University of Notre Dame

The Story of Notre Dame

Inner College Problems

by J.A. Burns, C.S.C.

Chapter IX of Catholic Education: A Study of Conditions by J.A. Burns, C.S.C. (New York: Longmans, Green, 1917). The substance of this Chapter was published in the Catholic World for Jan., 1917.


IT was shown in the preceding Chapter that great changes have taken place in many Catholic colleges. Along with the changes referred to, however, which relate chiefly to the outer form and organization of the college, other developments have been going on, involving problems more fundamental in character, which relate to the inner life and work of the college. These problems may conveniently be considered under the heads of discipline, religion, and teaching.

The general features of student life and the general disciplinary regulations in the Catholic college to-day, especially the boarding college, are very different from what they were a generation or so ago. Our colleges formerly were, to a great extent, secluded from the world. Seldom, and then only for a good reason, was a student allowed to go even to the neighboring town. Athletic games and contests, while never lacking, were restricted to the college and to those who lived at the college. The general aim was to render the college self-sufficient, so that the life, the work, the recreations and the interests of the students would be centered and so far as possible confined within its bounds. Besides seclusion from the world, simplicity and uniformity were aimed at in the daily regimen. The students sat at table in a common dining-room, studied together in the study halls, slept in large dormitory-rooms that were absolutely alike as regards conveniences, and made use of common wash-rooms, trunk-rooms and recreation "yards"; and all students, as a rule, whether young or old, rich or poor, fell under this severely democratic regime. The system had its advantages, and they were many and clear. It probably had its disadvantages, too, whatever may have been their relative importance.

But this traditional Catholic college system, which goes back to the Middle Ages, and perhaps much farther, is no more. For many years, changes have been going on. One cause of change was the establishment of dormitories with private rooms. Previously, a few of the older students here and there may have been allowed to live in private rooms; but when in the year 1888, Sorin Hall was erected at Notre Dame University, for the express purpose of providing private rooms for a large body of students, a break was made with the traditional discipline. Sorin Hall, in spite of temporary difficulties, proved to be a success, and other private-room dormitories followed in time at Notre Dame as well as at other institutions. The private room was fatal to both the theory and the practice of uniform college life and discipline. It did away, for its occupant, with the common sleeping-room and study hall, the wash-room, trunk-room, and the "yard," and a special code of disciplinary regulations had to be formulated for the "roomers." Many of the changes involved were feared and opposed by the more conservative members of college faculties; but the room system proved to be extremely popular with the students, and brought an increase in the college enrollment. Once it was given a fair trial, it became forever impossible to go back to the old system. As private-room life was more expensive, a considerable body of students in each institution continued to live and work in the common rooms under the old discipline, now become less strict; but the number of these has been relatively decreasing. The demand is ever for more rooms, and it is evidently only a question of time until all the larger boys at Catholic colleges will be living in private rooms. Even the smaller colleges have joined in this movement. In many institutions, more than one-half of the student body is now housed in private-room dormitories.

After private rooms, intercollegiate athletics has been, perhaps, the most important factor in the transformation that has been effected in the life and discipline of the Catholic college. Intercollegiate athletics necessarily brought the college into closer touch with the outer world. The college athletes went out to play, accompanied at times by crowds of other students; and crowds from outside, made up of the students and alumni of rival colleges and other athletic enthusiasts, came in to witness games on the college campus. Money for athletic expenses had to be raised from business men of the neighboring town or city, and the students were naturally expected to patronize them in return. The press, too, both local and metropolitan, found that athletic events at the college made interesting news-matter for its sporting pages, and its sporting pages, in turn, helped to popularize the daily newspaper at the college. Many other circumstances of like import might be mentioned.

Another important influence in the same general direction has been the increasing tendency towards luxury and extravagance in American life. In a hundred little ways this spirit has crept into the college from the great world outside, and has helped to break down the old-time simplicity and plainness of college life as well as its seclusion from the world. It is unnecessary to cite evidence of this. Suffice it to say that the social inequalities brought about by wealth have their reflection, to some extent, in student life in the Catholic college, as they have in all other American colleges.

It is not for the purpose of fault-finding that these changes in the life and discipline of the Catholic college are adverted to. They were, in a certain measure, inevitable. Nevertheless, they involve some serious problems for the college, and these problems have not as yet been completely solved. How far are such changes to be allowed to go? In the matter of intercollegiate athletics, for instance, is it safe for Catholic colleges to adopt the same attitude as those non-Catholic institutions that are known to be most liberal in this respect? Can the absence of groups of students from the college, with their neglect of classes and study, during athletic trips of a week or several days at a time, be a wholesome thing for the absentees, whatever may be the effect upon the general body of students?

