The Olympia Academy

Olympia Academy

As one of the major societal sieves through which humans pass on their way from adolescence to adulthood, college has many purposes. For some students, college provides the skills needed to take the next step in life. For others, college simply helps discern what the next step might be. College also provides students with a splash of the real world before they are fully baptized in it, like learning how to scuba dive in a pool before leaping into the ocean. During this extra-curricular training, students are supposed to learn how to actually be an adult. For example, how to make themselves and those around them happy; how to support society as much as it has supported them; and how to work and live in a complex and diverse world. To teach students these skills, colleges employ many structures.

Classes usually fulfill the function of skill-acquisition, and advisors deal with discernment, so the challenge of teaching students larger life lessons tends to fall on other non-academic structures and institutions on campus. To be efficient, these different duties are often delegated to specific structures that are purposefully designed to perform them. For example, at the University of Notre Dame, arguably, Campus Ministry plays the part of teaching students about joy and the Center for Social Concerns shows students how to give back to society, but what structure prepares students to cope with the increasing complexity and diversity of the modern world? Where are students supposed to go to develop the courage to honestly speak their minds, without losing the humility needed to change them? Or to acquire the tenacity necessary to keep asking important questions while understanding that there are many ‘right’ answers?

We are often hard-pressed to find a clear answer because rarely is there one. More often answers become more or less appropriate as the context changes. On top of this, coming to understand the interaction between the Self and the complex web of modern human life requires a strong intrinsic motivation and patient engagement with alternate narratives through the practice of dialogue. Developing such an understanding requires a structure that is always available but also flexible; that catalyzes a student’s desire to develop intellectual virtues without curtailing their innate curiosity to do so. So, if we alter this question, and ask instead what structure at the University of Notre Dame makes the process of dialogue explicit; introduces students to intellectual exemplars; and provides them with a community of practice to focus on the development of Aristotelian virtues? Then, the Olympia Academy becomes the clear answer.

Composed of self-selected curious and motivated students, the Olympia Academy at Notre Dame meets twice a week. On Wednesday, a member of the faculty is invited to join the group for dinner and act as an exemplar of intellectual virtue in a dialogue of their choice. After a few hours of discussion, participants are encouraged to reflect on the process and how it has helped or harmed their own progress in practicing intellectual virtue. Then, the group reconvenes for breakfast the following morning to continue the dialogue in any and all directions. Taken altogether, the structure of the Olympia Academy helps students become open-minded and appreciative of multiple narratives. As a space set aside specifically for dialogue, the Olympia Academy gives participants an area free from judgement and the pressure to participate for a grade; where honesty is expected; and displays of intellectual courage are celebrated. Additionally, the Olympia Academy makes the process of developing virtues fun. By doing this, the Olympia Academy cultivates the innate curiosity that exists within all of us, rousing the seeds of thought that lay dormant in many minds, and arming students with wonder about the world as well as the intellectual virtues they’ll need to understand life. Most importantly, however, is that the Olympia Academy is constantly evolving in order to meet the needs of its participants.

Beginning only three semesters ago, based off of an idea that University of Notre Dame junior Matthew Williams had while reading about Albert Einstein’s Olympia Academy, the Notre Dame Olympia Academy has outgrown all expectations. After two successful semesters and countless memorable dialogues, Matthew and sophomore Sean McMahon sought out the Virtuous Scientist Project with the hopes that in collaboration, they could make the Olympia Academy a forceful opponent against the drought of true intellectual dialogues on college campuses.

Having grown in numbers and strength together, the Olympia Academy has some exciting plans for the future. Matt and Sean plan on introducing regular peer-evaluations as a way for members to measure their progress and as a mechanism for reflection. They are also working with the University of Notre Dame Student Government to potentially sponsor and lead a campus-wide campaign to stimulate a similar dialogue across campus. This is all done with hopes that when the time finally comes for them to graduate and leave campus, the intellectual endowment created by the Olympia Academy will remain, and generations of future students will continue to be rewarded by the dialogical dividends the Olympia Academy generously pays.

To learn more about the Olympia Academy, please feel free to contact Matthew Williams at or Sean McMahon at