What Notre Dame Does Better Than Yale

By Margaret Blume
March 3, 2015

Father Edward Sorin staked Notre Dame’s academic success on the Catholic tradition’s claim that faith heals and elevates reason, rather than impeding its progress.  I would like to offer my testimony as proof that Fr. Sorin’s wager was successful.  I have been at Notre Dame as long as I was an undergraduate at Yale.  And I can sincerely say that Notre Dame’s core curriculum makes students better thinkers.

Yale’s system, which does not include theology and is based upon “distribution requirements” and “learning goals” rather than disciplines, left me with a mind that has needed these four years at Notre Dame in order to think coherently.  True, I was surrounded by exceptionally smart people and an intellectual energy and rigor that Notre Dame would do well to encourage, and my mind became sharper and quicker and more aware of its own workings.  But this only accelerated the crisis: I began to ceaselessly seek some regulative ideal for truth that could unify the fragments of knowledge I had gathered, and lead my mind out of its own turnings.  It took the intellectual journey of a 196-page senior thesis for me to understand that what I was really looking for was theology.  After four years in Notre Dame’s theology department, I know that what I was really looking for was Scripture.

I was fortunate to receive a superb Catholic education before going to Yale, and so the arbitrary, piecemeal academic system made my mind restless and confused, rather than superficial.  For many of my friends, however, the inability of various disciplines to speak to one another was taken for granted, and they became accustomed to contradiction, and to mechanistic or fuzzy thinking.  Notre Dame’s current core curriculum requirements, on the other hand, ensure that students have at least encountered sources that unlock the mind’s capacities.  In the Bible is contained not only an idea of God, but an anthropology, epistemology, metaphysics, history, poetry, political philosophy, even the principles of science, and the challenge of these disciplines is to interpret their own traditions and innovations in a Biblical light.  It is Scripture, however, interpreted through the theological tradition, which offers an account expansive enough to contain and judge them all.  Probing the Christian theological account, and bringing other knowledge into dialogue and conflict with it, teaches students how to think.  How can both Genesis’s creation account and evolution be valid, for example, and what does this mean for our understanding of time?  Is the freedom enshrined by liberal democracy the same freedom into which Scripture aims to lead the human person?

I could give more important reasons in defense of university theology requirements than intellectual maturity.  They are indispensable if the university is to remain Catholic in any real sense, linked to the Church at the level of learning.  If the unique task of theology—namely, to teach about God according to His own self-revelation—is given to other disciplines, this is equivalent to taking our Christian answers to the “big questions,” and pretending to know them on our own.  In his homilies on the Book of Ezekiel, Origen grasps what this means: We, the Church who is Bride, abandon our Bridegroom, and plagiarize the truth originally communicated in love.

This certainly is not the intention of the administration.  As a Notebaert fellow, I am grateful for the university’s commitment to the academic excellence of its graduates and undergraduates. This is why I beg those making the decision not to undo Fr. Sorin’s wager.  Faith does heal and elevate reason.

I was a humanities major at Yale, attempting to unite philosophy, literature, and history into a coherent vision of reality.  I wish I had learned sooner that disciplinary education is formally prior to interdisciplinary education.  I learned the hard way that basing a curriculum upon learning goals abstracted from disciplines, and scattered throughout various areas of study, disintegrates both the thing studied and one’s mind.  Only the discipline of theology is capable of studying the transcendent vision of reality given in revelation; only the discipline of theology has as its methodology “faith seeking understanding.”

Curriculum changes that reduce the theology requirements in favor of “learning goals” that are related to mission, but abstracted from the discipline, will destroy the unique excellence of Notre Dame’s intellectual formation.  I am grateful for my college education, and I did find both “Lux et Veritas” at Yale.  Having been educated in both models, however, I attest that Fr. Sorin won his wager.  As things stand, I would advise parents to send their children to Notre Dame rather than to my alma mater, not only to become greater football enthusiasts, but to become better thinkers.  I very much hope that if and when I have a child, the advice still holds.

Editor's note: This article first appeared on the Irish Rover's website on February 26 and is reprinted with permission.