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The Core Curriculum

Chapter 3: “the complexities of our contemporary situation”

The reason that Columbia College was willing to commit itself to a required freshman course in the Humanities was that the course in Contemporary Civilization had succeeded beyond the hopes of its most sanguine proponents. From its uncertain beginnings in 1919, CC had prospered throughout the 1920s as regular revisions of the syllabus and readings fine-tuned the course. In fact, CC had become such a popular and prominent part of a Columbia education that people seemed to assume that it had always existed. When the faculty undertook a fundamental review of undergraduate education in the spring of 1928, Erskine's General Honors course didn't survive. CC, however, not only survived the scrutiny, but expanded. Beginning in September 1928, freshmen took part in a longer, more nuanced introduction to contemporary civilization that would continue through their sophomore year.

Considering that this decision essentially doubled incoming students' social science requirement, surprisingly little justification was given at the time for expanding CC. Teachers pointed to the difficulty of treating contemporary civilization in a one-year course. In the eighth edition of the syllabus (1930), CC's planners noted that "the complexities of our contemporary situation have caused the development in Columbia College of two courses which together form an introduction to the social studies."1 Harry Carman and Horace Taylor, both directors of the program, remarked in 1939 that "so great was [the course's] scope and content that the job could not be done satisfactorily from the point of view of either students or staff" in just one year.2

The program for the new sequence maintained the goals of the older Contemporary Civilization course but pursued them at a more deliberate pace. In the new sequence, the freshman year was devoted to the history of Western civilization from about 1200 to the present. This course kept the title Introduction to Contemporary Civilization in the West, though it was commonly known as CC-A. Although this course really became an introduction to contemporary problems in the sense that it provided background to the present, rather than a survey of the present, there was no abandonment of the three questions that had occupied CC from its beginning: How do men make a living? How do they live together? How do they understand their world? The sophomore course focused on the problems of life in twentieth-century America. This course took the title An Introduction to Contemporary Problems in the United States, though it was commonly known as CC-B. The second year did not constitute either a new course or new material; it was merely an expansion of issues treated in the original program of CC. The same three questions were also central to the sophomore course, although in CC-B there was a clear emphasis on the question of how men make their livings.3 3

The reasons for this emphasis in the sophomore year are partially attributable to the departments dedicated to the new course. Just as the philosophy and history departments had given up their required freshmen courses to create the original Contemporary Civilization course, so the government and economics departments gave up their introductory courses (which were widely elected though not required) in order to create the second year. CC-A and CC-B were intended as two parts of a single enterprise, and there was a clear attempt to balance the two. The freshman year drew heavily upon history and philosophy, so the sophomore year drew heavily upon government and economics, although CC-B was not envisioned as (nor ever became) an introduction to either political or economic theory. The freshman year largely concentrated on Europe, so the sophomore year primarily (though not exclusively) focused on the United States.4

THE SHIFT to a two-year Contemporary Civilization sequence required many other changes. Beginning in 1928, CC-A met four, instead of five, times a week. CC-B, which first met in September 1929, met for three hours a week. Perhaps the most important transformation took place within the course's required readings. In the selection of textbooks for the freshman course, there remained considerable continuity from the first years of the course. While students were no longer required to purchase Irwin Edman's Human Traits and Their Social Significance, John Herman Randall's Making of the Modern Mind, which had been published in 1926, became a more important (and popular) text. In addition, the freshman course relied on selections from twenty other texts, which were kept on reserve in the College's study (which no longer exists).5

The creation of a two-year sequence, however, did require a complete overhaul of the syllabus, which had already gone through six editions. The seventh edition, completed in time for the fall 1928 semester, only covered the first year of the sequence.6 In organization, it followed earlier editions, although it could go into greater detail, having been relieved of the burden of discussing contemporary issues. This revision required the efforts of many instructors. In addition to Carman and John Coss, who had been involved in CC since its inception, instructors from several departments contributed: Randall (philosophy), John Storck and Rexford G. Tugwell (economics), and H. W. Schneider and Dwight Miner (history), among others. Randall, Storck, and Tugwell all wrote books that were used in the course, and Schneider and Miner (later chairman of the CC program) remained associated with CC for most of their careers.

