Friday, September 16, 2011

Integritas Seminar I

The new group of Integritas students met this Thursday for their first seminar of the year in which they discussed the purpose of a liberal arts education at a Catholic university. They wrestled with the questions: Why a university education? and Why a Catholic education? through three texts: Pope John Paul II's encyclical Ex Corde Ecclesiae, Stanley Hauerwas' article Go With God, and David Foster Wallace's 2005 commencement address at Kenyon College, This Is Water.

In reading Ex Corde, it became clear that John Paul II's view of the purpose of a liberal education is to encounter reality through many perspectives by interrogating questions via many disciplines within a university. Our approach to knowledge should be universal, taking in the whole of reality and considering every legitimate perspective. At the same time, it should be integrated, which means discerning which perspectives to privilege, what deserves the most weight, and what is the true meaning underlying the way reality discloses itself to us. For that, philosophy and theology are necessary. In explaining why philosophy and theology must be the integrating forces of a curriculum, one student used the example of studying engineering to explain that all the disciplines are meant to serve mankind (bridge-building is in the service of human civilization) but that theology stands back and asks what (Who) mankind is meant to serve.

That observation caused another student to worry that the conclusion of John Paul II's thinking must be that all students should be theology majors. We turned to Stanley Hauerwas to consider how all students can live their Christian vocations as students, no matter what they study, and how they can study all disciplines with a Christian perspective. You don't need to be a theologian to think about what you are studying in light of Christ.

David Foster Wallace warned against blind certainty, against living undisturbed and trapped in the solipsistic default perspective that you are the center of the universe. Like John Paul II, he challenged students to encounter reality through many different perspectives, and to learn what to pay attention to and how to construct meaning. Education is about learning how to think, and "learning how to think really means learning how to exercise some control over how and what you think. It means being conscious and aware enough to choose what you pay attention to and to choose how you construct meaning from experience. Because if you cannot exercise this kind of choice in adult life, you will be totally hosed. Think of the old cliche about 'the mind being an excellent servant but a terrible master.'"

The seminar also offered students an opportunity to examine their own Notre Dame education against the ideals of John Paul II, Stanley Hauerwas, and David Foster Wallace. They expressed frustration that the core curriculum has almost completely eroded at Notre Dame, and the two philosophy and two theology courses required of all students do not have an integrating function; rather, they are treated like requirements to be gotten over with as quickly as possible. They identified the phenomenon of so many students double- and even triple- majoring, explaining that it comes from a desire to master a field but also integrate their knowledge with other fields. They criticized the College of Arts & Letters as having the least sense of curriculum of any college in the University: Business, Engineering, Architecture, Science, and Law all have a definite sense of what you should study to graduate with a degree in their field, but Arts & Letters has become fragmented and reduced to a matter of preference, so that Arts & Letters students feel that they have very little in common with other students in their college and even within their major. Ultimately, they recognized that there is no solution that will satisfy them for the brief four years they have at Notre Dame. They must make their educations the project of a lifetime, an ongoing quest to expand their imaginations to be able to enter into other perspectives and discern the truth in their experience of the world.

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