in Florida, especially at New College of Florida, where he has secured $34 million and a conservative board of trustees to transform into the “Hillsdale of the South.”

As someone who grew up in Florida public schools, PLS has been a dream. The seminar-style classes are small and intimate, the teachers are professional and intelligent and the community of people is unlike any other. A liberal education has allowed me to ask questions and have uncomfortable conversations that were largely ignored or left unanswered in my education growing up. 

I joined PLS the way many people do: by accident. I applied to Notre Dame haphazardly, with no serious desire to attend. Not knowing what I wanted to study, I chose the Program of Liberal Studies, thinking that it was an undeclared humanities option. When I was admitted and decided to attend Notre Dame, I received an email from the department advisor asking if I had any questions about the program that I had totally forgotten I had selected. As someone who always loved reading and writing, looking at the curriculum and reading lists, I grew increasingly excited and enthusiastic about the major I had unknowingly chosen. PLS was going to be a super English major on steroids. I was instantly sold. 

However, I didn’t understand all the baggage that comes with a classical, Western-based education, especially within the broader context of a midwestern Catholic university.

For one, there’s a lack of diversity in the classroom. A typical PLS classroom is filled with wealthy, white, Catholic, private school-educated students with a professor from a similar background. Many of the students have conservative Catholic beliefs, leading to challenges of inclusivity in the program, especially concerning the LGBTQ+ community. 

And, of course, there is the issue of the Western canon. The program is rooted in six Great Books Seminars and thirteen tutorials, spanning from ancient Greece to mid-twentieth-century America, with some possible outliers here and there. Given the time frame and historical prejudices, most of the readings are written by white men from a limited range of intellectual backgrounds. 

There is a lot to be asked about teaching the Western canon in the 21st century in PLS. Why do we read what we read? What are we not including in our discussions? Why do we attract a certain demographic? What can we do better? These questions are what are needed to make us better.

But as I sat in the luxury of a celebration dinner, in the glory that is the PLS lounge or in the comfort of the classroom, I am the beneficiary of PLS and a firm believer in everything that it has given to me. And, as such, I am a believer that in order to maintain PLS’ liberal arts tradition — and to not be swept into the tide of the growing politicization of the Great Books programs — that tradition needs to reflect, adapt and grow. 

Kat Regala is a junior studying the Program of Liberal Studies with minors in Computing and Digital Technology and Science, Technology and Values. She originally hails from Naples, Florida, but loves traveling. When not reading or writing, you can find her drinking coffee, practicing yoga or binge-watching reality television.

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

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