The real significance of this revised syllabus, however, was that it marked the beginning of a movement toward creating a reader, although the process would remain incomplete for many years. All the earlier editions were lengthy outlines, with listings of required readings but nothing more. The seventh edition was the first to include maps, charts, and illustrations. It was also the first to include text on particular topics. "We have written many sections and printed them as a part of the syllabus for the sake of brevity, clarity, and point," Coss remarked. "Some day we may write texts that suit our needs better than anything that has been published."7

One other innovation in the seventh edition was noteworthy: At the end was an essay on Western art, with black-and-white illustrations, by the young Columbia art historian Meyer Schapiro. While the study of art later became part of the two-year Humanities sequence, it is worth remembering that fine arts made their entrance into Columbia's core curriculum in the Contemporary Civilization course.

This revised syllabus was itself subject to constant revision. A short supplement to the seventh edition was published for the spring 1930 semester, and there was an eighth edition completed for the 1930-31 academic year. This edition offered more charts, maps, and illustrations. The sections on art also remained. But the most important innovation was the prominent place given to original text - now in the form of specialized articles. Here the text dominated the remaining outlines, although the authors insisted that in intent, the revised syllabus differed "in no essential respect from the seventh edition."8

THE SOPHOMORE YEAR OF CC was designed to provide "a realistic orientation of students in their own social order, that they may understand its trends and participate in its direction in such fashion as ability and opportunity furnish."9 The nexus of CC-B was the political economy of the United States in the twentieth century, with a special emphasis on the problems associated with the rise of modern industry. "The plan was to explain some of the economic and political institutions operative in the United States," wrote Coss, "and to show some of the problems which arise in...maintaining a desirable level of life for all our citizens...."10

It is difficult to categorize CC-B in its first years because the course cast its nets so widely. When the course was originally planned, America's economy was still growing, heavy industry was becoming more important, and new financial forms were becoming more widespread. CC-B addressed problems that resulted from this robust economy, treating manufacturing processes, the sale and distribution of goods, corporations, social and economic groups affected by industrialization, the banking system, and the international aspects of modern industry. The course also examined the role of government agencies in the economy, the costs and functions of government, and, in general, the role of law in modern society.11 The year concluded by examining reactions to modern industry in the early twentieth century.

CC-B began in September 1929, and the syllabus for the course wasn't revised for three years. The problem, of course, was that in focusing on the economy, CC-B was taking aim at a moving target, and the crash of the New York stock market a month after the course started and the beginning of the Great Depression threatened to make CC's sophomore year irrelevant. In 1932, looking back on the CC-B syllabus, Coss admitted, "We did not sense so fully as we do now the importance of security in our economic order. We discussed security and its importance in terms of a prosperous society. Now we want to know how to attain greater security for all these groups at all times."12 As much as when CC was first offered in 1919, the insistent problems of the present required a change in the Columbia curriculum. In a private letter, Coss informed Hawkes, "Students and Faculty alike believe that conditions have changed so that we should not attempt even to reconstruct the old plan but, following the purpose underlying it, make a new course."13

The new plan, implemented in the fall of 1932, covered many of the same topics as the first try at CC-B, but now the entire year revolved around the issue of economic security. The first semester began with the study of institutions that affected economic security (banking, industrial organization, international affairs) and of groups (farmers, wage earners) especially vulnerable to problems of economic security. The spring semester dealt with remedies for economic insecurity, especially the role of government. The second semester also contrasted other countries' attempts to promote economic security, including the programs of fascist, socialist, and communist states.14 The sophomore course still attempted to fulfill its original purpose - to provide orientation - but it did so for an economy and world that had changed dramatically.

In most respects, the logistics of teaching CC-B mirrored CC-A. Staff was drawn from several departments (not just economics and government), and there were weekly meetings. A special syllabus was printed and distributed to students. Appropriate sources ranged from economic statistics to learned articles on particular topics. (The new plan of the course began with statistical comparisons of economic status from 1914, 1929, and 1932.) Because no single text could satisfy CC-B, from the start materials were gathered together in a bound volume for student use, while other materials were left on reserve. In 1930, CC-B began assigning field trips to important business and government locations. These trips were considered essential parts of the course, and the Committee on Instruction even warned that "students who do not take the required excursions planned by the Contemporary Civilization B staff shall receive a grade of incomplete until the work is made up."15

