The few, the serious, the well-read

Author: Notre Dame Magazine

Department chair Clark Power’s description makes it sound like a student’s dream.

“There are absolutely no lectures,” he says. “The teacher’s role is to ask questions and facilitate the discussion but not to be an expert. There is absolutely no lecturing allowed.”

Power is talking about the Program of Liberal Studies’ seminar, the four-credit Great Books course that’s required of the program’s students each semester. What he adds, however, is that the students have to be ready to mix it up intellectually and the writing demands are rigorous. And the reading list takes you on a three-year tour of the greatest minds in history: Aristotle, Plato, Augustine, Aquinas, Shakespeare, Confucius, Lao-Tzu, Nietzsche, Dostoevski, Darwin, Marx and many others.

Although the Great Books seminar is the core of the Program of Liberal Studies (PLS) curriculum, students also become immersed in an array of coursework — literature, philosophy, natural science, theology, political theory, fine arts, psychology and intellectual history — that forms the basis of the liberal arts education. In this day of overt careerism, a major that encourages undergraduates to love learning for its own sake attracts the unique student.

“I think something special happens,” says Power, “when a 19-year-old makes the decision to pursue our program. It requires a willingness to make sacrifices. But we feel it’s important in life to engage in great thoughts. It enriches the human spirit.”

Often called “a college within a college,” the intensive course of study is based on the Great Books reform movement begun at Columbia University in the 1920s. The president of the newly founded University of Chicago, Robert Hutchins, implemented the seminar model there in the early 1930s. Hutchins and Mortimer Adler, the dean of the Great Books movement in America, as well as Otto Bird, who would launch the Great Books program at Notre Dame in 1950, collaborated on Encyclopedia Britannica’s multivolume Great Books of the Western World.

Bird, who guided the program through its first 14 years, was brought to Notre Dame by President John J. Cavanaugh, CSC, who had served on the board of directors of the Great Books Foundation in Chicago. Cavanaugh, says Father Nicholas Ayo, CSC, who entered the program in 1951 and now serves on its faculty, took a good deal of criticism for allowing “forbidden” books to be taught at Notre Dame, for encouraging the study of non-Catholic thinking, and even for allowing “the seminar Socratic discussion method” that “was without authority.”

Ayo, writing about the program’s early days, explains that the seminar approach challenged Catholic thinking of the time: that “Catholic education enjoyed an ancient tradition of reason and revelation, and it claimed to know the truth, in essence at least, and to have a divine mandate to teach the nations.” Some feared that teaching non-Catholic texts and discussing them in an open forum would erode the school’s Catholic character.

Still, 50 years later PLS (once known as the General Program and its students as “GPers”) is flourishing. About 50 sophomores enroll in the program each year and some 2,000 have graduated, including 15 who have joined the Notre Dame faculty. And they have been taught by some of Notre Dame’s most revered teachers: Ed Cronin, Fred Crosson, Mike Crowe, Walter Nicgorksi, Willis Nutting, Stephen Rogers and Katherine Tillman. Because of the small class sizes, the interactive approach, and the same students taking so many classes together, PLS is a decidedly more cohesive, more communal major than most.

The program, says Power, "gets persons participating in the great conversations and to really be serious talking about books. Because of the sense of community and the faculty being so available to them, the students get to know us pretty well. And the orientation is to learn in community, that it’s a group effort, not individual seekers, but that we work to help each other understand the texts and the ideas more clearly. And we take seriously the Catholic church, the Catholic heritage, and we try to come to terms with a life of faith as well.

“Because specialized training will continue to change,” says Power, discussing academia’s current emphasis on vocational training and the future of PLS, “there will always be a demand for a liberal arts education. It creates innovative thinkers who are able to solve problems and access information for themselves.”