Not long ago, Notre Dame alum, Bette Ellis O’Conor (’46) and her husband, Jim, approached NDP with an idea. In keeping with the college preparatory mission of the school, the O’Conors wanted to establish an academic program that would open the girls’ eyes and minds to the interconnectedness of coursework as a way to better understand human nature and human history. And thus -thanks to the equal parts visionary and philanthropic inclinations of the O’Conors – the Humanities Department was born. The Humanities program, offered as an alternative course of study to Upper Level students at NDP is highly interdisciplinary with a liberal arts bent. The girls are exposed to the concept in freshman year and must apply for acceptance into the program, which continues formally from sophomore through senior year. The Humanities curricula includes subjects such as literature, philosophy, religion, visual and performing arts, as well as social sciences such as history, anthropology, cultural studies, and economics. In some cases, classes such as American History and American Literature, for example, meet simultaneously. In this age of specialization and compartmentalizing it is a refreshing and invigorating (albeit not original but often overlooked) approach to learning. Imagine studying early American history and the writings of our founding fathers (including the Constitution) while also studying the Age of Enlightenment and the writings of, say, Voltaire. Or, imagine reading Edith Wharton’s House of Mirth or F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby while also studying about WWI, Prohibition, Women’s Suffrage, and the Great Depression. Not to mention the French Impressionists, Pablo Picasso and American Jazz. The thrill of an education informed by the humanities is that it puts everything in context. And it often becomes the difference between the obligation of learning and the joy of learning. The program attracts creative and curious students who enjoy its interdisciplinary focus and benefit from its discussion style class format.
“It’s the best thing that ever happened to me,” senior Liz Donhauser said pointblank. Liz, who will be attending Tulane University in the fall added, “It pushed me beyond anything I thought I was capable of and really made me think.”
English Literature teacher and Humanities Chair, Rob Quinn agreed.
“It is not a cookie cutter educational experience and that appeals to many of our students. The program provides a nurturing environment where it is safe for the girls to explore a broad range of ideas, philosophies, and cultures and to learn about themselves in relation to the greater world.”
It is this spirit, which motivated the O’Conors and Jim O’Conor concurred with Rob’s assessment.
“When you grasp the knowledge of what went on in the world before you and how it effects your world today, it helps you reach beyond yourself and your own narrow worldview. It opens your eyes to a great diversity. Of ideas. Of cultures. Of human history,” Jim stated. And added, “I’m so inspired by the program. It is exactly what Bette imagined. And two of the things that impress me most are the enthusiasm of the students and the fervor of the teachers.”
The Humanities program at NDP is still rather nascent. The first group of students to complete the full Humanities course was in the graduating class of 2012. This year’s seniors will be the second class to complete the Humanities program. In addition to a full course of study, each Humanities student is required to participate in a yearlong Capstone seminar in her senior year and to create a Capstone project based on the seminar theme. This year’s theme was “Desire” and the girls explored that concept in a variety of final, self-produced projects ranging from documentaries to art projects, to in-depth studies to interactive exhibits. The requirements are simple, if daunting.
“I tell them they have to dare to be great, ” explained Rob Quinn. “I must be convinced that that they are pushing themselves beyond anything they’ve ever done before. In fact…they have to be willing to fail.” No pressure there.
Recently I visited the exhibit of senior Capstone projects and was impressed with the results. The girls did indeed, seem to push themselves to new edges of creativity and curiosity. One student did a study on the concept of desire as it relates to The American Dream of home ownership in light of the housing bust. Another explored through a self-produced documentary the concept of desire as it comes to us through the senses. Another did a film about the agonizing and ultimately unattainable desire for perfection among teenagers. Yet another did a study of the concept of desire through the creation of two larger-than-life self-portraits; one light and airy, the other dense and dark. They represented the positive and negative aspects of desire and were inspired by the poems of Milton. All were astonishing in their own way.
When asked about the program, the girls had nothing but glowing comments:
“It was the best way for me to learn.”
“I could never talk in class before. But all the discussion in the humanities classes, all the give and take, having my opinion on something considered…it really developed my self-confidence.”
“The teachers were amazing. Mr. Lopez…I can’t say enough good things about him…”
As chair of the department, Rob Quinn is proud of his team and even prouder of the girls.
“In the end,” Rob said, “the Capstone projects are really the girls themselves. They’ve learned so much. They’ve come so far. And I think they’re more than ready for what’s next.”
Whatever comes next, I hope the girls will carry on the work of connecting the dots between past, present, and future and continue to do so with the same joy, creativity, and curiosity nurtured in them by the Humanities program at NDP.