IN ESTABLISHING CC-B and then completely revising it after only a few years, the College was only continuing a familiar pattern. The course was offered as an experiment, and the College never hesitated to modify or revise it. Nevertheless, despite the claim that CC-A and CC-B were two parts of a single sequence, almost from the beginning the two courses began to follow different paths. For CC-A, the fundamental shifts came in 1928, when the decision was made to focus on the past throughout the first year, and then in 1941, with the decision to require primary source readings. CC-B was never able to match this stability. Throughout the 1930s, even the most ardent defenders of the sophomore course saw in it "the greatest danger of lack of unity."16

A minor scandal illustrates both the problems in teaching CC-B and the diverse topics it considered in the 1930s. The packet of readings in 1932 included a section (about thirty pages) from The Modern Family (1929) by Ruth Reed, a professor at Mount Holyoke College. While the actual content of this book proved largely irrelevant to the controversy that followed, the author did suggest that "the family in its present form is inadequate" and sympathized with the "formation of new forms of marriage and of unconventional unions between men and women of similar backgrounds and tastes."17 This was shocking talk for 1932, and the selection probably was included in the syllabus precisely because its outrageousness would spur discussion.18

There probably wouldn't have been any scandal, however, if this selection hadn't been parodied in a Columbia Spectator editorial, which was then picked up by several New York daily newspapers and national wire services. In the process, one reading that criticized traditional marriage and the family transmogrified into a course with the primary purpose of undermining marriage and the family. Soon, newspaper stories about the Columbia course on marriage were everywhere. "Substitutes for Marriage Advised in Columbia College," blared a headline in the Philadelphia Record. Quoting the United Press wire service, the story related how "a new course at Columbia University, required of all under-graduates, teaches that the distinction between legitimate and illegitimate should be abolished."19 Other newspapers were not so reticent, claiming the course promoted free love and the destruc-tion of marriage.

Then came the mail. President Butler, Dean Hawkes, and Coss (as chairman of CC) received dozens of letters accusing the College of contempt for what we would now call traditional family values. Many concerned alumni requested copies of the syllabus; some conservative Christians offered prayers for Columbia's collective soul; a few matriarchs wrote extolling the virtues of matrimony and motherhood. Within Columbia, Butler chided Coss. Although a teacher has the right to teach whatever he feels important, noted Butler, some issues are too controversial to be included in an undergraduate course. The Board of Trustees' Committee on Education also expressed concern about readings that had generated so much bad press.

Coss's remarkably patient replies to the letters that came across his desk sounded a persistent theme - "Don't believe everything you read in the papers" - though he never hesitated to offer that Reed's criticism of marriage didn't reflect Columbia policy. Nor, he noted, was the American family in any danger from one of six readings on marriage, used for two days of discussion during a two-year course. To Butler, who should have known better than to be caught up in the hysteria, Coss offered an essential insight into the Contemporary Civilization course, as appropriate today as in 1932. "Anyone who is acquainted with the assignment of required readings knows that in many assignments opinions are expressed which represent points of view other than those endorsed by the teacher," he wrote. "Should we hesitate, however, to assign readings until we had a body of text to which we all might agree we should be hard put to it."20 Coss also reassured the Trustees' Committee that the offending selection did not express "policies which are advocated by the teaching staff," but he also noted "enough currency of these opinions exists to warrant presenting them as a point of view relating to the students' responsibility in connection with the parenthood of children."21 Acknowledging, however, that nothing was gained by such scandals, Coss informed the Trustees that the CC staff had decided to recast this section of the course before it was given again.

