Faculty often quarrel over curricula. That’s as it should be. A curriculum, especially its core courses required of all students, is an educational institution’s constitution. To tell a young person he must take this or that course announces a university’s highest priorities. This makes a curriculum review a battlefield. At the University of Notre Dame we are presently conducting such a review, and a hot point for debate is whether the university should maintain its requirement of two theology and two philosophy courses. This requirement has long been thought essential to the Catholic mission of Notre Dame. But the “two theology, two philosophy” requirement may not survive this round of curriculum revision.
For decades, Catholic colleges and universities have debated required classes in theology and philosophy. Some argue for a more “open” system that does not presume a primarily Catholic student body. This usually means fewer required classes in theology and philosophy. Others argue that a commitment to social justice marks a properly Vatican II university. This need not mean fewer required classes in theology, but as a practical matter space must be made for new priorities, and so often requirements are diluted. University education has lately gone in a pre-professional direction, and university leaders committed to Catholic identity now feel a great deal of market pressure to reduce core requirements so that students can quickly advance to the specializations that will get them jobs. But through all of this the consensus has held. Most have agreed that the disciplines of theology and philosophy are the foundations of Catholic education.
It’s striking, then, that the curriculum review at Notre Dame is questioning this consensus. The review goes deeper than how many courses in theology and philosophy should be required. In a shift that reflects trends in higher education more broadly, the review questions the very idea of discipline-oriented requirements that specify courses taught by particular departments. Are disciplines the building blocks of university education and thus the proper focus for a core curriculum? Or should we recognize that academic disciplines are “artificial” and reorient our thinking around curricular “goals” such as “critical thinking skills,” “effective communication,” “ethical decision-making skills”? Or the capacity to “comprehend the variations of people’s relationship with God and develop respect for the religious beliefs of others,” as one Catholic university defines a distinctively religious goal? Some leaders in the current Notre Dame administration seem to favor this reorientation. As Notre Dame German professor Mark Roche put it, the university’s leadership want faculty to get out of their disciplinary bunkers and think about “how the Catholic mission” of Notre Dame “can be enhanced not by thinking about departments alone but by focusing instead on overarching learning goals.”
It’s easy to be cynical about this shift from disciplines to “goals.” It is convenient for administrators that a goal-centered curriculum makes room for greater flexibility. Some administrators speak yearningly of courses that achieve multiple goals, allowing students to check off philosophy (“critical thinking skills”) and theology (“people’s relationship with God,” and so forth) with a single course. Or courses within different majors could be designed to meet core goals, creating wiggle room for electives in majors like finance. Perhaps all this could be a selling point to our many fee-paying overseas students.
But this line of criticism misses the deeper danger. What is in the air at Notre Dame, and what is more insidious, is the replacement of disciplinary requirements like theology with the requirement that students achieve “goals” set by the faculty or administration, goals which may seem solidly Catholic and traditional (“an appreciation of and respect for the Catholic tradition,” perhaps), but in truth open the way for fundamentally changing the kind of education students receive in the core curriculum. The elimination of theology requirements could be so well camouflaged by Catholic-looking goals that even those orchestrating the curriculum reform will be blind to its practical consequences. Theology could be removed from the core curriculum not by a sleight of hand, but by people who have no desire to undercut Notre Dame’s Catholicity. The theological core of the core may be subverted by those who in their own minds are devoted to the “Catholic identity” of Our Lady’s University, but believe it can be achieved through a goal-centered rather than discipline-centered approach.
This is a fantasy that won’t end well. A goal-based curriculum will be more shallow, less liberal, and less liberating than a discipline-based curriculum. And to be less liberal and less liberating contradicts the deepest end of Catholic higher education, which is to give a reasoned depth to our free assent to God’s offer of friendship in Christ.
Thirty years in higher education have taken me from the College of St. Mark and St. John in Plymouth, England, to the hallowed halls of Notre Dame. During those decades I have survived long departmental meetings about improving our syllabi, discussions that my dear, departed colleague Ian Harris used to call “wailing and gnashing of teeth.” In the religious studies department at St. Martin’s College, we gyrated about our foundational course in religious studies. How much of it should teach the world religions, and how much should teach methodology? Our chair used to opine that we should begin with a month on method in religious studies and end with a month on method, with half a dozen religions packed tightly in between, so that the course would, as he put it, “come round in a circle.” It never struck this delightful gyrovague that no student taking the course would actually experience the circle that he drew on the board to explain his notion. In reality, students would experience some classes on methodology, then study half a dozen religions, and eight months later end with more stuff on methodology. The reality of how a course of study impacts a student is not what the course looks like on a whiteboard.
