The Great Books at Notre Dame

In November 2010, I presented a paper for the Notre Dame Center for Ethics and Culture’s annual Fall Conference. After several requests, I have reproduced this paper below, with some minimal edits and revisions. Regarding discussions of my experiences in the Program, it must be noted that I only took three of the required classes. My personal experience in the Program was quite minimal.

Further, I would like to note that, in my opinion, as a whole, the Program of Liberal Studies (PLS) provides the most comprehensive and coherent university education at Notre Dame. I do not find this to be a comforting fact. I would also like to note that, in my experiences, I have found the students in PLS, as a whole, to be among the most hardworking, academically serious, and intellectually honest students at Notre Dame.

Although my criticisms below may be quite sharp, I have a great respect for the students in the Program and will say that they are completing an education that many students at Notre Dame are not capable of completing. I hope that my comments will not cause someone to entirely dismiss the Program and its work. I have a great respect for the Program, largely due to many of the excellent students and professors who have been involved in the Program. I hope that I pose important questions and criticisms that may provide for dialogue on the nature of education and the future of Notre Dame.

Fundamental to Newman’s conception of the university is “liberal education,” freeing education. For Newman the end of education is “enlargement of mind.” The perfection of the intellect consists in seeing knowledge both in its parts and as a whole. One gains Universal Knowledge when this vision is attained. “Possessed of this real illumination, the mind never views any part of the extended subject-matter of Knowledge without recollecting that it is but a part, or without the associations which spring from this recollection. It makes everything in some sort lead to everything else.”

Dr. Otto Bird, director of the Program 1950-1963

Otto Bird, the founder of the University of Notre Dame’s great books program, took up these ideals when he began the program in 1950. According to Bird, “Any educational program starts from some idea of what man is and how he learns.” He takes up the views of Newman and Aristotle when he writes that man is a rational animal. According to Bird, man as a rational agent is a talking, thinking, observing, measuring, and worshipping animal. To educate man is to train him in the use of these various facilities so that the faculties can perform their work easily and well. Education in this sense… is initiation into manhood.” To become educated is to cultivate those facilities accorded to man, the rational being.

Further, this education must take place in a context. “Man is not only a creature endowed with certain faculties. He is also a creature with a heritage… In other words, man is born into a tradition, in our case the tradition of Western Christendom, and, if he is to become fully himself, he must be initiated into this tradition. It provides the context for the work of his various faculties.” Although man’s rational capacity is universal, the formation of the rational faculties must take place within a tradition in order to be formed with full coherency. Bird explains that the two great aims of education are “to prepare man to use his intellectual faculties and to initiate him into his tradition.” The education of man can ignore neither rationality nor heritage. Therefore, in order for a man to receive a truly “liberal” education, his education can only take place in the light of the Christian intellectual tradition.

In the General Program, the student engages with texts that have exercised great influence over his tradition. The text, in this sense, is a great book. It is also, according to Bird, a liberal art. “Containing the ‘best that has been thought and said,’ it stands as a permanent achievement of what man has been able to accomplish by his faculties of talking, thinking, observing, measuring, and worshipping.”

The courses of the General Program consisted of seminars and tutorials. In the seminars, students would read Great Books and meet to discuss them. Each seminar would have two professors, so that “as one led the other could observe and evaluate the dynamics of the conversation.” The seminars would cover works from the ancient Greeks to the present in two two-year cycles. The works would come from all basic subject-matters, affording “the opportunity to initiate the students into their cultural heritage, the problems and values that men have struggled with and the issues that the students themselves will constantly meet as Christians and Americans.”

The four tutorials, which studied Language, Mathematics and Science, Philosophy, and Theology, would provide for more specific training. Of the tutorials, Bird wrote in 1950:

In each of these, the aim is to train the student in the way the liberal arts are applied to develop different kinds of knowledge as exemplified in these four basic subject matters. For this purpose those texts are studied which have most successfully and truthfully developed their subject matters. Thus for example, in philosophy as well as in theology the work of St. Thomas Aquinas furnishes the basic text. The Science Tutorial, in addition to studying the classical texts in the development of the physical and biological sciences, will employ laboratory exercises to develop the student’s ability in observing and measuring through following the classical experiments in scientific method.

