Now, let’s get serious: the core curriculum

Author: Kerry Temple ’74

It can be a pretty routine exercise, something Notre Dame does every 10 years, normal operating procedures for a world class institution of higher education. This time around it started in August 2014 with a letter from University President Rev. John Jenkins, CSC, ’76, ’78M.A. and Provost Tom Burish ’72. The letter appointed a Core Curriculum Review Committee to examine the current core requirements needed by students to graduate with a bachelor’s degree from Notre Dame and to see if they required updates or alterations.

Minor tweaks have been made over the previous few decades, but, as some have observed, 40 years have passed since major revisions were made. A lot has changed in higher education, in technology, in the world and among students over those 40 years. And the world promises even greater changes and challenges to those who want to be its leaders 10, 20 or 30 years from now. Maybe it’s time again to take a good, hard look at it all, at just what a Notre Dame education should look like as the place pursues its ambitious course well into the 21st century.

The letter pointed to “the enhanced capacity of our undergraduate students,” a more diverse student body, “changes in the religious formation of our students before their arrival at Notre Dame,” new technologies and efforts that expand the traditional classroom, and the “accelerated pace of globalization” as new realities to be factored into the deliberations. The letter then asked the committee to come up with “the knowledge, dispositions, and skills every Notre Dame undergraduate student should possess upon graduation.”

It posed some other questions, most notably, “How can our core curriculum not only sustain but also deepen our commitment to Notre Dame’s Catholic character?”

While each college and department has its own set of required courses, the University-wide core curriculum currently prescribes the following menu: one history class, two in math, two in science, one writing (or rhetoric) course, one social science, one fine arts or literature, two philosophy and two theology. These last two — philosophy and theology — have traditionally been seen as staples of Notre Dame’s Catholic character, essential coursework that undergirds a liberal arts education.

The committee, headed by Greg Crawford, the William K. Warren Foundation Dean of the College of Science, and John McGreevy ’86, the I.A. O’Shaughnessy Dean of the College of Arts and Letters, decided to put it all out on the table, to pursue all the questions, to give wide latitude to all possibilities.

Crawford and McGreevy took the talk to faculty, proposing their own questions in an open letter, including: “How can Notre Dame as a Catholic university prepare and inspire undergraduates to serve their families, their communities and the global society, including the Church? What do our students most need to know to prepare for life after college? . . . How can we develop a curriculum that embodies the Catholic idea of the unity of knowledge across disciplines?”

The Core Curriculum Review Committee also established focus groups on Catholic mission, academic advising and advanced placement (the use of AP credit to bypass required coursework). And it set up a year’s calendar of events that provided for open faculty forums and meetings with assorted groups across campus, from the Center for Social Concerns and the athletic department to hall rectors, students and Alumni Association Board members.

In addition to all the discussion groups, an online bulletin board invites opinion and running commentary. Some faculty have spoken of learning goals — what do we want students to learn, what skill outcomes should they possess — instead of specific classes that need to be taken. Others have called for thematic requirements, covering such items as climate change and the environment, diversity issues or global complexities.

Other important questions swirl around the “delivery of courses”: Who teaches the core courses (regular faculty or doctoral students?); when should undergrads take core courses (early or late in their academic careers?); and where do service learning and internships, undergraduate research and the writing of a senior thesis fit?

Some faculty are outspoken in their belief that the Catholic intellectual tradition should run — and run more vigorously — throughout a Notre Dame education. Others point to Catholic social teaching. And others emphasize the need for cross-disciplinary coursework in which faculty team-teach courses, with biologists, engineers, theologians, political scientists, anthropologists and sociologists nudging students to understand that real-world solutions necessarily come from the interplay of such specialties.

Committee co-chair McGreevy has more than once said students complain that they see their requirements as boxes to check off and fail to see how their coursework interrelates across disciplines — the integration of learning. He has also noted another complaint, that too often college work is nowadays seen as an extension of high school — Grade 13.

It’s all up for discussion, all the threads being tweezed apart for examination, even the future of those two philosophy and two theology requirements, much to the concern of Notre Dame’s philosophers, theologians and others.

It’s way too soon to tell how much will ultimately change, but it’s an interesting exercise, this thorough examination of just what is meant by a Notre Dame education in 2015. For now all is fluid and flexible, a work in progress. A preliminary report is due from the committee by next fall, with the 2015-16 academic year primed for further deliberations and debate as things take clearer, firmer shape.

Kerry Temple is the editor of this magazine.