Before coming to Notre Dame, I observed a broader operation in teeth-grinding: We went through curriculum reform while I was on faculty at the University of Aberdeen. Notre Dame’s current travails give me a sense of déjà vu. As at Aberdeen, so at Notre Dame, the reformers create a web site; bearded figures emerge from the woodwork to speak into microphones at public meetings; the politically astute maneuver themselves onto the right committees; focus groups are formed and interrogated for appropriate responses. There seems to be a script for curriculum reform and it proscribes asking what would seem a fundamental and important question: What problems should curriculum reform address? At a recent “open session” on the curriculum review (also in the script), my colleague Jean Porter asked repeatedly, “What problems are you trying to solve?” Leading administrators could name none.
As I look back on my work as a professor, I can see one problem any curriculum reform should address today, and which is never mentioned. It is illiteracy. This shocking word is so unmentionable in higher education that I say it here in a whisper. If there were a contemporary index of Proscribed Words for Professors, surely the first entry would be “illiterate” as applied to students. Needless to say, it is not a word one often hears uttered by curriculum reformers or so-called educational professionals.
Unmentionable, perhaps, but evident. Everyone knows that students read less and less, but few wish to speak of it. Professors in book-lined offices are prudish about uttering the I-word: To admit that our students are not fully literate undermines our sense of status and importance as professors. Administrators and departmental chairs seldom read course evaluation forms that state, “I found the course reading difficult because I am functionally illiterate.” Educational leaders are not commonly informed that reading a book from cover to cover is beyond the powers of many students.
I want to be clear: Only a handful of the students I have taught anywhere have been literally illiterate. None of the top-notch Notre Dame students are literally illiterate. But too many students everywhere, from Plymouth to Scotland to the American Midwest, are such literal-minded readers that they do not make the grade up to university-level literacy. Here is how I measure university-level literacy: Can a student appreciate that authors have other rhetorical means at their disposal than direct statements of the views they hold? I fear that all too few pass this test.
Here is what I mean. It is common for an author to outline an explanatory hypothesis over a few paragraphs or pages only to dismiss it as inadequate. It’s how we think on paper: We think “discursively,” taking up hypotheses, testing them, rejecting them, refining them, and finally developing theories that seem to fit the nature of the case.
This is a common approach. Thomas Aquinas does it explicitly when he begins every article in the Summa with objections to the position he wishes to defend. Yet even when there are many literary signals that the author is speaking of something he will ultimately dismiss as false or misleading, many students today fail to discern when an author is expressing his opinion and when the author is projecting a hypothesis. It is as if the students view all written texts as confessional expressions of strong emotions that must naturally exhibit the author’s personal convictions. This narrowing of what a student can read with comprehension counts as a significant kind of illiteracy, for a great deal of the labor of human, discursive thinking is present in the use of thought experiments.
Every professor in his book-lined office has often been asked by a shiny-eyed student, “Have you read all these books?” Not only the hard workers but even lazy students, hauled in for a reckoning, exhibit admiration for their professors’ libraries. Some may do so hoping that sycophancy can be bartered into an essay extension, but most students honestly say to themselves, at least implicitly, “I want to be literate like my professors are literate.” Most of them would like to leave university not only with a 4.0 average but also with the capacity to enjoy sophisticated books with subtle arguments. If we’re to speak of goals, then any rationale for reforming the curriculumshould include serious thought about how to enable students to achieve this goal, which is full, university-level literacy.
I’m not opposed to curricular innovation. I teach a multi-disciplinary course called the “College Seminar,” which was designed by Mark Roche to improve in students the capacity for oral communication. The content is up to the instructor, but the course title must be a question, like “What Is a Person?” or “Is Comedy Good?”—two that I have taught a couple times. This means the CSem (as it is known) can be a seminar with formal debates thrown in, which is my approach.
