Chapter 1: “the insistent problems of the present”
It all started quietly enough. On 20 January 1919 the faculty of Columbia College resolved that "the requirement in Philosophy A and History A be replaced by a course in Contemporary Civilization."1 Curricular decisions usually don't reverberate beyond the college campus where they're implemented, and the founders had no idea that they were creating what has been described as "probably the most famous course ever in the American curriculum."2
More likely, the professors making this decision intended nothing more than a minor revision in the program for Columbia College students, many of whom were returning from military service in World War I. Indeed, the faculty had only a vague idea of what a course in "contemporary civilization" would look like. During the war, the University had cooperated with the U.S. Army to create a "war issues" course for the Student Army Training Corps, so Columbia's faculty had some idea of the value of a general course for all incoming freshmen, but the new course was presented as a "peace issues" course to meet the needs of the postwar era, and for this there were no precedents. Nor was there any consensus about the peace issues that the new course would address. So the faculty also appointed a committee, formed of senior faculty and administrators, "to consider plans for the course."3 And this committee in turn enlisted the aid of several younger faculty members and set about writing a syllabus to be used the following fall.
When fall arrived, it was still unclear how undergraduate education at Columbia would change because of the faculty's decision. The course was in the College's schedule, staff had been selected, and a syllabus (which was really a lengthy, detailed outline of the course) had been printed - though only for the first semester. But no one knew how the College's experimental course was going to turn out. In his address at the University's opening exercises in September 1919, Nicholas Murray Butler, Columbia's president, noted that the University was going to be a dramatically different place than it had been a year earlier, when the country was still at war. But Butler could describe Columbia's new environment in only the most general terms: "We are here to gain a firmer message upon the realities of life, to get knowledge and to transmit it into wisdom, to find new understanding and to be guided to new interpretations, both of nature and life and of organized man."4
What was this new course in contemporary civilization? How was it going to provide wisdom and a new understanding? Butler was closest to the mark when he spoke of "the realities of life," for the phrase most commonly used - in Columbia College announcements, in the course's syllabus, in descriptions of the course to outsiders, by the course's teachers - was that CC, as the course quickly came to be abbreviated, was an attempt to deal with "the insistent problems of the present."5 Right from the start then, contemporary problems, not the boundaries of a single academic discipline, determined the content of CC. Although it is common today to speak of CC as a "core" course, this way of speaking developed much later - largely because of the success of CC and other courses at Columbia - and it is perhaps misleading to attempt to portray the original experiment in contemporary civilization as an attempt to impose a "core" of knowledge that all students had to master. The original impetus was much different.
IN LATER YEARS it would become common to trace the origins of CC to World War I, but actually the groundwork for it began to be laid much earlier. Changes made in the decades before the World War I transformed the College's curriculum, while changes in the pool of applicants changed the composition of the Columbia College student body.
The changes in curriculum at Columbia reflected the decline of Greek and Latin studies as well as an increased emphasis on academic specialization and preparation for the professions. For more than a century after its establishment as King's College in 1754, the four-year course of study at Columbia had been liberal in the traditional sense of the term. That is, it focused on the studia humanitatis - an educational program built around the study of Greek and Latin classics. But this program offered students little choice among classes during their four years at the school. In 1880, however, President Frederick A. P. Barnard successfully pressed for reforms that made the junior and senior years mostly elective, and a new requirement for the study of a modern language effectively de-emphasized Greek and Latin.6 Far from being the last word, however, this decision inaugurated a series of innovations in the College's curriculum until the war. When Columbia moved from its midtown location to its new campus on Morningside Heights, it eliminated the Greek admission requirement and reduced the Latin requirement from two years to one. Beginning with the 1916-17 academic year, the Latin requirement was eliminated altogether.
While these curricular changes might seem minor, they in fact reflected a much wider controversy within the Columbia faculty about the goals of the undergraduate curriculum. Not everyone at Columbia valued a liberal education, and there was a concerted effort to redirect the University along the lines of German universities, with their emphasis on what we now call preprofessional training. By the 1870s, in the words of Lionel Trilling, Barnard was advancing the "idea that our undergraduate college with its commitment to liberal education stood in the way of the right development of the institution as a whole."7 Put simply, the College was increasingly seen as an anchor holding back the development of the University as a national institution.
