Theology courses are not magic

In the world of Catholic higher education, the Core curriculum review occurring at Notre Dame is getting a lot of attention, especially because there is speculation that the committee will remove the standard requirement that all students take two courses in theology. As a theology professor at a college founded by priests and brothers who migrated east from Notre Dame in the 1940s, I am (no surprise) all in favor of a strong theology requirement in the Core curriculum at Catholic colleges and universities. My life plans changed pretty radically because I was required to take four courses in religion & theology in college.

But some of what is being said by people on my “side” of the debate over theology’s place in ND’s curriculum is unlikely to convince anyone on the curriculum committee itself. I can say this because for the past two years, I chaired the committee that is reviewing the Core curriculum at King’s College. What typically gets left out of public discussion of curricular requirements — but should be integral to any discussions inside the curriculum committee — is pedagogy. Lots of claims by advocates of the two-course theology requirement speak of what theology does to the mind of the student, but theology (or any other discipline) cannot do anything to the mind of the student if it isn’t taught well.

For example, Margaret Blume argues that “Notre Dame’s current core curriculum requirements … ensure that students have at least encountered [theological] sources that unlock the mind’s capacities.” She says that her undergraduate alma mater, Yale, by contrast, did not ensure this, because Yale’s general education requirements are distributional and focus on “‘learning goals’ rather than disciplines.” (Some of Blume’s claims about disciplinarity are dubious. I may be able to address them later, especially once I’m through reading Chad Wellmon’s book, Organizing Enlightenment: Information Overload and the Invention of the Modern Research University.)

I agree that the study of theology can “unlock the mind’s capacities.” But simply handing a student a bible, or a bible plus Augustine’s On Christian Doctrine, does not unlock anything. There is nothing inherent in the sources themselves that expands the student’s mind — this is true even of the bible, which, according to Catholic teaching, is a source whose meaning is inseparable from the tradition and community of the Church. Students who are unfamiliar with the bible (or perhaps all-too-familiar with it) are unlikely to undergo the sort of mental transformation Blume describes unless they are taught in a way that engages them.

This means that their professors need to figure out what combination of lectures, quizzes, papers, small-group discussions, in-class writing assignments, and YouTube videos are going to train the students to think about the bible in a mentally expansive way. And we can’t just leave it up to each individual instructor, in the name of “academic freedom.” There are better and worse ways to teach this stuff, and some standardization of pedagogy will help a university graduate more students who, like Margaret Blume did by accident at Yale, learn to think theologically and develop a passion for that thinking.

In short, theology isn’t magic. As important as it is to talk about how long students should sit in a theology classroom, it is at least that important to talk about what students do during the 40-some hours of seat time that a 3-credit course entails.

Just yesterday the theology faculty at King’s (six of us teaching full-time, and one part-time) met to assess students’ learning over the just-completed semester. We had each rated students’ work in our classes against common rubrics, presented the results to each other, and discussed how to help students reach our (yes) learning goals for theology. Three of us read each of our majors’ and minors’ term papers in their modern theology seminar and assessed their research, reasoning, and writing abilities. We were glad to see that, compared with the previous semester, the students were looking more carefully at key primary sources (in this case, Newman, Bonhoeffer, and von Balthasar) to answer their questions, but we needed to do more to help them define a theological question that would be answerable in 3,000 words.

The point is that we do not take for granted that just enrolling in a theology course and completing the work is enough to effect the changes in the student that our discipline is capable of making. Requiring each student to take two, or three, or four theology courses guarantees nothing if we don’t also promote and even require that instructors employ pedagogies that are well suited to the students’ actually learning theology. It is even possible that a single course, expertly taught, could have more impact on students’ learning of theology than two or more poorly taught ones.

So learning goals matter. A curriculum is just a tool (I’d even go so far as to say it’s a trick) to get students to attain them. The real work is pedagogical, not curricular.