In a CSem I assigned a book by Harry Frankfurt called On Bullshit. Defining “bullshitting” as being phony, at one point Frankfurt says, “Bullshit is unavoidable whenever circumstances require someone to talk without knowing what he is talking about.” This statement prompted my students to discuss when and where they are phony. One student observed that students invariably bullshit when they are required to do four hundred pages of reading a week, something the rest of the class seconded. I suspect very few professors would disagree! Another student said students often bullshit in courses they don’t care about, but not in courses where they really know and love their subject. I asked the class whether a person who bullshits is playing the role of “student” well or badly. All of the students except one theology major (who said “badly”) were unsettled by the question. They knew that being phony was the way to get a good grade, but facing up to their own cynicism was not easy.
The danger of goal-based education is that it can generate a culture of “bullshitting” or phoniness among students. Without the focus provided by a discipline, students in goal-based classes may end up reading too many different kinds of things to get an in-depth literacy in any one field. They don’t learn the geography of any one intellectual place. What they learn can be an artificial landscape, invented by the instructor for the sake of preestablished goals. Santa Clara University identifies a learning goal of encouraging students to recognize the dignity of others, “especially the impoverished, suffering, and marginalized.” It’s a noble goal, but it’s too easy to imagine a course that starts with a novel to dramatize the plight of the oppressed, assigns some recent essays in post-colonial studies, and ends with field work in the local community.
Like a mall designed to give shoppers easy access to different stores in one place, the goal-based course can be constructed with a knowable aim in mind, and we can assess whether or not the course meets that goal. This may seem a gain. Everyone these days seems to want accurate measures of course “outcomes.” But designing toward measurement can corrupt education quite quickly. In a goal-based course, “literacy” means being able to demonstrate achievement of the goal. In this context the “literate” student is one who is able to talk his way through to the goals. A worldly-wise student knows how to manifest an appropriate concern for the marginal and oppressed, like a good salesperson who knows how to satisfy his customers. By contrast, in a discipline-based course, literacy is knowing the content and methods of the discipline itself, which must be “occupied” rather than used. We can bullshit about philosophy, to be sure, but we cannot bullshit in philosophy, at least not when a real philosophy professor is running the class.
The Irish are famous for their talk, or “craic,” but knowing stuff is what we really admire in a scholar, not merely having the gift of gab. The kind of literacy students seek is to be found in deep knowledge of a discipline and is impossible to achieve without it. Disciplines can be used to achieve goals, but not vice versa. The goal of the CSems I’ve taught is to build in students a confidence in oral communication. It could be achieved in a question-based class whose content was genuinely theological or philosophical. To achieve the “goal” of a real class in theology or philosophy, the teacher must adopt the discipline of the discipline.
Once my class got through telling me about how they thought being a student sometimes calls for bullshit artistry, they were all too eager to tell me how and when professors are faking it. No doubt they think most of the authors they read are BS artists, too. This is because many young people now see authors as salesmen who would never do anything other than praise their products. For the most part they have been trained to imagine their courses and textbooks as forms of indoctrination that they have to pretend to buy into if they want to make their grades. They are inclined to envisage their professors as propagandists and their textbooks as propaganda books.
This is a hangover from the kind of courses and teaching these students received in high school, a classroom culture almost entirely captive to goal-based education. When my brother was in high school, his school had created a goal-defined substitute for history and geography, calling the amalgam “social studies.” The contents were neither history nor geography but a mixture of the two geared toward achieving assent to certain beliefs about democracy or the importance of good public health policies. My father, who was an engineer, had a special loathing for my brother’s social studies textbook. He used to mock its depictions of Greek athletes modestly performing gymnastics in kilts. This hapless textbook juxtaposed pictures of an American family happily tucking into steaks with images of a Russian family staring dejectedly at empty plates. When my brother had to do his social studies homework, my father would say, “Fetch the propaganda book.”
Americans certainly did eat better than their Russian counterparts in the 1960s. So “propaganda” does not necessarily mean falsity in advertising. Someone who is being phony, in Frankfurt’s terms, is not necessarily lying; rather, inquiring into the truth is not his primary object. In the sense I’m using it, therefore, “propaganda” means ideas, whether true or false, advanced and inculcated for some goal other than inquiry itself. Rather than pursuing the truth through missteps, failed experiments, and odd hypothetical suggestions, the propagandist defines the learning goal, and then designs courses and textbooks to get the students there efficiently. We recognize the propagandizing mentality easily wherever it appears by its illiberal mien, suppressing questions and punishing dissent. But it’s also present when students are taught to assent too quickly to easy moralisms, substituting self-righteous feeling for serious ethical reflection, something that’s only too easy to imagine when one reads the social justice or “global engagement” goals of many Catholic universities.