Others shared Barnard's lack of concern for the future of the College. In 1876, John W. Burgess, who had studied in German universities where he had become an adherent of the German historical school, was appointed to the chair of history, political science, and international law at Columbia. In short order he set up Columbia's first graduate school and remained a force in the University for years. He also became openly hostile to the liberal tradition of Columbia College, which he saw (again in Trilling's words) "as kept in being only by inertia and the piety of its alumni."8 Indeed, the only valuable role for the College, in Burgess's view, would be to adopt the program of a German Gymnasium, preparing students for further professional or academic schooling through disciplined learning by rote. Another proponent of gymnasial training, Professor Henry Peck, wrote to President Seth Low in 1895 that he was "convinced that the scholarship of the average student as distinguished from the exceptional student, is promoted by strictly gymnasial training."9 Treating college as preparation for academic or professional careers was hardly unique to Columbia, but it meant that the College would be forced to sacrifice its more traditional liberal goals.
This was not a sacrifice that everyone at Columbia was willing to make. In John Howard Van Amringe, who became dean of the School of Arts and later of the College, Burgess found a worthy adversary, and undergraduate education found a vigorous and determined defender. Van Amringe nevertheless remained a peculiar champion for liberal education since he enjoyed no great reputation for his scholarly endeavors. He had accepted a professorship in mathematics at Columbia only after having failed in his quest for a professorship in Greek and Latin. The product of a clubby Knickerbocker background, he had a reputation for "favoring athletes over serious students."10
If Van Amringe lacked scholarly virtues, from the College's perspective he possessed other more important ones. For he was committed to the view that the College's true end should not be training scholars or professionals but "making men." By this, Van Amringe meant that a college education's real value for young men was "to teach them to look before and after, and in general to use their minds in ways which are appropriate to civil existence."11 This was accomplished through a traditional liberal education - and Van Amringe worked tirelessly within the University to prevent any dissolution of it.
Despite his efforts it cannot be said that Van Amringe was successful in defending liberal education at Columbia College - at least in the short run. By the first decade of this century, a four-year liberal education was in retreat. Not only did the University continue to reduce requirements in classical studies, but in 1905 Butler announced the creation of the "Columbia plan" - a "professional option" that allowed qualified students to begin work at one of the University's professional schools after only two years of undergraduate study.12 Butler even insisted that permitting study toward the professions only after four years of undergraduate education was "not to do a good thing but a bad thing."13
With this decision, Columbia College realized many of the educational goals that Burgess had proposed three decades earlier, particularly in its emphasis on preparation for further schooling, though it never adopted a pure gymnasium-style education. Van Amringe's vision of "making men" fell into the background, and the College lost much of its identity and sense of purpose. In 1905, Van Amringe publicly warned that the College was close to becoming "degraded into a mere vestibule to a professional school."14
Changes within the student body further undermined any sense of unity at Columbia. During the nineteenth century, Columbia was the college of choice for many within New York City's traditional aristocracy. These families wanted college to be a finishing touch to a lengthy effort to produce gentlemen, and a traditional Columbia education certainly fulfilled many such hopes. But the turn of the century was a time of dramatic change, especially in New York City, which was moving from the regulated world of Edith Wharton's Age of Innocence to the boisterous reality of E. L. Doctorow's Ragtime. Columbia was not immune to the change. The influx of immigrants from Southern and Eastern Europe offered a dramatically different pool of students, educated in public schools. These immigrants could equal in cognitive ability, and perhaps excel in ambition, their more prosperous counterparts, but they were not equally prepared for a liberal education. While it is unclear whether Columbia limited its Greek and Latin requirements solely to attract new students from the city's public schools, the changes had the effect of increasing the attractiveness of the College to those without a classical preparatory education.15 Columbia's "professional option" may have been the only viable option for these immigrant students, often eager to make their careers. But educating young men in a hurry was not what Van Amringe had in mind by making men, and the undergraduate experience was not enhanced by a rush toward degrees by students who wished to be undergraduates for as little time as possible.
