The Dean’s List

I recently criticized the advice which John McGreevy, the Dean of the College of Arts and Letters at Notre Dame, gave to undergraduates about making good use of their remaining time in college to “connect your coursework with the many other experiences and opportunities available to you as a student.”

The two letters Dean McGreevy sent out are not significantly different in content; in fact, every piece of advice given to seniors is also given to underclassmen (the list of 5 ideas sent out to seniors is expanded to 10 in the junior/sophomore version), and every bit of it seems directed toward preparing for “life after Notre Dame.”

The problem does not lie in suggestion that we ought to be preparing for life after college (as odious as the thought may be), but in the image of the Notre Dame student and graduate that concerns me. There is one short paragraph that seems to encapsulate his perspective:

As an alumnus of the College of Arts and Letters Class of 1986, I know firsthand how the opportunities for our graduates have expanded—in professional and graduate schools, service, and the paid labor force—over the past 25 years. The trick is to take advantage of them.

Dean McGreevy seems to believe that every Arts and Letters student ought to be trying to take advantage of the professional opportunities which are now available. He envisions Notre Dame graduates in corporate boardrooms and in university faculties across the nation, and wants Arts and Letters students to feel empowered to pursue these high-powered careers. Notre Dame students, as McGreevy sees them, are culturally curious, socially conscious, and (perhaps most importantly) professionally ambitious, and making good use of available institutions and programs looks pretty good on any resume.

Even if we accept McGreevy’s apparent careerist focus as a good thing, his advice overlooks the fact that each of these talented and ambitious students is surrounded by other students who are talented in different ways and ambitious in different fields, and these students are constantly interacting with each other in trivial and non-trivial matters, and may well influence each other in whether and how they pursue these opportunities. McGreevy doesn’t seem to get any closer to the acknowledgment of this principle than in his invitation to consider writing a senior thesis; the thesis seems to be promoted primarily as a resume booster, but then McGreevy adds this: “Almost one-third of Arts and Letters seniors do a senior thesis. Shouldn’t you be one of them?”

That’s right: the closest McGreevy comes to acknowledging the role of fellow students in each individual’s educational experience is an invocation of peer pressure. All the cool Arts and Letters students are working on a senior thesis, so if you want to be cool, you should be working on a thesis, too!

By all this I do not mean to belittle the unique opportunities McGreevy describes; I have done several of the things he recommends, and I have found that visiting office hours and interacting with the various academic institutes and centers to be tremendously enriching. Nonetheless, emphasizing these opportunities at the expense of other readily available means of personal development and fulfillment will impoverish rather than enrich the University community. It is a good thing that Notre Dame graduates have a better chance than ever to rise to the tops of their professions; however, if the only worthwhile use of a degree from the University of Notre Dame is in climbing the corporate ladder, and the only alumni worth recognizing are those who are have done so particularly well (in so doing making it easier for future alumni to ascend to the same level), then Notre Dame has become an elite institution in the worst sense of the word.

The College’s focus on building careers for its graduates can be seen as an attempt to bring Catholic values into boardrooms across America, and this is a noble goal; I would hardly contend that America’s corporate culture is in need of less conscientious and ethical leaders. The problem comes when, in helping students pursue these positions of power, we neglect to teach them the lessons that we want them to teach to the rest of the world. In the attempt to make a Catholic education more appealing, we rob it of exactly that which makes it worthwhile.

Some of you may know that I am usually not particularly inclined to participate in conversations criticizing the Land o’ Lakes statement, but I think that the comparison is rather apt. In the Land o’ Lakes statement, numerous Catholic universities stated their commitment to standards of academic freedom and independence, believing that this would help them to gain prestige in the secular world and that this in turn would help present an even stronger witness to the truth of Catholicism. However, if this process leads the university to cease to be meaningfully Catholic, it is no longer able to achieve the goal it set out to accomplish. We could say that Dean McGreevy’s emphasis on career concerns is part of an attempt make an education in the humanities seem more worthwhile, but it is not the value of the humanities that I want to uphold through this post, but an even broader kind of education.

Again, it is good that Dean McGreevy wants Notre Dame students to reach positions of worldly power, and I understand that bolstering Notre Dame’s reputation for producing people capable of taking on these roles will in turn make it easier for succeeding generations, but if Notre Dame becomes a place that only wants to train societal elites, then its students must inevitably become more elitist. The College needs to be more ready to acknowledge the legitimate diversity of vocations: the stay-at-home mother or father is not wasting their education or potential, nor does a person who accepts a low-powered career in order to be able to focus more on the people around them steal an education from someone who may have made “better” use of it by climbing the corporate ladder.

Again, the pursuit of increased professional opportunity is not a problem in itself, but only when it results in the marginalization of other vocations. It is not only the world-historical individuals who have value, and they more than anyone who need to recognize that fact. The ambitious Notre Dame graduate ought not only bring to their high-powered job an appreciation for foreign languages and cultures or a vaguely-defined concern for the poor, but a very real connection with and appreciation for those who are in and not merely from different walks of life, and there are few experiences better-suited to fostering this kind of respect than meeting these individuals as peers in a University that is catholic as well as Catholic.

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