It is, indeed, a serious question as to how far changes and relaxations in the general discipline of the Catholic college may be allowed, in view of the responsibility of the college for the morals of its students. Certainly, our colleges can never accept the theory of discipline which the president of a large non-Catholic college in the East proclaimed -- to require no more frem his students, in matters of conduct, than is required by the ordinary police jurisdiction. The inculcation of Christian morality is an inalienable religious duty of the Catholic parent. When the boy goes to college, the parent's responsibility is transferred to the president of the college, but only temporarily and conditionally. Should the college fail in its duty in this respect, the parent would be bound in conscience to repair the defect, which could only mean, practically, to send the boy somewhere else. Such is the unquestioned teaching of Catholic theology.

The responsibility of the college for the moral education of the student necessarily involves the obligation of control and supervision in matters of conduct. But how much control and supervision should there be? This is not an easy question to decide. Undoubtedly, college discipline must take into account changed conditions of life in the world outside and the spirit of the age. This much may be safely said, however, that our general policy in regard to discipline ought to be based upon our own educational traditions, rather than upon mere expediency or the example of non-Catholic institutions. The cardinal principle of our traditional discipline has been the concentration of all the student's active interests at the college, in books and study, in necessary duties and wholesome recreations. It may not, perhaps, be possible to accomplish this as fully and effectively to-day as formerly, but the principle itself is sound, and is, in fact, only a practical expression of the fundamental purpose of the college. This principle ought, therefore, to be maintained as a general norm in the regulation of discipline, whatever modifications of particular disciplinary rules and customs it may be thought necessary or wise to introduce.

The most effective agency that can be invoked for the maintenance of sound Catholic discipline in the college is religion. Religion has always been relied on to keep students in the path of duty; in the future, it will have to be relied on more than ever. The traditional disciplinary restraints have been largely outworn, and the student is now thrown more upon his honor, which must mean -- in the Catholic college at least -- his conscience. Hence, with the enlargement of individual liberty at the college, it became necessary that there should be a corresponding enlargement, or at least realignment, of the existing religious influences, in the life of the individual student as well as in the college as a whole. For this the new discipline offered both the opportunity and the need.

Has this been fully realized by college authorities? Have religious influences been quickened, and brought into closer touch with the needs or aspirations of the individual student? Has religion maintained her place of primacy among the educative forces at work to form mind and character? It is easier to ask such questions than to answer them. If they are raised here, it is chiefly for the purpose of emphasizing the necessity of maintaining religion in her traditional place of first importance in the work of the Catholic college.

It may be -- as we hear it said -- that common chapel services are not as frequent at many of the colleges as they used to be, outside of Sundays and holy-days; that the annual retreat is not made as much of, in outward observance, as it formerly was; and that the religious societies elicit comparatively less interest than they once did. But such changes would not, of themselves, necessarily indicate any real lessening of religious life or influences. On the other hand, it is certain that the appeal for frequent and daily communion has nowhere had a more generous response than in the colleges. The students who daily throng the altar rail in the college chapels are a living proof that religion has lost nothing of its power to sway the minds and hearts of our young men. The great question is, are we doing our utmost to increase its power and efficacy? Are we planning and striving in the earnest, anxious way we plan and strive for improved curriculum and classwork, to enlarge the place of religion in the college life as a whole and in the life of each individual student?

The most important office in the college is, in some respects, that of the prefect of religion. The priest who is assigned to this position should be not only distinguished by his piety and zeal, but also possessed of those natural qualities of heart which attract the young and invite their confidence. He need not be a learned man. Like the prefect of studies, the prefect of religion should be free to devote himself entirely to the duties of his office. He has a general responsibility for the spiritual welfare of hundreds of young men, who are at the very turning point of their moral lives; and, in addition to his daily spiritual ministrations and conferences, and the regular chapel services, he has many other things to look after, such as the work of the religious societies and those spe cial exercises and devotions that are needed from time to time to quicken the religious life of the college student. To assign such an office to a busy teacher, in the expectation that, somehow, his zeal will enable him to look after the all-important interests of religion during his scanty free hours, is to go far towards relegating religion to an inferior place in the life and work of the institution.

