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Thursday, June 20, 2024
The Observer

How was your fall break?

This is a proposal for stationing people experiencing homelessness in South Bend outside our campus dining halls as a method for a more holistic educational experience at Notre Dame. The homeless people would stand at the doors of North and South Dining Halls, holding signs like they do at street corners, begging for money like they will in the real world. In my imagination, this will be a paid position, as the students will not actually be meant to give money to these people. Rather, their installment in front of buildings (which, I argue, claim to isolate intellectual activity from the reality of the human body) is needed to compensate for the intellectual bias that warps character formation at Notre Dame.

The problem with the university dining hall is representative of the problem with universities in general. The structure of a university espouses, as its premise, a dualism between the life of the world and the life of the mind. All meals are covered in advance. Housing is systematized. The commute is negligible. Employees do our chores and our shopping so that no practical exigency can be said to distract us from our goal: exploring our intellectual interests and capacities. All worldly problems are solved to isolate and exercise the intellect.

This format, although necessary for the development of the mind in a chaotic world, tends toward a mind-world dualism that is problematic for Catholics. The practice of going to a university to think about life and how to solve social problems (if that may be considered Notre Dame’s offer) fosters the illusion that the truth of life and social problems is primarily found through maintaining an academic distance from these objects of reflection. To the contrary, Notre Dame certainly believes that social problems, if they are studied in the classroom, must also be encountered.

The current solution mitigates the idealist tendency with “experiences” that puncture the exclusively cerebral fabric of a four-year experience. For example, students spend Fall Break serving the poor communities of Appalachia, or a summer at an ISSLP.

The efficiency of this system is commendable. Students get to experience poverty and international affairs in the flesh, while simultaneously bolstering resumes (we should not be skeptical of this simply because a resume is involved, for ND’s mission is not just to form leaders, but also to send them to high places to make a great difference). Further, in my experience, Notre Dame masterfully integrates these experiences back into the clean and safe academic environment by requiring reflection papers and follow-up classes. In this way, the experience is grafted into the intellectual sphere.

However, this system is not perfect. Its format, too, plays into the mind-world dualism. The “experience” still happens “out there,” off-campus. And it is neatly scheduled when school is not in session, in the gaps of the academic year. Again, I do not contest the logic of this — it is a practical necessity. I merely want to suggest that, in the same way that the current compensatory measures fail to break into the territory of Notre Dame’s physical campus, fail to upset the autarky of the registrar’s calendar, perhaps Appalachia and ISSLP fail to meaningfully pierce the ideal frame from which Notre Dame students view the world.

What is this ideal frame? It is a view of the world that abstracts the moral life away from its quotidian reality. The field of good and evil is apotheosized into some grand arena, where only slick career-engineering can gain access. Thus, seniors may say things like “I want to go to law school to change public policy” or “I want to give two years to ACE before I go to grad school,” but never “I want to study law because I love the law;” never “I want to do ACE because it will be good for my soul.” Good is ordinarily seen as something “out there.” It may be achieved or not achieved, but it certainly never pierces into the person. On the other hand, for a St. Thomas More or a Theodore Hesburgh, greatness was more a function of their daily heroism than a cerebral calculation of the good, their noteworthy cerebrums notwithstanding.

To what extent are we training a sort of Catholic schizophrenia? We imbibe narratives of personal fulfillment through doing the good, but the campus organizes “doing the good” somewhere beyond the mind, beyond the self. If the form of learning has any pedagogical relevance, there must be effective measures against an American solipsism that chases its own tail. To paint this cultural habit with Catholic colors by delusively calling one’s tail “the good,” is not quite sufficient.

The Center for Social Concerns is already fighting this battle, and that is a point of pride for many of us. But providing extracurricular experiences does not pierce the undifferentiated plane of an ideal campus life; it merely affirms the dualism inscribed there. One way to resist this dualist fallacy is to offer students controlled, planned encounters with homeless people within the school year, within the campus, within the intimacy and security of the academic experience. The goal is not to upset the peace of campus life. Again, peace is a necessary condition for intellectual exploration. The idea is simply to educate a responsible intellectual framework. Rather than experiencing a back and forth between the realm of introspection and the realm of reality, a student, book in hand, before the presence of a homeless man on campus would probably encounter evil in a way that plunges deeper than “what can I do to help?”

This may seem an inhuman instrumentalization of the poor. I concede the instrumentalization bit: It would use people’s experiences of poverty as a pedagogical tool for the edification of Notre Dame students. But if paying South Bend’s homeless to be a prop for our education is inhuman, what is an ISSLP?

What will Notre Dame students fall back on when their idealist mirage shatters? They will follow their training: take a step back, try to create some academic distance, analyze what went wrong and why and redirect action accordingly. Notably, the training is not: personal conversion, habits of virtue, a life of prayer, etc., with the hope that out of this hothouse of good, good may spring. Because you’re supposed to figure that out on your Fall Break.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.