The student must be the primary agent in this education, or, indeed, all education. “Learning is essentially an active process. It might be said to be the development of man’s intellectual teeth. The teacher sees to it that he chews on the thing best adapted to sharpening his intellectual teeth and that he chews in the right way.”

The method of chewing for Bird’s General Program found its basis in the Program’s basic commitments. Regarding this commitment, Bird wrote in his autobiography,
“Ours was intended and organized to be a program professing and practicing the faith of the Roman Catholic Church… But we still went further. For although there are admittedly several different, even competing, Christian philosophies and theologies within the Church, we further committed ourselves to the philosophy and theology of Saint Thomas Aquinas. That commitment was stated clearly and made the basis for the courses… devoted to the systematic study of these two disciplines… The method in each was the same and consisted of the intensive reading and analysis of a basic text chosen as providing the best way to the truth upon its subject.”

Otto Bird’s General Program of Liberal Education sought to provide a unified curriculum, forming the student’s intellectual faculties and initiating him into the Thomistic intellectual tradition. For Bird, the truly Catholic Great Books Program must be committed to the authentic pursuit of truth. “The Great Books that made and recorded our intellectual tradition cannot and should not be more than a means to develop our minds through deepening our understanding along the road that we are hopefully traveling to that wisdom that lies in the worship of the one and only true God.” Dr. Bird reminds us that the Great Books are only an introduction, and his General Program is only a preparation. “It is a preparation for life.” It should lead us to the Word, pursuing the meaning of, “I am the Way and the Truth and the Life.”

In my first semester in PLS, I enrolled in its theology tutorial, a science tutorial, and a Great Books Seminar. My experience with the Program in that semester was quite different from, and largely opposed to, what had I expected.

I shall begin my critique with the first seminar meeting. As is customary in PLS seminars, we rearranged our desks into a circular formation, conducive for the discussions that would take place during the semester. After distributing the syllabus, the professor instructed us on what the study of the Great Books was not for. We were told that one should not study the Great Books in college in order to become a better person. If one is concerned with such matters, “you should join the seminary.” The Great Books do not make you better people. The Great Books do not bring one closer to God.

According to Bird, however, the Great Books education, or any liberal education, is only successful if it makes man better. This means training the faculties that bring one closer to God. In his autobiography, Otto Bird quotes St. Thomas Aquinas: “Although it is not in our power to know by ourselves the things of faith, nevertheless, if we do what we can, that is to say, if we follow the guidance of natural reason, God will not fail to give us what is necessary to us.”

The journey of reason is often accompanied by the grace of conversion, which a Catholic Great Books Program should seek to foster. However, Janet Smith, a classicist who taught in PLS in the 1980’s, hardly found this to be the case. She wrote in 1989 of the Program: “Some…take the Thomas and Augustine they read most seriously and do experience a conversion, but the programs in which they study are not designed to foster such a conversion. Indeed, some of the faculty would be most dismayed to learn that conversions have taken place. The program in which I teach is a case in point.”

In my experience I found that professors either lacked the ability to distinguish between good and bad opinions or simply refused to do so in the classroom. One professor told our class something to the effect of, “I don’t care what you think, as long as you are consistent.” This diminishes the student’s ability to determine between true and false opinions and supports the claim made by Janet Smith that, “Certainly all the major Catholic universities and most Catholic colleges are fundamentally relativistic.”

In the seminars, students were usually unable to guide discussions toward an authentic pursuit of truth. Indeed, many students within the Program are skeptical of any claims to truth. In general, I would classify the students I engaged with in the Program into three categories: the ‘ecumenical’ Catholic, the questioning Christian, and the adamant atheist. These categories are not meant to be all encompassing, but arguments or dialectical pursuits were often formed by these three categories.

The ecumenical Catholic would adhere to Catholic teaching, or, at least, what they perceived to be Catholic teaching. However, statements made by this character, the ecumenical Catholic, would lack an intellectual confidence. Claims informed by Catholicism would be made, but they would be made in such a way so as to be “inclusive.” Statements would be made that would convey the beliefs of the ecumenical Catholic, but they would, as best as possible, leave room for competing claims by suggesting an incompleteness. These statements would take the formula: “Well, I believe X, but you can believe what you want” or “In my opinion…”

Such a formula comes into sharp contrast with the adamant atheist, whose arguments are to the effect of, “Well, it’s obvious that…” or “Science proves that…” The adamant atheist would make his claims with extreme seriousness, usually carrying a mechanistic or agnostic view of human nature, and he would regard claims founded upon faith as juvenile. The adamant atheist does his best to prevent faith from entering into consideration.

