A Letter to the Philosophy Department at Notre Dame

I recently completed my exit survey as a philosophy major at Notre Dame. With it, I included the following thoughts on my time at Notre Dame.

My Time in Philosophy at Notre Dame

As I consider my time in the philosophy department at Notre Dame, I would like to take note of two things, both discussed at the reception for the graduates of the department. The first is the justification for an education in philosophy. My peers and I, with a bit of horror and disappointment, listened to a lengthy apology for the major at the reception. Not exactly a celebration of the merits of an education in philosophy, my peers and I felt as though it was an attempt to justify an education in philosophy to a room of people who were largely opposed to such an education. The justification seemed to stress that there were real-world opportunities for a philosophy graduate, despite the department’s non-vocational focus.

I have taken a largely contrary approach in discussing my philosophy education. I have told my peers and my family that I had little interest in a vocational major at the University. Rather, I chose to major in philosophy because it gave me a set of skills and a set of truths that are of enduring and universal value. I have little care for a major in ‘job training.’ I have little doubt as to my ability to gain employment with a philosophy major, as the rigor and structure of this major will almost guarantee a job to a hard-working student. I don’t care about whether this major will get me a job, but I am most certain that it will.

I did not major in philosophy because, despite it’s seeming impracticality, it would gain me employment. Rather, I majored in philosophy because of philosophy, and it is just a fortunate side-fact that it will gain me employment. This may come off as a bit snobbish, but, after being asked over and over again what I intend to do with a philosophy major, I am never afraid to brag about my full-tuition scholarship to law school, while my friends in more ‘practical’ majors are still trying to figure out what to do with their lives—and their jobs.

Secondly, there was quite a bit of discussion at the philosophy reception of the department’s focus on the “big questions.” I’m assuming that these questions are related to such things as the meaning of human existence, the relationship between faith and reason, the pursuit of happiness, etc. I had to restrain myself from raising my hand and asking, “Did I miss something? When will we see this as a primary focus in the department? Do we see this after we graduate?” To assure myself that I wasn’t just crazy, I asked a few friends—and professors—about my befuddlement. I found that, largely, they shared in my confusion.

Although I have had the opportunity to ask “big questions” in many of my philosophy courses, I have not found this to be the primary focus of the department. Although this is occasionally a focus in the two required philosophy courses for all students, the two history courses for majors seem to be focused on exposure to a variety of figures in the history of philosophy, while the upper-level courses seem to be a smattering of courses determined by the interests of the various philosophy professors. This perhaps explains the lack of a coherent curriculum in the philosophy department as a whole. A philosophy student seeking a coherent curriculum would have to build one him or herself.

Building such a curriculum can be quite difficult, however. The courses in which “big questions” are asked, particularly the questions of enduring importance for Catholic students, are quite limited. Students must compete for a very limited number of seats in a very limited number of such courses. After being unable to register for such courses in the spring, I have often had to watch these courses throughout the summer, waiting for a seat to open.

If a student should ask me about the vision of the philosophy department at Notre Dame, I am not sure I would be able to give a satisfactory response. Indeed, philosophy students’ answers to the question, “What is philosophy,” would probably vary greatly, depending upon which courses they had taken. Some, I have found, do not have an answer at hand when the question arises. My own response would include something of the love of wisdom, although I have had professors who are skeptical of the existence of either love or wisdom.

These problems are hardly unique to the philosophy department. They are shared by many of the departments in Notre Dame’s College of Arts and Letters, and, indeed, they are problems had by the College as a whole. During my time, I have often seen the College apologizing for not being the business school. On the top of the first page of the College’s Viewbook is the question, “What will your Business Card Say?” The College surely ought to pride itself on the fact that its graduates have the same chances of getting jobs in business as graduates of the business school, but this should be something mentioned with pride in passing, with our main focus being on the unique pursuit of truth offered by a degree in the humanities.

Both the College of Arts and Letters and the philosophy department often use a rhetoric of the pursuit of truth, but never have I once heard either tell its students, “After you graduate from here, you will believe more true things.” I myself would have never taken note of this fact, had a professor not pointed it out to me. It seems odd that the foundational principle of the Western intellectual tradition, the law of non-contradiction, does not animate the College and the department. The students are never told, “You will have a better understanding of what is and what is not.” We are taught to make distinctions in syllogism, but we are not taught to make distinctions towards reality.