To a certain degree, goal-based education makes sense for schoolkids. One must learn grammar and arithmetic. The young mind should be well-stocked with information. We need background knowledge to enter into more sophisticated courses at the university level. There’s even merit in a certain amount of propaganda that establishes a baseline social consensus. Although I might argue many particulars, I’m not opposed to the ambition that many Catholic universities have to encourage certain attitudes in their students. But we need to be honest about the intellectual costs, especially if we’re in the business of curriculum reform at a place like Notre Dame. It is in high school that my students first encounter amalgam courses, whose goals are to inculcate right-mindedness. One of the features that makes university work different from high school work is that goal-based propaganda gives way to the discipline-based pursuit of difficult and mysterious truths.
It is perilous to ignore the role of disciplines as instruments for stimulating literacy. Amalgams of many disciplines organized around goals can too easily be used to inculcate right-thinking, because they detach the message from the questions and methods of any one discipline. If the goal is to encourage respect for the dignity of the marginalized or appreciation of the great riches of the Catholic tradition, then thought experiments and hypotheses have little role to play. By the end of high school, teenagers are often tempted to believe that this kind of learning oriented toward acquiring desired beliefs and attitudes is more suitable to maturity than the arduous labor of learning a discipline. That’s because the movement of thought in propaganda is straightforward, avoiding the contingency that contact with reality occasions. Propaganda, as I said, is not necessarily untrue: rather it is laid-back with respect to truth, that is, not willing to lace up its shoes and do some serious walking in pursuit of the truth. The propagandist too often goes for the generalization and the “ism” rather than the individual and particular fact that does not come out of a packet or a pattern, and that often must be searched out. The scholar wishes to take his students with him on his search. The propagandist presents results and assembles material to guide students toward course goals.
It is a great irony that the curriculum reformers at Notre Dame express the earnest hope that detaching “goals” from disciplines will make the university less like high school. In fact, it will make it nothing more than an eternal twelfth grade. Propaganda is goal-directed education at its purest. Many high school textbooks seek to serve the goal of making teenagers into good citizens. That meant being anti-communist when my brother was in school. Now, in some circles, it means being a fierce opponent of unsustainable development. These propagandistic goals are more easily achieved by integrating disciplines, and thereby glossing over the realities and the hard questions—the sometimes unanswerable questions—that disciplines identify and ask. Are we more likely to find raw propaganda in a theology course on Anselm, Aquinas, and Bonaventure, in a history course titled “Medieval and Renaissance Europe,” or in an interdisciplinary course that has as its goal inculcating respect for the marginalized or appreciation of the Catholic tradition? In which of these courses is a student most likely to be tempted to bullshit? Surely it’s a course that aims at the goal of “appreciation,” or some other disposition that the salesman in all of us can adopt as a phony stance. In which of these courses is a professor least likely to answer “I do not know” to a student’s probing question? Surely it’s a poorly designed goal-oriented course that allows for such an answer—or a teacher not competent to teach to the goals.
It’s the integrity of specific academic disciplines and their roles as custodians of ongoing, specialized conversations that provide the most sure remedy for the kind of illiteracy generated by years of propaganda. A historian, a philosopher, an anthropologist, a theologian—each is a particular kind of animal, and none a salesman. Students have to learn to be historians, philosophers, anthropologists, even theologians, in order to appreciate and recognize how authors express themselves in these disciplines. This is how they learn to taste the difference between thought and propaganda.
I gave a little lecture on apologetics to our senior theology majors recently, and afterwards a girl whom I know to be a sophisticated young theologian approached me to confess the favorite apologists of her teenage years, who had led her into theology. The apologists of her teens had not done her any lasting harm. In fact, they did quite a bit of good. But at Notre Dame she had learned by reading Augustine, Pascal, Aquinas, and von Balthasar to distinguish between the Real Thing and “instant answers” (as Flannery O’Connor put it). Not to teach students how to distinguish propaganda from the real deal is to abandon them to a shallow cynicism which drives them to imagine that an author is simply using big words to advance the opinions he or she thinks best for students to believe.