Finally, the questioning Christian usually enters the Program as someone who desires truth but is undecided as to where it can be found. Very often these students are former Catholics, whose understanding of Catholicism seems inconsistent with their experiences of the world. The Program becomes a way of intellectually traveling the globe, the idea being to consider various locations before finding a place to settle. They are young and undecided. The Program is a safe place to consider the world before committing to any one philosophy.

When these three characters come into conflict, conclusions or resolutions can rarely be made. The question often arises as to whether or not the great problems of mankind can be solved at all. What results is an agreement to disagree, usually accompanied by skeptical undertones. Since these arguments cannot be resolved, a kind of relativistic skepticism often presents itself as the most plausible answer, and the professor, reluctant to ‘coerce’ any view, is content to merely clarify the various claims.

Dr. Janet Smith

Since I did not continue in the Program, and am unfamiliar with very recent undergraduates, I will not provide empirical claims regarding the state of the PLS graduate. Dr. Janet Smith, however, has the following to say of PLS graduates during her time in the Program:
“The students are generally much better educated than their peers but they fall far short of being examples of the kind of student one would want to have graduate from a Catholic university. For instance, they would not be able to explain with much clarity the relation of faith and reason or of nature and grace; they would have virtually no idea why Catholicism claims to be the one true faith; few would be determined to live a committed Catholic life. Some, of course, may have these abilities but it is not the case that such is our goal.”

Such characteristics of the PLS graduate seem directly opposed to Bird’s ideal graduate. If Dr. Smith is right, while the PLS graduate may have been prepared to use his intellectual faculties, he has hardly been initiated into the Thomistic intellectual tradition, or even the Catholic intellectual tradition. He has cultivated skills, but he has failed to place them within proper context. His abilities have failed to attach themselves to proper content.

Otto Bird’s evaluation of the Program in 1991 is slightly more optimistic, though still critical: “I do not think that the program today is as good as it was in its first years. In theology and philosophy it has been watered down so that it no longer studies as intensively and extensively as it once did the writings of Plato and Aristotle, Saint Augustine and Saint Thomas. It has opened its readings to classics of the Orient, thereby further diluting its study of the Western tradition. There is also less study of logic and mathematics than there used to be and so less in the way of discipline and rigor. More attention is given to the fine arts. As a whole, the program is less “intellectualistic” than it was in the beginning.”

Otto Bird, in his intellectual autobiography, discusses the necessity of a theological commitment for a Great Books Program: “There is a special and particularly important benefit that a Great Books program derives from being a part of a Catholic university. As Cardinal Newman noted in his defense of the university, wherever a commitment to theology is lacking there will be a hole, an emptiness, which has to be filled, and if it is not filled by theology some other discipline inevitably will endeavor to take its place. Devotion to the Great Books divorced from a theological and religious commitment all too readily moves over to fill that empty place and to become a quasi religion. The most ostensive sign of such devotion that I know of is the temple to the Great Books that Wabash College has erected in its new library. I suspect that it was probably built at the behest of a donor who was a great bookie and made that room a condition of his gift. It is a splendid large room, walled in marble, with the names of the authors of the Great Books carved as a frieze around the top of the walls. It has the appearance of a temple, but, if so, it is a temple to a false god.”

Bird suggests that any Great Program divorced from a theological commitment is doomed to idolatry. If, indeed, every education presupposes a philosophy, an education divorced from Catholicism presupposes that Catholicism does not unveil the intellect at its height, that Catholicism does not reveal what it is for man to be a “talking, thinking, observing, measuring, and worshipping” being, a rational being. If such a divorced program is a preparation for life, it is a preparation for an agnostic, skeptical, relativistic life.

I would like to take his claim further. If liberal education is seeking Universal Knowledge, then the Catholic liberal education is particularly distinct. God, as the way, the truth, and the life, becomes this universal to which we aim our particular pursuits. And if an educational program seeks to be guided by Catholicism, its highest end must be conversion. It can only be the particular pursuits of finite intellects leading to wonder and awe before the infinite intellect. Thus, any such program that does not provide the intellectual roots for such a conversion is the antithesis of the Catholic liberal education. It begins with a misguided perception of the Universal Knowledge and its demands. Catholicism demands nothing less than everything from us.