WHEN THE UNITED STATES entered World War I in 1917, then, Columbia was a college in flux. Like other patriotic institutions, however, it pushed educational controversies into the background and set about furthering the nation's war effort. Butler noted that during the war, the University virtually became "a part of the apparatus of the Government of the United States for the preparation and training of men to carry on that war and for the better organization of our natural resources to aid the combat."16 Butler even instituted a review of the faculty to ferret out unpatriotic professors.17
Columbia's chance to contribute to the war effort came right away. In 1917, the U.S. Army commissioned Columbia faculty to come up with the "war issues" course to be used in educating the Student Army Training Corps. Essentially a body of students in uniform who attended regular classes, the S.A.T.C. was active at Columbia and at colleges and universities across the country. A faculty committee headed up by the philosopher Frederick J. E. Woodbridge, later dean of the Graduate Faculties, drew up a syllabus. The first war issues course, offered at Columbia (and elsewhere) in 1917-18, was clearly built around an ideological theme. "Its significance," remarked Dean Herbert Hawkes, "rested on the fundamental principle that in the long run man's accomplishment can rise no higher than his ideals, and that an understanding of the worth of the cause for which one is fighting is a powerful weapon in the hands of an intelligent man."18
The S.A.T.C. course, however, continued to generate interest among faculty long after the army had moved to other issues. It held out new possibilities that were not lost on those working to prepare for new students coming back from military service.19 Indeed, even before peace in Europe became certain, faculty were discussing a new course modeled on "war issues," though now issues of peace were to be the focus. "The issues of peace are vastly more complicated than the issues of war," Hawkes remarked, "but they are far more important as a field of instruction for our college youth. The college course which does nothing to enable a man to meet the arguments of the opponents of decency and sound government fails at the most crucial point to fulfill its opportunity."20
The first discussion of a new freshman course began in December 1918, and the faculty's decision to create the new course came a month later. Various titles were suggested for the course (Contemporary History, The World We Live In, Peace Issues) before Introduction to Contemporary Civilization was settled upon, but the plan and purpose remained constant.21 John Coss, a philosophy professor and later the first director of the Contemporary Civilization program, said the course was designed "to introduce the students to the insistent problems of to-day through acquainting them with the materials of their situation: nature's resources and human nature and its recent history."22 Like its predecessor, this new course maintained a civic focus. "The idea rests upon the belief that each new generation as it grows into maturity needs to be aware of the problems of its own group," said Coss, "and should be brought to some appreciation of its responsibility within that group."23 In an internal memo, Hawkes observed that "the underlying purpose of the course is to make the students citizens who can participate in national affairs with clear judgment and intelligence."24
But it was not an attempt to rubber-stamp the status quo. The history professor Harry J. Carman (later dean of the College) complained of the American people that "the vast majority . . . never critically examine our existing social standards."25 In a private letter to his friend, the philosopher John Dewey, in 1920, Coss complained that America was "still temporizing with nearly every political and social issue, and facing squarely very few."26 Hawkes insisted that the course was "an attempt so to inform the students that their social usefulness will be increased in proportion as they follow the methods of intelligent investigation and discrimination."27 While it seems clear that the faculty believed that American culture could survive intense scrutiny, it is also clear that they thought such scrutiny was in order. CC would be the vehicle to bring political and social issues to students, just as they were beginning their college education.
FROM ITS START IN SEPTEMBER 1919, CC embodied an ambitious program for both students and instructors. Originally there were fifteen sections, though soon there were twenty. By the mid-1920s, enrollment in each section had stabilized at thirty. Then as now, CC was a full-year course, with the same instructor teaching both semesters. Each section met five times a week, from 9:00 to 10:00 in the morning. Classes were discussions, not lectures, built around the syllabus and other readings. This last point was crucial, for the faculty wanted students to engage themselves actively with the material through class discussion instead of passively through lectures. In the early years of CC, reading assignments, daily quizzes, and the final examination were the same for all sections, though each instructor had the freedom to decide if his students would be required to keep a daily notebook or write essays on selected topics.
Despite constant minor revisions during its first decade, CC remained committed to its original vision. Both the philosophy and history departments gave up required freshman courses in favor of the new requirement, but CC was neither a philosophy nor a history course, even though it sought to provide "an orientation in the problems of the present as illuminated by the economic, political and cultural history of Europe and the United States from 1300 to the present."28 CC never embraced any narrow historical formula. In its first decade CC began with geography. The first two weeks (shortened to one week by 1925-26) were devoted to an examination of the physical world and the material resources of various countries. The goal here was to show "the intimate interdependence of man and nature."29 After this, several weeks (until Thanksgiving break) were spent analyzing various aspects of human behavior, primarily instinct, habit, and reflection. The goal here wasn't simply to provide a catalogue of human characteristics but, rather, "to show the social results of these same traits."30
Having dealt with Mother Nature and human nature, CC went on to explore the historical background of Western civilization in the early twentieth century. Once again, the goal was not only to provide a historical survey or even a history of ideas, but also "to throw into relief the chief characteristics of our age."31 This part concentrated on Europe and America's political heritage, to be sure, but also on the rise of modern industry, the great strides made in Western science, and the implications of these for the social order. The last section of the course, which took up most of the spring semester, was most explicitly devoted to "the insistent problems of the present." In 1925, Carman, who was an original CC instructor, pointed to five problems of special concern during this section: imperialism and backward peoples; nationalism and internationalism; industrialism and raising standards of living; political control; and education.32
Implementing CC created problems. On a practical level the most pressing was the lack of texts suitable for so ambitious and diverse a course. From the start, the planners decided "not to be restricted by consideration of available text books, but to be guided by a desire to present in simple nontechnical fashion such information and discussion as they thought desirable for the average college freshman."33 Instead of a single text, students were required to purchase several smaller texts that reflected different disciplines. In the early 1920s, the crucial texts were Irwin Edman's Human Traits and Their Social Significance, the second volume of Carlton J. H. Hayes's Economic and Political History of Modern Europe, J. H. Randall's Making of the Modern Mind, Carman's Economic History of the United States, and John Storck's Man and Civilization.34 There was a definite Columbia stamp in these readings: All of these authors were instructors at Columbia, and Edman and Carman helped draft the CC syllabus. Edman, a professor of philosophy, actually wrote his book during the summer of 1919 especially for use in CC, thus inaugurating a proud tradition of writing original works for the course. Early versions of Randall's book were distributed as mimeographs until 1926, when it was formally published. Additional readings, such as the maps for the geographical issues of the first weeks, were kept on reserve in the library while other materials were mimeographed and distributed to students.
