About the Core

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History of the Core Curriculum

The Core was the first college general education program in the United States, launched as a single course, Contemporary Civilization, in 1919 with the goal of preparing students to grapple with “the insistent problems of the present.” In a context of global crisis, social reform, and widespread debates about the aims and methods of higher learning, Columbia College offered Contemporary Civilization as a bold experiment in what philosopher John Dewey called “progressive education.” That is, rather than focusing on the transmission of knowledge and the development of expertise, Contemporary Civilization would provide students with a space to develop their own ideas and create knowledge collectively at the intersection of historical consciousness and self-awareness.

An Enduring Experiment

In the century that followed, the Core evolved considerably, adding Literature Humanities in 1937 and Art Humanities and Music Humanities a decade later. That same year, 1947, a new course in Asian Humanities was introduced, adding a further global dimension to the curriculum. What is now called the Global Core — formerly Major Cultures — became a requirement in 1990. After decades of failed attempts to include scientific inquiry in the curriculum, Frontiers of Science was launched as a Core requirement in 2004. Together, these Core courses explore the stories, ideas, images, sounds, and discoveries through which we make ourselves intelligible to one another.

Each course in the Core undergoes regular review and revision to respond to the ever-changing challenges of our modern world and to incorporate a growing number of perspectives and experiences. Through all of these changes, the Core has provided an enriching liberal arts experience of community, active learning, and interdisciplinary inquiry in the larger context of a research university. The Core creates a shared intellectual experience for students that is rooted in mutual respect, fostering close and lasting intellectual relationships with peers and faculty through discussion. This community extends across course sections, class years, and even generations.