Much of the thne and attention of the prefect of religion might profitably be devoted to the care of priestly and religious vocations. In every Catholic college there are a certain number of students whose piety and fervor, if rightly directed, will lead them to the priestly or religious life. Our colleges and universities have noble religious traditions to sustain. They have had part in the training of many of the greatest priests of the Church -- scholastic philosophers and theologians, founders of religious orders and reformers, contemplatives and missionaries. From them have come most of the teachers who are carrying on the work of Christianity to-day in our institutions of higher education, as well as many of the priests who are engaged in spreading the Christian Faith in pagan lands. More than ever before, the development of such vocations in the college is important at the present time. In missionary work, especially, a great opportunity has arisen for the American Catholic college. American priests are needed everywhere throughout the mission world, and our colleges are called upon, by their own traditions no less than by the exigencies of the general situation, to take the lead in meeting this demand.

College students who are looking towards the priesthood form the finest material for the missionary vocation. Their college training is calculated to develop not only high intellectual ability, but also the most generous religious sympathies; and -- unlike students in the diocesan seminaries -- they are generally free to devote themselves to religious work in any part of the world. It would be easy to establish a missionary society at every Catholic college. The purpose of such a society would be, to arouse interest in the missions, both home and foreign, to develop missionary vocations, and to collect material means for the work. The dues would need to be no more than a mere trifle, say, five or ten cents a month; but considerable money might be raised at times in other ways. Certain college organizations, such as the glee club, might be asked once in a while to devote the proceeds of a benefit entertainment to the cause, for many students besides those expecting to enter the sacred ministry would take an interest in such a society. Catholic colleges in France have long contributed regularly to the collections of the Society for the Propagation of the Faith, and their students have much less pocket money than our students. But the amount of money collected would not matter so much; the main object would be, to call attention to the missions and their needs and to develop the spirit of generosity and self-sacrifice. The establishment of such societies at the colleges would naturally lead to some kind of a general association of the local organizations, with an annual convention, where there would be papers and discussions on the missions, and addresses by priests and bishops having experience of real missionary life. Such a movement could not fail to produce most important results in furtherance of Catholic missionary activity throughout the world, while, at the same time, it would have a most wholesome religious influence upon the colleges themselves.

There are other features of religious work in the colleges that call for development. I shall mention only one of these -- the encouragement of total abstinence from intoxicating liquors. The Catholic total abstinence society should be regarded as a religious society, and it should be under the direction of the prefect of religion. The form of pledge commonly employed involves a religious act, the motive proposed being the sublime self-sacrifice of Christ. The strength of such an organization lies, not in numbers, but in its religious spirit, in the examples it furnishes of noble Christian self-restraint, and in its assured support and encouragement by the college authorities. There are plenty of students in every Catholic college who are willing to join such a society.

There should be a total abstinence society in every college. A great moral movement, directed against intoxicating liquor and the liquor interests, is stirring the country. The agitation may not be free from excesses; but it evidences the concern of vast numbers of thinking men and women about the undoubtable dangers of drink, especially to the young. Are these dangers ever greater than they are in the life of the college student? Should not every legitimate means be employed, in order to reinforce the rule of conduct which the college seeks to inculcate in this respect? For, total abstinence is one of the traditional rules of American Catholic colleges. How much more effective will be this rule, especially under the present system of enlarged personal freedom, if the principle of religious self-sacrifice is given prominence among the practical motives for its observance! This is what a religious total abstinence society does. The membership may be small or it may be great; but, in either case, such a society represents a clear moral asset for the college, in its supreme work of promoting high-minded Christian life.


Some of the most vital problems involved in the development of the Catholic college or university at the present time have to do with the teacher. As most of our institutions of higher education are conducted by religious orders, we may confine our attention here to teachers who are religious.

In the preparation of the young religious for his work in the college, methods and standards that are entirely different from those that once obtained appear to be now requisite. Formerly, a professor was called upon to teach branches of knowledge that have little or no direct relation to each other. He might have charge of all the classes that went to make up a year of the classical course. His daily work might thus have to do with subjects as diverse as history and mathematics, or Greek and chemistry. This system still obtains in some places, especially in the preparatory department. It possesses certain advantages, and there could be little objection to it if the teaching of each branch could be made thorough. Whatever may be thought, however, of the employment of this system in the preparatory department, its successful employment in the college proper has become increasingly difficult, if not practically impossible.

