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The Core Curriculum

Chapter 4: “ideas that have persisted”

With the implementation of the Humanities sequence in 1937, the College had established an undergraduate curriculum that promised to give all students a firm grounding in the liberal arts. In addition, in 1934 the College (at the prodding of Dean Hawkes) even instituted an optional two-year natural science sequence - Science A and B - for underclassmen that attempted to emulate the success of Contemporary Civilization.1 While the original Science A and B proved relatively short-lived, the very effort to offer such a survey illustrates how completely the idea of general education had supplanted the impulse toward specialization at Columbia.

Taken together, CC, Humanities, and Science A and B formed "three pillars" of undergraduate education, providing students with a firm base for planning their studies as upperclassmen. But this ambitious program placed considerable burdens on students. In 1918, before CC began, required courses made up around one-third of the undergraduate course of study. In 1938, required courses took up nearly one-half of undergraduate study.2 The program also placed a considerable burden on the College's faculty. It is clear that College instructors could not devote as much energy to original research as other Columbia faculty; the College's Committee on Plans noted that "the teaching load of officers of instruction in the College is probably heavier than in other divisions of the University."3

Despite these burdens, the College remained committed to its core courses, although it continued to tinker with them. While Humanities B was beginning the several years of reappraisals and modifications that would result in its becoming a full-fledged member of the core curriculum, general education courses in the natural sciences were not so successful. The material and meth-odologies of the natural sciences didn't prove amenable to small discussions, and the large lectures that instead formed the meat of the science sequence did not prove especially effective or popular. The College abandoned the original Science A and B courses in 1941 as World War II began to preoccupy the University's science faculty. Nevertheless, after the war there were widespread hopes of formulating new core courses in the natural sciences, though these never came to fruition.4


ONCE AGAIN, however, the most dramatic changes in the core curriculum were in the Contemporary Civilization course, which was beginning yet another transformation. After the spring semester of 1941, students in CC-A started reading selections from primary sources in addition to specialized articles and chapters from textbooks. For the following fall semester, students were able to purchase a "source book," which contained the various readings together in a single packet. This shift toward source readings represented cross-fertilization within Columbia's core curriculum. College officials readily acknowledged that the introduction of source readings in CC-A reflected the success of Humanities A, which proved that freshmen were able to contend with sophisticated original sources. Just as Humanities A adopted the interdisciplinary, small discussion format of Contemporary Civilization, so now CC borrowed the approach of Humanities A in dealing with sources.

This was not, however, a completely abrupt shift in the CC syllabus. Attempts to enliven and even replace the textbook materials that formed the backbone of CC-A went back many years. "Since 1935 the living substance of the course has increasingly consisted of source readings, compiled by the staff, and of specialized articles, written by the staff," noted the College's Committee on Plans in 1946.5 In fact, the first attempt to include non-textbook material, in 1935-36, involved short selections of contemporary and modern fiction for each section of the course. Thus, in discussing the rise of the nation-state in the seventeenth century in the fall semester, students not only read political histories of Europe but also a piece from Alexandre Dumas's The Three Musketeers.6 Soon the College decided not to rely on fiction in CC-A, but it was unwilling to return to secondary sources exclusively. There was a conscious desire to move textbooks into the background since they offered interpretations that competed with the students' own. "Our whole effort is to eliminate predigested opinions," observed Hawkes.7

Two other options suggested themselves. First, the staff might shift the course's focus to documents (constitutions, charters, statutes, manifestos), which could lay claim to being the actual stuff of history. In the late 1930s, the staff seemed to favor using such documents. "Greater attention should be paid to original source material in CC," insisted one faculty committee. "This would obviate the justifiable criticism that most education today is education out of third- and fourth-rate textbooks instead of a consideration and criticism of contemporary documents."8 But the success of Humanities A indicated another option. CC could use treatises, essays, and other contemporary analyses just as Humanities A used masterpieces of Western philosophy and literature. Although some CC teachers were uncomfortable with these "ideological-literary" texts, as they somewhat derisively called them, it wasn't long before others suggested that "readings such as those used in the Humanities course (and others) could well be incorporated into CC-A."9 There were advantages to these materials. Even in selections they provided arguments that could be discussed and, unlike documents, they often established their own historical contexts, reducing the need for secondary sources.