BY ALL ACCOUNTS, the modern marriage controversy was nothing more than a trivial, even humorous, digression from an otherwise successful experiment. The College had inaugurated a new commitment to general education, and Columbia faculty now helped spread this idea throughout American universities. In 1927, Mortimer Adler, who had co-taught with Mark Van Doren in Erskine's General Honors course, introduced a great books program at the University of Chicago. Van Doren then helped Adler fashion the new great books curriculum of St. John's College. Other schools just adopted CC for themselves, without any significant modifications. Dartmouth College and Reed College followed Columbia in introducing courses in contemporary civilization, and at least thirty other schools imitated the Columbia and Reed models.22

Some schools went beyond mere imitation. The Coast Guard Academy not only used the CC syllabus but also borrowed the exams. Columbia occasionally encouraged this tendency, as when it sponsored a CC course at Seth Low Junior College in Brooklyn. While the College was happy to share its materials, it was always something of a surprise that its introductory courses were adopted so readily (and with so few revisions) at other schools, even as far away as Hawaii and Cairo.23

At Columbia, core courses - described then as "basic" or "foundational" or "survey" courses - quickly became the hallmarks of the undergraduate experience. Not everyone was thrilled with these developments. In his 1937 critique of college education in the United States (published by Columbia University Press), the educator Mowat Fraser pointed to Contemporary Civilization as being paradigmatic of "one kind of survey course . . . which presents presumably all the most important civic and personal problems of a whole civilization." But such a course was unwise, he insisted, for it "practically prevents learning which is either sound or even expeditious" and "cannot but mean unsound, uncertain, as well as comparatively fleeting and even slow, results."24 At Columbia, however, there was no desire to backtrack. In the same year that Fraser criticized CC, the College introduced the Humanities sequence.

WHILE PEDAGOGICAL PROBLEMS, especially concerning music, overwhelmed hopes for a single two-year Humanities sequence course in the 1930s, the College never abandoned plans to create required music and fine arts courses for underclassmen. But it had to move slowly, for it was exploring new territory with Humanities B. Experience in discussing fine arts as part of Contemporary Civilization provided some background. There was no precedent, however, for providing an introduction to Western music to students with little or no background in music. "Music in a sense is a foreign language, only a small fraction of which can be understood without special training," observed Douglas Moore, associate professor of music. "Discussion about it, whether esthetic, historical or technical, can be of small profit to anyone unless it is preceded by the actual experience of enlightened hearing . . . sufficiently vivid to establish a concept of the work under discussion in the mind of the student."25 Aware of this problem, many expressed little confidence that students could profit from Humanities B as from CC or Humanities A.

The challenge was that Humanities B could never be a text-based course like CC and Humanities A. When texts featured at all, it was only peripherally - as aids in understanding non-literary masterpieces. Rather, the course aimed at a different kind of understanding. By introducing students to musical and fine arts masterpieces, Humanities B sought to instill a new literacy, unique among the College's general education courses. Students had to work in non-verbal mediums, and then learn to articulate their experiences of the works of art. The different materials of Humanities B also meant that discussions would be different, because students couldn't point to a page or a date to buttress their impressions. These were ambitious goals, and the College proceeded cautiously trying to realize them.

The difficulty in treating fine arts and music caused the faculty to approach Humanities B in a new way. One crucial difference was that Humanities B was not a required course since there seems to have been a lack of confidence about how things would turn out.26 Experiences outside of the classroom - attendance at concerts and visits to museums - were absolutely central to this course, instead of being interesting or useful additions to classwork. But the most important difference lay in the inclusion of about ten lectures over the course of the year to orient students to the study of art and music. Thus, instructors played a much more important role. While the staff insisted that these lectures were necessary because of the material being treated, they also recognized that they would not be popular with everyone. Indeed, the problem of forcing uninterested students to attend lectures was one reason that there was no initial attempt to require Humanities B.27

For its first few years, Humanities B remained a single course on both fine arts and music, which met twice weekly with alternating lectures and discussions. But the course never achieved real cohesiveness in the original format. The source of the difficulty was the lectures, which promoted historical appreciation at the expense of both discussion and analysis. In 1941, the faculty split Humanities B into two discrete semester courses - one for music (Humanities B1), the other for fine arts (Humanities B2). Each would meet three times a week, with one large lecture and two discussions in small groups.28

But this approach, too, proved unsatisfactory. In 1946, Humanities B1 and Humanities B2 adopted the more successful format of Humanities A and CC, abolishing weekly lectures and devoting all class time to discussions. This decision was a reaffirmation not only of the methods but also the aspirations of the other core courses, especially Humanities A. Students were still expected to attend concerts and personally view masterpieces of art, but they no longer could hide behind lectures in understanding these works. "The first essential," observed Professor Everard M. Upjohn, the first director of the art course, "was to open the eyes of the students, to compel them to examine the buildings, paintings, and statues themselves, as they had examined the books in Humanities A."29 In 1947, both Humanities B courses became requirements, a sure sign that teaching problems had been overcome. Each course had finally come into its own, and the Humanities sequence had taken the form that it retains today.