Some are taught to do this, but many (if not most) are not. We can make formal distinctions of logic, but we are not taught to judge the world that we live in. We study ethics, but we do not evaluate the actions of our peers and of ourselves. We are told to ask big questions, but both the College and the department seem reluctant to provide any big answers. Does God exist? Wherein does happiness lie? What (or who) is Truth?

The lack of answers to big questions can be seen in the general unreflectiveness of many students towards certain particular questions. What do I do with my sexuality? How should I spend my Friday nights? What do I want out of my education? The last question is particularly troubling for me. Every year since I have been at Notre Dame, students have told me that they felt much of their time and studies here were wasted.  At the very end of their college careers, they finally had some idea of what they wanted out of their educations, and it was too late. I’ve looked into the sad eyes of regret of a theology major, a philosophy major, an engineering major, an English major, and I wonder how this can happen in the at a University that prides itself on a liberal arts curriculum.

Now, I hesitate to push students to ask “big questions” about Notre Dame and the education provided by it. It is a terrible thing for one to realize that his courses and professors were poorly chosen, his transcript is fragmented and incoherent, his time was poorly spent. For seniors, for whom it is too late to get a liberal education, being pushed to ask “big questions” about education often leads to regret or frustration.

So my sophomore year, I began my own sort of course advising. I began to push my younger peers to ask hard questions about what they wanted out of their education. I DARTed with them and, when I couldn’t provide answers to their course inquiries, I found others who could help. I listened to them and genuinely worked to create a curriculum based upon what they wanted out of their educations, but first I helped them to create something coherent to want, based largely upon my own studies on what it means to be educated.

I find it odd that the College of Arts and Letters expects students to create their own curricula, as if presuming students come here knowing already what it is to be educated. The other colleges at Notre Dame make no such presumption, having a broad and thorough curriculum formed by those who are already educated. When I work with students, I begin with my own views on what it means to be generally educated, and then I help students ask themselves, “What would it mean for me to be educated? What courses would make sense in light of the courses I have already taken and where I want to be, as a rational animal, after I graduate?” I often have to push back against the presumptions placed upon them by the College and the University—that everyone should do a senior thesis, that you should take as many classes and have as many majors and minors as possible, that “doing research” is as valuable as reading a Great Book, that publishing a journal article is more valuable than publishing a newspaper column.

I hope that this letter does not come off as a mere rant about the state of education at Notre Dame. I am quite thankful for the education that I have received, despite the shortcomings that I see in the curriculum in general. I was very fortunate to find peers and professors who could guide me in my education early in my college years, and, looking back, I would have certainly chosen to attend Notre Dame again. I suspect that I would have chosen to major in philosophy, and I am happy to recommend the major to other students, although I would tell them to choose their courses carefully and deliberately.

I do believe that the department and the College have much potential to move forward in the coming years, but I also see the possibility of the state of education at Notre Dame remaining largely the same. I do hope that things move forward.

As I complete my thoughts in this letter, I have one piece of practical advice: de-emphasize formal ‘advising,’ and encourage students to seek out their own peers and professors to advise them about course selections and forming a curriculum. I have found little help from the formal advising programs provided by Notre Dame, but there are countless professors and students who are willing to help students discover how to best spend their college years. “Formal advisors” often deal with too many students and too many bureaucratic systems, making it hard for them to know students well and to understand what is best for them as individuals in the long-term.

My professors, however, know my abilities, my strengths, my weaknesses, my aspirations, and my opportunities. They write my letters of recommendation and grade my papers. They know the bureaucratic hurdles to leap, but they don’t work for the bureaucracy. They don’t just check boxes; they educate. They are chosen by their students. And because they don’t work with every student, they can make time for each student.

I hope that these ramblings can be of some help to the department and to the College. I have tried to be frank and honest, while being thoughtful and reflective. I hope that I have been fair, and I hope that I have not been too mistaken in my criticisms and in my praises.

I hope that the department of philosophy and the College of Arts & Letters will flourish in the future. Again, I am very grateful for the education I received at the University of Notre Dame. There are many reasons why Notre Dame is the greatest Catholic university in the world, but these reasons are constantly under scrutiny and in danger of destruction. I hope that these reasons increase in number and magnitude in the coming years.

In Notre Dame,

Christopher Damian

University of Notre Dame Class of 2013


Leave a Reply (but please keep it respectful. See the comment policy on the "About" page)

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s