“A Death in the Family.” Notre Dame Magazine 2005.

Aquinas, De Veritate. q.13, a.II, ad. 2

Ayo, Nicholas, Michael Crowe, and Julia Marvin. Notre Dame’s Program of Liberal Studies: the First Fifty Years. Notre Dame, IN: Notre Dame University, 2000.

Bird, Otto. “Arts Go Liberal.” Notre Dame Magazine 1950.

Bird, Otto. Seeking a Center: My Life as a Great Bookie. San Francisco: Ignatius, 1991.

Bulletin of Information 1969/1970: University of Notre Dame 66.4 (September 1969).

General Program of Liberal Education (pamphlet).

Newman, John Henry. The Idea of a University. London: Baronius, 2006.

Smith, Janet E. “Bloom and Catholic Great Books Education.” Catholic Higher Education: Proceedings of the Fellowship of Catholic Scholars, Eleventh Convention. By Paul L. Williams. Pittston, PA: Northeast, 1989.


2 thoughts on “The Great Books at Notre Dame

  1. >Devotion to the Great Books divorced from a theological and religious commitment all too readily moves over to fill that empty place and to become a quasi religion. The most ostensive sign of such devotion that I know of is the temple to the Great Books that Wabash College has erected in its new library. I suspect that it was probably built at the behest of a donor who was a great bookie and made that room a condition of his gift. It is a splendid large room, walled in marble, with the names of the authors of the Great Books carved as a frieze around the top of the walls. It has the appearance of a temple, but, if so, it is a temple to a false god.”

    Ha! The Goodrich Room. But the biggest travesty about that room is few of the authors are covered in the average student’s experience, partially due to the replacement of our 2-semester History of (mostly) Western Civilization course with a 1-semester “Enduring Questions” course, which uses a random collection of mostly modern, unrelated texts in an ill-fated attempt to answer, “what is a human being?”


  2. Bravo, Chris! In my brief experience, I as well found the apathy of some of the faculty, in regards to guiding/moderating discussions, to be troubling. I did, however, take the best poetry class imaginable during my one PLS semester (with the department’s notable Milton scholar), and I will be forever grateful for that.

    Like you, I have similar respect for my peers who completed the program. They were generally more motivated, curious, and enterprising than many other students, and in some sense, they likely left ND with a slightly better education than some of their non-PLS peers-but probably due more to their own initiative that the program or its curriculum. Graduates of the program have gone on to a multitude of diverse careers, from software developers and librarians to doctors and cinematographers. But students who left the program before finishing have demonstrated similar ‘success.’ Students who participated in or had interest in the program are, broadly speaking, great communicators, and interested in further developing that faculty, which is a valuable skill in any corner of the professional world. Unfortunately, I fear that many of today’s PLS students are more preoccupied with listening to themselves talk than immersing themselves in any sort of intellectual tradition, even if they pay it lip service. There is great enthusiasm for engaging with the great books generally, but it is manifest in a warped sense of reverence for tradition (I never took a Theology tutorial, so I can’t speak to the ‘Catholicity’ much). To your point, Michael, about Wabash’s temple to the great books, I always appreciate Fr. James Schall’s remark that “the great books contradict one another.” Many, but certainly not all, incoming PLS students seem to have this sentimental desire to be swept up and carried away in a Bacchic fury by the great cloud of ‘intellectual tradition’-a desire which sometimes has little relation to an authentic search for truth-more a desire to get ‘lost in the cosmos’ pretending to search for truth.

    My greatest criticism of the program is not of the curriculum or the professors, but of the chronically inward-facing, almost pathological social life that is fostered among the vast majority of students in the program (this likely varies from class to class). Such an elitist practice is at its best notoriously hypocritical when juxtaposed with the broad-mindedness encouraged of students in their classes, and the general intellectual ideals of the program, which I found inspiring on paper, but sorely lacking in reality. I found the social bubble of the program to be a debilitating hindrance to reaching the goals that the program espouses on paper. True ‘great books education’ exists elsewhere in the university-we both know you just have to search harder for it!


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