Much has already been written on the University of Notre Dame’s current core curriculum review—and on its toying with the idea of dropping the two undergraduate theology requirements. The question has been addressed from a number of angles: Margaret Blume, a doctoral student in theology at ND, has written on her frustratingly flat academic experience at Yale as an undergraduate (where the curriculum did not include theology and was based on “distribution requirements” and those ever-enigmatic “learning goals”) versus the intellectual sophistication and depth she found at theology-centered, discipline-driven Notre Dame. Timothy Kirchoff and Michael Bradley have also written on the curriculum review, analyzing the process and pointing out the almost stupefying bafflement with which the administration has responded to waves and waves of student and alumni letters begging them not to remove the theology requirement. Sandra Laguerta has called us back to the beginnings of Notre Dame and has reminded us of the zeal of Father Moreau, its founder, whose goal was “to make God known, loved, and served, and thus to save souls,” and of the role that theology must play in achieving this end. Professor John Cavadini has written eloquently on the role of theology at a Catholic university. And so on.
In order to add an undergraduate perspective to these, I interviewed Hope Feist, a current senior theology major.
BC: What have your experiences been with theology courses? How have they impacted your over-all academic experience at ND?
HF: I came into the University of Notre Dame as a rather clueless freshman, tentatively saying I would major in political science or english, unaware that theology was even a plausible option as a major, vocation, or career. My experience seems to contradict all the assumptions cited by those in favor of cutting the two core classes. There are laments that grad students teach freshmen, that Foundations of Theology is too basic and contributes to a “Grade 13” experience, or that theology (as was said in the debate that startled many of us into action) isn't intellectually stimulating enough. My Foundations of Theology course was taught by a grad student, who did an outstanding job. He convinced me—by the way he taught the class, the way he led the class discussion, and the way he encouraged us to think through our essays and prepare for our exams—that not only was theology a discipline worth studying, but that it could be the work of a lifetime.
In that Foundations class, faith and reason became compatible; faith wasn't something I had to do or care about “on the side” that would forever remain inexplicable to anyone who cared about science or data or rigorous intellectual work. In that class, I began to realize and to scratch the surface of the inexhaustible treasures of Scripture and the Tradition. My second theology class—also taught by a grad student, a course titled, “The Call to Holiness” about thoughts regarding vocation and what it meant to be holy throughout the Tradition sealed the deal for my academic undergraduate experience. That semester, we read a wide but beautiful array of writings all the way from Scripture, the early Church Fathers, Bernard of Clairvaux, Therese of Lisieux, and ending with the Documents of Vatican II and Christi fideles Laici. My theology classes have helped me to grow monumentally as a reader, a writer, a thinker, and a speaker. These classes have informed the ways I assess and treat my relationship with God and with others. Theology is truly the one integrative discipline. And my theology classes at Notre Dame have brought together everything that I have been drawn to in art, history, literature, current events, social justice, etc. I would not trade my experience as a theology major for anything.
BC: How, if at all, have you seen ND change since you started as a freshman? Do you feel that Notre Dame is keeping true to its Catholic identity? Do you think students, in general, care very much about its Catholic identity?
HF: Notre Dame certainly has changed since my freshman year; there have been some administrative decisions that have emerged along the way that make me raise my eyebrows and wonder what direction we are headed in as a university. I think the conversation about Catholic identity is one reason that this is such a sticky topic. Those leading the Committee Review's subgroup on Catholic Identity would certainly tell you that this review concerns “furthering” the University's Catholic identity—indeed, it is listed as one of the five main goals of the review. But when one then probes to ask what constitutes the Catholic identity of a university that we're supposedly striving for in this curriculum review, it gets fuzzy quickly. I think it is telling in and of itself that the constant refrain so far has been “everything is on the table; nothing has been officially decided!” in this review process.
The fact that “everything is on the table” is actually already a decision about the University of Notre Dame's Catholic identity on some level; frankly, saying that “everything is on the table” already indicates a decision to consider that the Catholic identity of Notre Dame might be separate from or could exist without theology at the university.
I think in general students definitely do care about the Catholic identity, and the fact that Notre Dame is a Catholic university draws many students in the first place. Most students care in some way, although certain issues (outside the curriculum review) will matter more to different students. One example I've heard students say is that they wish that all of us were required to take a class on Catholic Social Teaching so that we are more aware of the option for the poor and vulnerable. Other students will cite the massive amounts of money being poured into the Crossroads construction project, questioning if we really need to spend $400 million dollars, or if we should be using that money in other ways and for better means. Other students are concerned about some of the issues mentioned in the Washington Post article like the extension of benefits to same sex partners, or the way that the university dealt with the Health and Human Services mandate.
BC: What has campus been like this year regarding this core curriculum review? Are lots of people talking about it? Is there a general feeling of frustration, confusion, or enthusiasm for getting rid of these theology courses?
HF: The curriculum review process started last summer but only reached students' radars this spring semester. At this point, many people are talking, but how much people think about it ebbs and flows. But one of your suggested sentiments—frustration—seems to be the most accurate. I think students, some professors, and many others affiliated with Notre Dame are frustrated and want to take an active role in the conversation; that frustration shows why people have taken to social media to inform friends about what is happening. That frustration helps explain the high student response rate to the survey about the curriculum review. Frustration—and the confidence that Notre Dame knows better than this and can do better than this explains why so many have written testimonials in favor of keeping the two required courses in theology for all students.
There are definitely voices both for and against keeping the two required theology courses, but I would say a pretty large majority thinks or assumes that they should be kept. I am impressed with the number of students who are not affiliated with the theology department who have spread the word formally, informally, or by responding to the University and sending their input to the provost or to the loveTHEOnotredame gmail account, speaking in favor of keeping both theology requirements. Some alumni who were rather apathetic or even resistant as students have written and said that they now are grateful that they were forced to take two theology classes.
And it is clear that many current students outside of the theology department care about this review and about retaining the two theology requirements. I can name students in a variety of majors who have approached or asked me about this and who have spoken or written in favor of keeping two theology classes in the core. I am thinking of friends and acquaintances from the following majors—a friend who's an Arabic and Chinese major, another who's an American Studies major, a Russian major, finance majors, political science majors, accounting majors, Spanish majors, Engineering majors, Psychology majors. This issue has actually united a lot of students and has spurred many dinner and late-night student conversations.
BC: What's the current status of the review?
HF: The status of the review is ongoing. Earlier in the semester there were a number of town-hall style meetings with different groups of students, and the faculty committees regarding the core review are still meeting as well. There's a long way to go.
BC: Last thoughts?
HF: If anyone gets anything out of this conversation, I hope they take away this: The ongoing curriculum review is incredibly important for the University of Notre Dame. The decisions made in this review may involve major ramifications on the education of future students—and not just with regards to the theology requirements, but about the understanding of a liberal arts education in and of itself.
If you are an alumni, we would really appreciate it if you would submit your own thoughts on why the two theology requirements matter and why you think future students should definitely be required to take at least two theology classes during their time at Notre Dame. You can send these thoughts to the university provost Dr. Tom Burish at email@example.com or to the Core Curriculum Committee at firstname.lastname@example.org. If you want to forward or C.C. a copy of those messages to the email loveTHEOnotredame@gmail.com so that it can be included on the testimonials blog, that would be fabulous! And if you wanted to write viewpoints to the Observer, or tell the University if you're called about gifts to Notre Dame that you won't donate anymore unless the two core theology requirements are kept, we certainly wouldn't mind that either! To see what folks have already been saying, see: http://lovetheonotredame.blogspot.com/
Bianca Czaderna has a masters in theology from Notre Dame and is a junior fellow at First Things.