The Mission of Columbia College
In each new era, a thriving college needs to redefine its mission, both in terms of the challenges and concerns of that era and in terms of the “usable past” that can productively inform contemporary discussion and debate. This is not simply a matter of locating the relevant past, but of considering how to relate ourselves to a past that influences, in ways of which we are often unaware, the kinds of questions we ask and the kinds of answers we find persuasive. In relating ourselves to that past we need to focus upon three key elements that combine to characterize the education that Columbia College provides its students today: intellectual mobility, social mobility, and career mobility. By combining these three elements in a coordinated living and learning environment - intellectual mobility, social mobility, and career mobility - Columbia College preserves, extends, and renews its tradition of preparing students to make informed choices in a world always haunted by its many pasts, but also oriented toward a variety of possible futures. If students have acquired intellectual and social mobility, they will be able to meet the career and lifestyle challenges of a changing world, by adapting acquired modes of expertise and experience to new circumstances, by thinking creatively across differing frames of reference, by making informed value judgments in a heterogeneous social context, and by using the best of the past to guide them toward what is best for the emerging future.
Intellectual mobility is what the College, always seeking to enable students to think for themselves, has long offered. This goal is embodied in a curriculum that balances breadth and depth of knowledge in specific ways and that requires constant curricular renewal to retain its effectiveness. The College provides intellectual breadth through the interdepartmental Core Curriculum and intellectual depth through the majors, but it links them in ways characteristic of an institution committed to creative critical thinking, well-informed choice, and sustained social concern. With a world-class faculty, almost eighty majors, and more than thirty concentrations, Columbia College offers a wide range of opportunities for the acquisition of those specialized forms of expertise essential to success in the modern world. But in a world of change, a singular specialist can be an impoverished specialist-someone who knows more and more about less and less, someone unable to adapt to new circumstances, and someone inadequately prepared to acquire new forms of expertise in later life. With its famed interdepartmental Core Curriculum, Columbia College provides the embryonic specialist with the kind of breadth of knowledge that promotes and sustains innovative thinking. It prepares students in small seminars to think from the outset across specialized frames of reference and not just within them, to join an interdepartmental faculty in exploring wide-ranging material that involves a variety of disciplinary vocabularies and departmental modes of discourse. Most Core courses require students to travel widely across historical time and geographical and cultural space, sending them in search of better questions than those that occur most readily to people living in our time and space. Students find themselves, in conversational seminar contexts, imaginatively occupying worlds they may not finally choose to inhabit, entertaining beliefs they may not finally hold, and considering ideas they may not finally accept. Such students are prepared to encounter their chosen majors with a capacity to think both within and beyond the framework of a selected discipline, able to situate specialized knowledge in the context of sophisticated general education perspectives, disposed to ask the unexpected question, inclined to risk the unanticipated answer, and ready to acquire the special expertise of a major as the first of many they will need, rather than the first and last. The big-picture thinking of Core Curriculum courses also ensures that the best of a varied past is available to guide but not govern students’ thinking as their generation contributes to the national business of deciding what is best for the future. Through this combination of breadth and depth of knowledge, students develop the kind of intellectual mobility that enables them to make informed and complicated choices in a world requiring them constantly to adapt to changing social and economic circumstances.
With its rapidly rising reputation and its need-blind admissions and full-need financial aid policies, Columbia College enrolls one of the most diverse classes in the nation. The diversity includes the important ethnic and racial diversity characteristic of contemporary society, but it also extends to include diversity of interests, talents, values, commitments, origins, and goals. As College classes continue to rise rapidly in quality, what students can learn from each other is one of our most rapidly developing resources. An overall sense of community that facilitates social mobility is therefore of central importance. It involves the creation of a sense of shared purpose, mutual responsibility, and collective inquiry, even as differences are acknowledged and respected. Social diversity, social cohesion, and social mobility are intricately related in an educational context that treats what students learn from and with each other with the same seriousness as what they learn from and with the faculty. To facilitate social mobility in the student community, the College seeks to create a coordinated living and learning environment that enables students during their time at Columbia to experience a variety of kinds of social and academic relationships. Personnel and resources are deployed to help build community not just on a College-wide basis, but on a number of different sites and scales (including that of each entering class, each residence hall, and each hall floor and suite, along with student clubs, athletic teams, social centers, and many more). Several mechanisms (including the room selection process that annually redistributes students around the residence halls, the forming of new student organizations, the arrangement of large and small social events, and the support of a variety of volunteer programs) serve also to involve students with new groups. Other initiatives (including the Alumni Partnership Program, the Faculty-in-Residence Program, the Urban New York Program, and the Intercultural Resource Center programs) enable students to interact socially not only with each other but also with faculty and alumni, and to acquire increasingly sophisticated forms of urban and intercultural expertise. Students are thus encouraged to enhance their social mobility by participating in a variety of different groups with differing interests for different periods of time.
Students today need to be prepared for a changing world in which they are likely to have more than one, indeed several, careers. A career services center in such a world must function not just as a placement office in the senior year but also as a career education center that helps students during all four years become increasingly aware of the range of careers available in the global world of work and of the various kinds of “fit” between curricular choices and career opportunities. Internships, career counseling, informational interviews, community outreach programs, student enterprise organizations, leadership programs, study abroad opportunities, and on-line information and expertise collectively combine to extend students’ awareness of career opportunities and life trajectories in the world into which they will graduate. This career education assists them in selecting not only their first careers but also subsequent careers, and the Center for Career Education now available to alumni throughout their working lives.