Despite their merits, these secondary sources couldn't match the scope and originality of the CC syllabus. It is difficult to overemphasize the uniqueness of these early CC syllabi. A modern syllabus usually fills only a few pages and lists class requirements and readings, sometimes grouped under general headings. For its first twenty years, however, the CC syllabus was something much more vast and impressive, a detailed outline of the content of the entire course, published as a bound volume by Columbia University Press. A committee of faculty from the departments of philosophy, history, government, and economics wrote the CC syllabus, though it proved such a daunting enterprise that only the first part, covering the first semester, was ready when the course began. Only in January 1920 were students able to purchase the syllabus for the second semester.
This syllabus presented students and instructors with a clear idea of the scope and focus of CC, for it provided not only the form of the course but much of its content. Indeed, because of its detail, the syllabus also provided a remarkably complete outline of Western civilization since the Renaissance while also highlighting the major forces creating the problems of the present. Above all, it created a solid framework for class readings and discussions. The syllabus also generated intense interest off campus. When Supreme Court Justice Louis D. Brandeis read an early draft, he remarked that CC promised to become "a real citizenship course."35 When Dewey, in China on leave from Columbia, received a copy of the completed syllabus from Coss, he wrote back: "Books are scarce and hard to get hold of [in China] and that syllabus will take the place of quite a library."36 Dewey even suggested that CC should be required of the Chinese students he was sponsoring for college study in the United States.
While the CC syllabus provided a firm structure, assuring continuity over the academic year and coherence among the different sections, it wasn't rigid. In the first five years of the course, the syllabus was revised annually in response to suggestions from both teachers and students. Indeed, during the period 1919-30, there were eight revisions of the CC syllabus, with two more major revisions in the 1930s.
TEACHING CC also followed a new path, relying on a new interdisciplinary framework. This had been anticipated in the short-lived S.A.T.C. course, but the first substantial trial of cross-departmental staffing came with Contemporary Civilization. CC has never had its own staff; from the beginning it has relied on regular departments. In its first year, the history, philosophy, government, economics, and sociology departments contributed the fifteen instructors for the new course; later the psychology department also provided instructors.37
The decision not to create a special staff for CC created its own difficulties. Not only did the College need to find a mechanism to address problems that arose while teaching, but it also had to form an esprit de corps among staff from different departments. While CC quickly acquired a small administrative staff, the first director, Coss, couldn't devote all his energies to the new course but remained a professor in the philosophy department, just as each instructor remained in a department. The solution was a weekly meeting of the CC staff, a practice that continues to this day. To promote camaraderie even further, the staff also went on an annual camping trip during Easter break.38
For some at the College, the real concern wasn't creating a coherent staff but a qualified one. The difficulty in teaching CC to this day is that a single instructor takes a section for the entire academic year and so must teach material outside of his area of professional expertise. With several social science departments collaborating on the content of CC, the material exceeded the knowledge of the most learned of teachers. Indeed, the boundaries of CC appeared to some to be too broad for any instructor. One possible solution, considered during the planning stages - and proposed regularly during the course's seventy-five-year history - was to build the course around a series of large lectures by specialists, but this option was rejected because it would shift the focus of the course away from discussion and undermine the authority of instructors.
