Community Engagement

Ricky Klee Teaching At Westville
Professor Ricky Klee, PLS '02, Ph.D. '18, facilitates a seminar for the Moreau College Initiative at the Westville Correctional Facility

In his Education for Freedom, Robert Hutchins, chancellor of the University of Chicago from 1945-1951 and an early champion of the "Great Books" movement from which the Program of Liberal Studies emerged, wrote, "[M]ost of the great books of the world were written for ordinary people, not professors." This conviction coupled with a commitment to Catholic Social Teaching, which instructs us to pursue truth at the margins of society and to learn with and from the marginalized, has led PLS faculty and students to partner with local schools and communities to take the intellectual life of the Program beyond the walls of the university.

This has motivated a number of collaborations that are centered around discussing classic texts that are relevant to and emerge from the contexts of our various partners in the same kinds of radically democratic seminars that Notre Dame students experience in our classrooms. Below are some of the initiatives that PLS students and faculty have pursued in the South Bend community and beyond, many of which are still ongoing. If you would like to get involved in any of these or would like to propose new community-engaged teaching and learning initiatives, please contact the PLS office.

"Schools don't have a monopoly on brains. I've always thought of education as a privilege, but I never thought it should be limited to the privileged." PLS Professor Steve Fallon

World Masterpieces Seminar

In 1998, PLS professors Steve Fallon and Clark Power started offering the World Masterpieces Seminar in collaboration with the South Bend Center for the Homeless. This initiative was inspired by the pioneering work of writer and educator Earl Shorris, who was trained in the "Great Books" at the University of Chicago and started the Clemente Course in the Humanities, an internationally recognized curriculum that "provides a transformative educational experience for adults facing economic hardship and adverse circumstances."

Shorris understood a proper education in the humanities as the necessary preparation for participation in political life, and that without access to such an education, individuals and communities would be left out of the common deliberations of their cities, nations, and world. As Shorris wrote in The Art of Freedom, "If the political life was the way out of poverty, the humanities provided an entrance to reflection and the political life. The poor did not need anyone to release them; an escape route existed. But to open this avenue to reflection and politics, a major distinction between the preparation for the life of the rich and the life of the poor had to be eliminated."

The PLS World Masterpieces Seminar was covered in the South Bend Tribune, the New York Times, and the London Times, and until recently, it was offered regularly in various forms at the Center for the Homeless and in other venues. This work remains an important inspiration for new partnerships that are currently being explored by PLS faculty and students.

Moreau College Initiative

Professor Fallon is also a founding member of the steering committee for the Moreau College Initiative (MCI), which is a collaboration between the Indiana Department of Corrections, Holy Cross College, the University of Notre Dame. Through this program, incarcerated students at the Westville Correctional Facility earn credits towards an Associate of Arts (AA) degree at Holy Cross with the option of seeking admission to the Bachelor of Arts (BA) degree program upon completion of the AA. The program is modeled on the Bard Prision Initiative, which was an outgrowth of Shorris's work and was the subject of the 2019 PBS documentary College Behind Bars

Several PLS faculty have taught for MCI since it began in 2013, including Professors Fallon, Phil Sloan, and Ricky Klee. Sloan has said of the Initiative, “What’s the purpose of incarceration? Is it a punishment, or is it reform? If you believe in actual reform of the individuals, making them productive individuals when they come out of the system, that’s what this program is involved in. And I think I believe very deeply that this should be the purpose of our prison system.” And, reflecting on his hopes for his MCI students, Fallon has suggested, “I want them to become sensitive and thoughtful participants in their own lives. I want them to avoid becoming easy prey to easy answers. I want them to be better advocates for themselves. I want them to get the tools that a liberal arts education can give a person. This will prepare them to do anything.”

In 2020, Miles Folsom, one of Fallon's MCI students, published an essay in Notre Dame Magazine, in which he described his experience as an incarcerated student, focusing particularly on what he learned in Fallon's course on Shakespeare and Milton, a course that is typically taken by juniors in the Program of Liberal Studies. After telling the harrowing story of working under difficult conditions to revise and publish his paper on Milton's Paradise Lost in Notre Dame's Journal of Undergraduate Research, Folsom concluded, "I withstood the sorrow of solitude by believing that my hermetic education would one day free me from my prison. Overcoming all the barriers and obstacles was an epic struggle, but I hadn’t shied away from the challenge. I finally felt like something more than a prisoner. And who I am is still nothing . . . compared to who I will become."

Play Like a Champion Today

In 2004, Professor Power started Play Like a Champion Today, a nonprofit educational organization for coaches and players that "advocates youth sports as a safety net for children from distressed families, schools, and neighborhoods. All children deserve an opportunity to play, to be physically active, to have caring adult mentors, and to be a part of team." The organization was started to resist the "pay to play" syndrome that Power came to see had taken over youth sports, which, like higher education, is now a multi-billion dollar business. Just as Shorris felt that a proper humanities education had become a privilege to be accessed only by the privileged, Power saw that economically disadvantaged youth were being left out of the physical, intellectual, and moral benefits of playing team sports.

As a developmental psychologist, Power has noted that research suggests, "by being on a team, you’re much more likely to agree with statements that we give when talking about social responsibility — about being your brother’s keeper, standing up to people, looking after the kid alone in the lunchroom. So in a broader context, kids who are playing youth sports are more likely to have an ethic of being a brother’s or sister’s keeper." 

Professor Power frequently involves PLS students in his work with Play Like a Champion Today and some have even gone on to work for the organization, including PLS alumna Grace Curtin, who is Play Like a Champion's Chicago project manager.

Junior Great Books Program

Inspired in part by the work that faculty were doing for adults and youth in the South Bend community and beyond, PLS students started their own community engaged teaching and learning initiatives by partnering with area schools to offer Junior Great Books Programs. This project was modeled after the elementarymiddle school, and high school curricula developed by the Great Books Foundation, albeit with some adaptations to be responsive to the particular communities, curricula, and contexts of South Bend schools. Some of the schools with which PLS has collaborated in the past and with which it continues to maintain relationships include: Juvenile Justice Center, Clay Middle School, Hamilton Jr. High School, Hamilton Sr. High School, and St. Joseph Grade School.

Inspired Leadership Initiative

PLS faculty also regularly teach for Note Dame's Inspired Leadership Initiative (ILI), which "is a program for accomplished individuals from all disciplines (business, non-profit, and academic, to name a few) who have completed their chosen careers and wish to spend an academic year at Notre Dame—taking advantage of the University's vast array of resources—to pivot to their next stage in life." The New York Times included ND's ILI in a list of adult education programs that have been shown to build the resistance necessary to productively and creatively move through career transitions and setbacks. 

The Program of Liberal Studies is committed to making the transformative effects of a liberal arts education available to all persons from any walk of life, and we always welcome partners who would like to collaborate with us on projects that advance the goal of the Program and the "Great Books" movement to put the power of learning in the hands of ordinary people.