A Notre Dame Education

Author: Kerry Temple ’74

Back in the day, when I started writing about Notre Dame, University communicators liked to say, “More is meant by a Notre Dame education than is taught in the classroom or laboratory.”

The implication was that — at Notre Dame — more was conveyed than book learning. Along with the academic enterprises came a recognition of deeper, broader meanings — the ethical, moral and spiritual dimensions of a life well lived. These were handed down through example, through the character of those who taught here, in the conversations that took place in the Pay Caf, the residence halls and faculty offices, on the sidewalks outside the library and in the corridors of the Main Building.

A student walked around in it — in the guiding ethos that permeated the place.

Another sentence was popular when I started here: “Great teaching was woven into the Notre Dame fabric early on.” There was a tradition here of educators, mentors and scholars who really cared about students, whose personal and principal aim was teaching. The proof was in superb undergraduate programs and a college experience of distinguished quality.

Some decades back, when the University redoubled its research ambitions and aspired to be counted among the best academic institutions in America, there was a good deal of soul-searching, criticism and reassurance regarding the danger of sacrificing teaching for research. Alumni were sure the golden age had passed; faculty lamented a changing reward system for hiring, promotion and tenure. University leaders said they expected Notre Dame professors to do it all well — conduct research, teach, guide, mentor and serve.

It’s been a long time since I’ve heard talk of a division of labor. The perception that these twin endeavors of teaching and research are mutually exclusive is long past. The two are complementary, and the students benefit from faculty atop their field who engage their students in real-life exploration and learning.

There has long been — and continues to be — discussion in higher education about the potential of distance learning and online instruction, through which a comparable education can be delivered at lower costs yet equal value. The college classroom of the future? Virtual.

COVID-19 has put such theories to the test. Notre Dame has gone to great lengths and great risk to provide its students with in-person learning despite the pandemic, believing in the value of human interaction, believing that more is meant by a Notre Dame education than is taught in the classroom or laboratory.

In this issue we celebrate this teacher-student dynamic, and present a few faculty members whose academic pursuits have influenced generations of students. One such person is Amy Coney Barrett, a Notre Dame alumna and former law school professor who now sits on the United States Supreme Court. Her story, too, illustrates the notion of the place shaping people and its people helping to shape the place.

Kerry Temple is editor of this magazine.