Department Endorses U.S. Diversity Requirement

Author: Notre Dame Department of American Studies

As Notre Dame considers and discusses the Core Curriculum of the University, the Department of American Studies has voted to submit the statement below to the Committee charged with designing the requirements of the Core Curriculum:

We want to preserve what is best about the Notre Dame core curriculum, but we also take seriously the caution offered by one of the university’s early leaders, Reverend John Zahm, C.S.C.: "To keep our place at the forefront of Catholic institutions of America, we must give continual and striking indications of progress, energy, and initiative. We cannot permit a standstill for even a single year.” So how do we avoid standing still? One way, we believe, is to take seriously our obligation to prepare our students to be faithful Catholics and effective citizens by helping undergraduates gain the knowledge, skills, and habits required to respectfully engage difference. We believe, as our faculty colleagues at another institution do, that “a critical component of a liberal education is the capacity to see human experience from the point of view of others who encounter and interpret the world in significantly different ways.” This learning goal might be accomplished in varied ways, including through programs from campus ministry, student affairs, and the Center for Social Concerns, to name a few. To supplement those extra-curricular efforts, however, and ground them in a shared academic experience, we think a one course requirement in U.S. Diversity is crucial.

If we want to lead—and not stand still—we cannot be too concerned with what other elite private universities, the best public universities, and the leading Catholic institutions are doing, though some of them have instituted a similar general education requirement. Those requirements vary in scope and terminology. Berkeley’s “American Cultures” requirement asks students to learn about diverse cultures and peoples—Asian Americans, African Americans, European Americans, and Latinos; and, in a slightly different way, Michigan’s “Race and Ethnicity” requirement focuses more explicitly on efforts to understand and counter “racial or ethnic intolerance.” Boston College’s “Cultural Diversity” requirement frames that engagement with difference more broadly, combining the goals of global and US cultural literacy. We understand the advantages of that approach, but we are most concerned with what our own students most need. We think that a distinct global studies requirement, reflecting our ever increasing concern to globalize the university, makes more sense, and that framing the curricular offering as broadly as BC does would mean that a ND undergraduate might leave campus without any sustained experience in understanding or engaging diversity on our campus, in the local community, and in the nation. Our colleagues at the University of Pennsylvania agree with us in suggesting that a U.S. focus is needed. Their “Cultural Diversity in the U.S.” requirement “aims to develop students’ knowledge of the history, dynamic cultural systems, and heterogeneous populations that make up the national culture of the United States.” Their requirement defines “diversity” as courses that focus on “race, ethnicity, gender, sexuality, class, and religion.”

So what might a U.S. Diversity requirement at Notre Dame mean? Before we mention more specifics, we should share our presuppositions. We assume that the new curriculum will allow some core courses to be double counted, so this requirement would not necessarily mean an increase in the total credit hours devoted to general education. Students in credit intensive majors would be able to graduate on time, since the list of approved courses would include some that also met another core requirement. For those majoring in Arts and Letters, courses in their major, or a closely aligned field, could fulfill this U.S. Diversity requirement.

We are open to working with colleagues across campus to improve our current proposal, but we suggest that this might mean that a committee or subcommittee of faculty would invite submissions of syllabi that might meet this new requirement, and they would approve those that met the basic criterion—at least two thirds of the content deals with individuals or groups marginalized on the basis of race, ethnicity, class, sexuality, gender, or religion in the United States. As at Penn and other universities, we expect that those offerings would be from many different academic units and different disciplinary perspectives. The faculty subcommittee charged with generating the more specific criteria for this curricular offering would then review syllabi and, we hope, then assess progress after one year, with a fuller review after three years. We might then ask: Has the original aim of the requirement been faithfully enacted? Do we have enough courses to meet the demand? Has the quality of these courses matched our high standards? If changes are needed, in the spirit of Zahm’s admonition, we would again change what needed to be changed.