  1. Introduction to Contemporary Civilization in the West: A Syllabus, eighth edition, revised, prepared by Columbia College Associates in Economics, Government and Public Law, History and Philosophy (New York: Columbia University, 1930), p. 1.

  2. Harry J. Carman and Horace Taylor, "The Two-Year Course in Contemporary Civilization," in Columbia College Education: The Plan of the First Two Years (New York: Columbia University Press, [1939]), p. 13.

  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 (Proceedings of the Institute for Administrative Officers of Higher Institutions, Volume I) (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1929), p. 139.

  4. Justus Buchler, "Reconstruction in the Liberal Arts," in A History of Columbia College on Morningside Heights, edited by Dwight Miner (New York: Columbia University Press, 1954), p. 105.

  5. Coss, "Columbia Experiment," p. 139.

  6. Introduction to Contemporary Civilization in the West: A Syllabus, seventh edition, completely revised, prepared by Columbia College Associates in Economics, Government and Public Law, History and Philosophy. (New York: Columbia University, 1928).

  7. Coss, "Columbia Experiment," pp. 138-39.

  8. Introductory note to Introduction to Contemporary Civilization in the West: A Syllabus, eighth edition, revised.

  9. John J. Coss, "The Contemporary Civilization Course in Columbia College," Columbia University Quarterly 24 (1932), p. 439.

  10. John J. Coss to Herbert E. Hawkes, 19 May 1932, John J. Coss Papers, Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Columbia University.

  11. Coss, "Columbia Experiment," pp. 139-40.

  12. Coss, "Contemporary Civilization Course in Columbia College," p. 439.

  13. John J. Coss to Herbert E. Hawkes, 19 May 1932, Coss Papers.

  14. A Brief Description of Contemporary Civilization B2, ms., Coss Papers; see also Carman and Taylor, "Two-Year Course in Contemporary Civilization," pp. 14-15.

  15. Herbert E. Hawkes to John J. Coss, 21 October 1930, in Coss Papers.

  16. Carman and Taylor, "Two-Year Course in Contemporary Civilization," p. 14.

  17. Quoted in David A. Kaufman, "The Building of a Tradition: A History of Columbia College's Core Curriculum." Unpublished thesis. Columbia University, 1990, p. 67. The controversy is described in great detail in Kaufman, pp. 67-70, though I have not relied exclusively on his description. A large amount of correspondence, both within Columbia and from others, is catalogued in the Coss Papers.

  18. Using outlandish or extreme individuals is a continuing tradition in Contemporary Civilization. Hitler's Mein Kampf has been used regularly in many CC sections in the 1990s. The Contemporary Civilization Reader, third edition (New York: American Heritage Custom Publishing, 1994), made available to students in 1994-95, includes Jeremy Bentham's essay "Paederasty," which was outrageous when it was first published and perhaps still shocks some today.

  19. "Substitutes for Marriage Advised in Columbia College," Philadelphia Record 19 February 1932.

  20. John J. Coss to Nicholas Murray Butler, 19 February 1932, Coss Papers.

  21. Coss, "The Discussion of Marriage and the Family," ms., Coss Papers.

  22. Ernest L. Boyer, College: The Undergraduate Experience in America (New York: Harper & Row, 1987), p. 65.

  23. Coss believed that "each college should make use of all available material but should make its own syllabus." Coss, "Columbia Experiment," p. 141.

  24. Mowat G. Fraser, The College of the Future: An Appraisal of Fundamental Plans and Trends in American Higher Education (New York: Columbia University Press, 1937), pp. 320-21.

  25. Douglas Moore, "The Two-Year Course in the Humanities: The Second Year," Columbia College Education: The Plan of the First Two Years, p. 33.

  26. Buchler, "Reconstruction," p. 119.

  27. Moore, "Second Year," p. 35.

  28. Something like this has been regularly suggested for both CC and Humanities A over the years, though the staffs have consistently rejected it.

  29. Quoted in Buchler, "Reconstruction," p. 121.