It has never been questioned that, in college work at least, the teacher must have acquired a thorough mastery of whatever he teaches, if he is to achieve the highest success. But to master any important branch of knowledge nowadays, it is necessary to make a life study of it. This applies even to the dead languages, Latin and Greek. The fruits of scholarly research have become so abundant that it is ordinarily impossible for one who spreads his attention over several fields of knowledge to become thoroughly acquainted with any one of them. Hence, the college teacher must be a specialist, which means that he must have made a thorough, comprehensive study of some one branch of knowledge, as well as some study of the cognate branches. Only through such a preparation can he bring to his classes a scholarship that will satisfy his students, and an enthusiasm that may enkindle in them a living interest in the work. The training of specialists is a function of the university, and only in the university, as a rule, can the college teacher be properly prepared for his work. The equivalent of university training may, of course, be furnished by the special systems of post-graduate instruction that obtain in certain religious orders for the preparation of their teachers, in so far as accepted university methods and standards are employed.

Catholic colleges possess a most important advantage in respect to their teachers. Every year, numbers of the brightest and best students in our schools and colleges join the religious orders, and devote their lives to college work. Many of these young men are capable of attaining to the highest scholarship, and need only to be properly educated, to be the equal of the best professors in the great endowed or state universities. And once they are educated, whatever may be the expense involved, their scholarship is entirely at the service of the institution or order to which they belong, and this for the term of their lives. In non-Catholic colleges and universities the most talented students may be picked out and educated for professorships in their alma mater; but they may afterwards be attracted to other institutions, by the offer of a higher salary or some other advantage, just when their services have become of special value.

The best investment that the college or religious order can make, to further its educational aims, is the expenditure involved in the thorough training of those young religious who are destined to be professors. Every college teacher should have had a university training. A college degree can no longer be regarded as sufficient evidence that the recipient is competent to teach subjects included in the college curriculum; nor can the study of philosophy and theology in Latin, after the college work in the classics, be regarded as sufficient preparation even for the teacher of Latin. Such views were common enough formerly, and some excuse for them could be found in the pioneer condition of many of the colleges. But to-day they are wholly untenable, in view of the generally accepted standards. This is not less true of teaching in colleges for women than of teaching in colleges and universities for men.

The assertion that every college teacher should have had a university training, does not necessarily mean that every college teacher should have received a full university education, or should have a university degree. This would be to demand the impossible. Various circumstances may prevent the completion of university work, especially ill health. But every one destined to teach in a college should pass at least a year or two at a university, in order to acquire, in addition to an advanced knowledge of his specialty, a knowledge of the methods of critical study and original research. A year or two thus spent will open the way to further advanced study, and make it possible for him, with the aid of time and books, to attain to riper scholarship by himself. So far as possible, however, a complete university training should be given to all who are destined for college teaching.

But the work at the university is not all. Even after this has been completed, the institution or order to which the young religious belongs has something more to do, before its task of preparing him for his life work can be properly regarded as ended. It is of the essence of the training afforded by the modern university that the student should regard his work there as but his initiation in scholarship; and he will be untrue to the university ideal if he is not led on, by what he has already done, to further and more mature research work. For this, time and opportunity are requisite. Many a young teacher, fresh from the university, and eager to continue his studies, finds himself so heavily burdened by classes that he can scarcely get time to prepare sufficiently for each class. Administration work, assigned to young teachers, is no less fatal to intellectual growth. Prefecting, which is indispensable in the Catholic college, is another duty that is apt to interfere seriously with scholarly ambition.

No doubt, it is exceedingly difficult if not impossible, under present conditions, for college authorities to avoid the assignment of such duties to those who have been trained for the work of teaching. However, conditions will be brought about in time, it may be hoped, which will render such exemption possible, and allow teachers more time for private study and research. An increase of priestly and religious vocations, which was shown above to be so desirable for other reasons, would add more men to the college faculties, and thus diminish the amount of class work assigned to each member. It would also furnish a larger supply of men with special capacity for administrative work. Furthermore, some of the students who are destined for the sacred ministry are capable of making excellent prefects and, with a larger number of such students to select from, teachers might be entirely relieved of prefecting by the institution of a sufficent prefects or proctors. These possibilities show how intimately related the problem of the intellectual development of the college is with the even more important problem of its religious development.

One of the best means of inducing young teachers to continue their advanced studies is to surround them with an atmospehre of scholarship. Even those who are heavily burdened by classes can do something in the way of advanced study, if they have a real desire to do so, or are urged on by the example of others. At every college there are a few men whose passionate devotion to knowledge is proof against almost any amount of time-consuming duties. Such men, especially, should be allowed all the opportunities that can be given them for private study. Their scholarly achievements, by their influence upon the other members of the faculty and the students, will be worth far more to the institution than direct teaching. It is through such men that an atmosphere of intellectuality is created, and lasting traditions of scholarship are established, within an institution. A few great scholars are enough to make the academic reputation of any college or university.

To See Ourselves