For those who became involved in planning and teaching CC, however, the inevitable limitations of each instructor were not so much a problem to be overcome as an essential ingredient of the course. CC was designed, after all, as an introduction to, not the final statement on, its subject. It was expected that students would gain knowledge of several disciplines, thus helping their choice of a particular discipline later on. But that only intensified the obligations of teachers. Coss was well aware of the new burdens on the staff, remarking that the "teaching staff will be educating itself as well as instructing the students."39 This was not a bad thing for many. Carman noted that history teachers benefited from teaching CC. "Almost without exception," he insisted, "every member of the history staff who has taught the course enthusiastically declares that it has broadened his own intellectual outlook and enriched his history teaching."40
Students were also involved in the planning and imple-mentation of CC. Each section elected a student representative, who was given regular opportunities to meet with the dean to discuss the progress of the course. The teaching staff and the representatives also met for informal dinners each semester to discuss the course. The faculty were sufficiently committed to encourage these representatives to give "both destructive and constructive criticisms and suggestions."41 It became something of an honor to be selected as a student representative.
IN ADOPTING CC, the College made firm decisions about questions that had been floating around for decades, and it established trends that have continued to the present. In their long-running debate, the principle of liberal education had won out over academic specialization - at least for the time being. To be sure, there had been signs that momentum had shifted away from specialization even before CC was introduced. In 1909, Butler indicated that his early commitment to a new efficiency in training (as embodied in the "Columbia plan") was on the wane, though little was done to change things until the war.42 But early in 1919, Professor Cassius Keyser (who later chaired the committee drawing up the CC syllabus) signaled how dramatically the tide had turned among the faculty toward general education. "Provincial wisdom, however precious or fine, cannot longer suffice," he insisted. "What is demanded is a certain large intelligence - a certain wisdom, as we may call it - about the world."43 Carman put it even more directly. "In introducing the general survey course," he said, "Columbia has operated on the assumption that it is not the fundamental business of the College to turn out specialists in a narrow field, and that an individual is, after all, not well educated unless he or she has at least some conception of the broad field of intellectual endeavor."44 The goal of a Columbia education, Carman continued, was not to guide students into careers but "to help them see life broadly."45
Seeing life broadly was essential to the entire enterprise. The involvement of several departments was a sure sign of this, for the interdisciplinary bent of CC went beyond a pragmatic solution to staffing the course and drawing up its syllabus. It reflected a deeply held belief in the interconnectedness of learning. As Keyser put it, "History, philosophy, politics, economics, natural science, and the rest are indeed distinct things, but they are not independent; they do not constitute a radically pluralistic universe of spiritual interests."46 Or, as Hawkes remarked more succinctly, "College departments are devices of man rather than gifts of God."47 The College did not decide to create CC, with the accompanying charges of superficiality and dilettantism, just to make choosing a major easier (though an introduction to Columbia's academic departments remained valuable). In providing a common course for all students, the College was indeed aiming to make men - though not necessarily according to Van Amringe's vision. Rather, Hawkes, Coss, Keyser, Carman, and the others were trying to produce an educational program appropriate to the new environment created by the war and its aftermath. If anything, they were trying to create men of the world.
In retrospect, it is surprising that so ambitious and revolutionary a course would even be attempted. Certainly there was no guarantee of its success. The CC staff always described the course as an "experiment," and there is no reason to doubt their sincerity. The constant tinkering with the syllabus shows as clearly as anything that CC remained a work in progress. It was something of a surprise for all that the course caught hold of so many imaginations so quickly. Only six weeks into the fall semester in 1919, Coss could report that responses to the new course were enthusiastic. One freshman said he valued the course "because it is new and my professor is still interested in it." 48 Interest in the course didn't wane: By the mid-1920s, CC was ranked as the most valuable class taken at Columbia in surveys of its graduating seniors.49
Quoted in Robert L. Belknap and Richard Kuhns, Tradition and Innovation. General Education and the Reintegration of the University: A Columbia Report (New York: Columbia University Press, 1977), p. 45.
This change was also symbolized by changes in the College's admission standards: The list of acceptable secondary schools for admission was broadened and new "tests of mental alertness" that examined "good common sense and special fitness rather than preparation in specific subjects" could also be used to qualify for entrance. See the article "Change Standards for Admission," Columbia Spectator 7 February 1919.
Herbert E. Hawkes, Memorandum on the New Course in Columbia College called Introduction to Contemporary Civilization, ms., John Jacob Coss Papers, Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Columbia University.
Harry J. Carman, "The Columbia Course in Contemporary Civilization," an address delivered before the Association of History Teachers of the Middle States and Maryland at Bryn Mawr, 2 May 1925, (published as a booklet by the Columbia College dean), p. 3.
John J. Coss, "A Report of the Columbia Experiment with the Course on Contemporary Civilization," The Junior College Curriculum, edited by William S. Gray (Precedings of the Institute for Administrative Offices of Higher Institutions, Volume I) Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1929), p. 133.