The importance of a discipline-based curriculum is not a grand insight. It should be obvious to any experienced educator. It has been the presumption of university curricula for centuries. Medieval Paris and Oxford inherited disciplines from antiquity: law and medicine, to which they added theology, which had migrated from the monasteries to cathedral chapters and mendicant houses. They also prized mathematics, grammar (which meant Latin and Greek), natural philosophy, and metaphysics. Out of this medieval university culture, in which teachers were loyal to their disciplines, came one of the distinctive marks of Western Christianity, which is the capacity to entertain ideas that contradict what we know to be true, and to do so for the sake of a deeper grasp of and commitment to those truths.
The Vatican II document Dignitatis Humanae defends the compatibility of a commitment to the truth of the Catholic religion with a commitment to the religious value of liberty. It does so by way of an argument that only human beings who are free to think for themselves can achieve the truth. Achieving the truth is a journey during which one must endure many conversations with friends and opponents. The end of truth is not automatically reached. It is rarely reached without some initial errors. Sometimes it remains elusive. The inquiring person may need to entertain many partial hypotheses, and participate in countless fruitless debates, before he reaches the truth. Recognizing this reality, Dignitatis Humanae compares the process of discovery of the truth through open exchange of ideas to God’s providential coordination of many partial and secondary causes in the construction of cosmic ecology. Nothing is precisely “left to chance,” but nor is every step occasioned immediately by God alone. Governing by providence is the way God lends freedom to his creation, and likewise truth may not be achieved in society by the suppression of freedom. Just as God does not insist upon “sole control” of the process of galaxy-building or global ecology, so Catholics do not need to micromanage every thought process in society. Much must be left to providence since Catholicism opens and does not close the mind.
The same goes for university education. A course that leads students into a discipline enables them to explore a complex mystery. A student may very well succeed in such a course in opposition to and disagreement with his professor. A discipline-free course that leads students toward a defined goal directs them into a field that has been defined in advance. No student who rejects the assigned goals of the course should succeed in it. If what is required of students is to achieve certain goals rather than to study various subjects, then the student’s freedom in searching out the truth is severely limited. The end of humane education is a human person perfecting himself by freely taking pleasure in the truth. This end of education cannot be reduced to “goals,” and if we try to do so what we teach as truths—and they may well be truths—becomes incompatible with freedom.
Catholic education is regarded as a virtual oxymoron by many people in our secular culture. We have done much in the past to give them good reason to think so! We must not give those who despise the Catholic education we give our students the chance to dismiss it as mere brainwashing. Who would have thought, in the late 1950s and early 1960s, that my brother’s pro-American social studies textbook would be the object of mockery within twenty years of its publication? But such is the likelihood with any course of study based on the goals of contemporary educators. A curriculum dedicated to goals will be viewed as transparent propaganda within a decade of its promulgation. One secular university describes its “diversity” goal in this way: “Students will enhance their appreciation for and understanding of the rich complexity of the human experience through the study of differences in ethnic and cultural perspectives, class, race, gender, sexual orientation, and ability.” Many young people today, including many who are quite liberal in their social and political outlooks, are already rolling their eyes when they hear these kinds of pieties. It’s naive to think that our own formulations of distinctively Catholic “goals” won’t evoke similar reactions, even among faithful students. By contrast, a curriculum based on in-depth study of the liberal arts disciplines cannot be dismissed as mere propaganda. Teach the disciplines, open the students’ minds to truth, and leave to a free providence the integration of studies and the achievement of goals, an approach to education in keeping with Dignitatis Humanae.
It’s entirely fitting for Notre Dame to have as a goal the eternal salvation of all her students. She can desire to inculcate in them a love of the Catholic faith, and for those who do not believe, a respect for its intellectual integrity. Notre Dame may move to build such goals into her core curriculum. If my experience of curriculum reviews is anything to go by, such battles usually end in a peace treaty on which all sides can agree. About the larger nature of education, however, there should be no compromise. If goals there must be, let them be achieved within the disciplines.
Francesca Aran Murphy is professor of theology at the University of Notre Dame.