The Importance of Theology and Philosophy in the University

The University of Notre Dame is no stranger to controversy, and it is once again making a few headlines due to its decennial core curriculum review process, which began recently. While no concrete recommendations or proposals have yet been made, one change clearly being considered is a reduction of the theology and philosophy requirements in the core curriculum taken by all undergraduates (currently two theology and two philosophy courses). Such a change to the core curriculum would do much harm to the Catholicity of Notre Dame, as well as depriving students of an essential component of a liberal arts education.

While I am a graduate student in mathematics, and therefore not directly affected by these core curriculum requirements, I am indirectly affected through the undergraduates I teach here at Notre Dame. I care deeply about this issue because I want only what is best for my students. I want them to gain the best Catholic education possible – not simply learning as many disjointed pieces of information as possible, but receiving an integrated education which molds them into more virtuous, wise, intelligent, and holy people than they were before.

The lack of an integrated education is something that particularly plagues modern universities, even Catholic ones, and we must strive to make Notre Dame the exception to this rule. At Vanderbilt University, my alma mater, I sometimes felt that I wasn’t receiving an education so much as a conglomeration of facts from various fields that I wasn’t likely to remember later in life.  Although Vanderbilt is a very fine school which encourages students to live lives of service, this is often reduced to secular platitudes:  “Make the world a better place;” “Follow a higher purpose.”  Unfortunately, no one could tell us what it meant for the world to be better, or what purpose we should follow.

It was only when I sought out theology classes with the Catholic student group at Vanderbilt, and began conversing with other intelligent young Catholics, that I actually started receiving a real, meaningful education. I began to understand why it is important to study mathematics, history, political science, and literature, as well as how they fit together into a unifying picture. It is only because we live in an ordered cosmos – one that is loved into existence by God – that fields like mathematics, history, and political science gain any sort of significance and coherence. Instead of just learning the facts of mathematics, for example, I was able to see beauty in math by viewing it as an adventurous glimpse into the mind of God.

Because of its access to the tremendous wealth that is the Catholic intellectual tradition, Notre Dame has the opportunity to provide this type of integrated education to its students in a way that few other schools can.  Cardinal Timothy Dolan articulated this well at a recent Notre Dame Commencement ceremony, saying,

At her best, this university has the heart of Mary, meaning this university gives us Jesus and His Church and clings to them both with love and loyalty and service. Here at Notre Dame we want to be not just another Harvard or Oxford, but a Bethlehem, a Nazareth, a Calvary, a Cana, the Upper Room at Pentecost, with Mary, as the Word becomes flesh in the one who called Himself the Way, the Truth, and the Life. Here our goal is not just a career but a call, not just a degree but discipleship, not just what we’ve gotten, but what we’re giving, not just the now but eternity, not just the I but the we, not just the grades but the Gospel.

To this end, some have proposed that new core requirements should be added in which Catholic theology, philosophy, and social teaching are applied to other areas of study like literature, economics, and science.  This could take the form of a course on Dante’s Divine Comedy, for example, or a course on Latin American Church history. While this would be an excellent and much-needed addition to the core curriculum, it could only work in conjunction with the basic theology and philosophy requirements that are already in place. This is because theology and philosophy can only serve as unifying and integrating disciplines if students truly know them well. A course on the Divine Comedy is only meaningful if students understand the salvation history upon which Dante’s epic is based; a Church history course requires a working knowledge of the Church itself.

While some students may already have this knowledge from previous years of Catholic education, many do not, and we cannot afford to sacrifice such an integral part of a liberal arts education as theology upon the altar of prestige and U.S. News rankings. Only theology and philosophy can ultimately provide students with a unifying purpose to their studies. Only theology and philosophy can give them the complete and integrated Catholic education they deserve. Only theology and philosophy, and the loving God that students meet through these disciplines, can give them a mission, a purpose, and a call by which to live their lives.

I pray that as this core curriculum review process continues here at Notre Dame, and as similar questions are raised at Catholic universities across the country, we will all remember the special place that theology and philosophy have in a liberal arts education. May Our Lady of Wisdom, Notre Dame, enlighten the hearts and minds of our university leaders, so that our Catholic universities will provide an uncompromising witness to Jesus Christ and His Church.

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