The CC readings adopted for 1941-42 included both documents and "ideological-literary" texts (beginning with a selection from Aristotle's Politics), though it slightly favored non-documentary materials. This was the real innovation of the 1941 source book: the inclusion of readings (especially philosophical and political treatises) that were normally associated with Humanities A. The decision to use selections from Aristotle and Cicero, Wycliffe and Luther, Machiavelli and Erasmus, and others - in addition to documents such as the medieval "Ordinance of Laborers" and "Truce of God," or the seventeenth-century "Agreement of the People" - widened the range of primary sources available to students. Proponents of this new emphasis boasted that it allowed a student to become "immersed in the same materials on which historians relied to write the histories he had read."10 Only the success of Humanities made possible this revision of the CC-A syllabus.11 The relationship between the two courses had become reciprocal.

Some instructors hesitated to rely on non-documentary sources, however. For these, the English Bill of Rights remained a more useful introduction to the Glorious Revolution than John Locke's Second Treatise on Government, despite difficulties in teaching documents. Some also thought that documents were more appropriate to the historical and political orientation of CC-A. In 1941, there were a few vigorous objections within the staff to the syllabus precisely because it seemed to favor "ideological-literary" texts. Professor Eugene Golob insisted that the readings for the 1941 source book provided "an inadequate selection from the standpoint of the . . . basis of the course."12

Nonetheless, the new approach quickly caught on. "Results were so encouraging that the readings soon came to be regarded, by staff and students alike, as one of the most valuable features of the course," boasted the staff.13 But the changes made in 1941 did not create a great books curriculum in CC-A, even when there was some overlap in readings with Humanities A. Not only did the CC syllabus include documents, but the other sources were quite happily read in selections, in contrast to the Humanities courses, which read entire texts whenever possible.

This crucial distinction reflected the different ambitions of Humanities and CC. "The context in which the original historical materials are read, and the way in which they function, are not the same in CC as in Humanities," noted the history professor Justus Buchler. "In CC they are read as sources, as data; in Humanities they are read as self-sufficient creations, as ends in themselves."14 In CC students now read portions of an author in order to help understand a period and implications for the present. "Take the case of the reception of Aristotle and Cicero by the middle ages . . . ," said the Committee on Plans. "The student reads from Aristotle and Cicero to see what meaning these had to the classical worlds. He then reads from Thomas Aquinas to comprehend what the concepts of science and natural law meant to the medieval world."15 Problems, not texts, still defined the course.


EVEN THOUGH CC was moving toward using original sources, there was no fixed canon of readings forced upon students. The staff insisted that each reading was selected because it embodied "a genuine source of contemporary civilization." Readings were "not historical curiosities, but ideas that have persisted."16 At first, there wasn't even a unified source book since there was so much disagreement within the CC staff about what to select. In 1941, primary sources were distributed to students in twenty-four separate fascicles so that selections could be more easily revised and substitutions made. In 1943, the staff provided supplementary fascicles. In 1946, after yet another revision, the College felt confident enough to present the CC-A readings in an expanded and more permanent form. The publication of the two-volume Introduction to Contemporary Civilization in the West: A Source Book in 1946 was another milestone in the history of the core curriculum at Columbia, with a profound impact on American education as a whole.

Even in its first edition, publishing the Source Book was a major event. Not only was it the most ambitious of all the original texts generated by CC (the first edition exceeded 2000 pages in its two volumes), but it made the readings and program of CC much more stable. It did not signal, however, the end of revisions to the course or its readings. In 1954, the CC staff published the second edition of the Source Book, which was more of an expansion than a revision since several readings were added but only one was excised. In 1960, a third (and it proved final) edition was pub-lished, with more substantial revisions, additions, and excisions of readings. At Columbia, the third edition of the Source Book became famous as the "Redbooks" (so-called because of their rich, red cloth covers), and they became omnipresent not only at Columbia, but also at many other colleges. Indeed, the wide distribution of the Source Book slowed completion of the third edition because, its editors noted, "the expectations of the many schools using the book have by now established a nearly inviolable format."17


AS WORLD WAR II drew to a close, the cause of general education in the United States acquired greater urgency, though not exclusively because of Columbia. In 1945, Harvard University issued its report General Education in a Free Society, popularly known as the Redbook, which reflected two years' work by a committee of Harvard faculty and outside experts. At the end of its deliberations, this committee offered nothing less than "a complete educational philosophy for American education." Although much of the Harvard Redbook was directed toward high school education, its greatest influence was felt at the collegiate level, where it "became the bible of general education" for many institutions.18

It's not that Columbia's commitment was on the wane. Rather, despite all the practical difficulties that the war brought to college life, World War II did not prompt a fundamental reappraisal of educational policy at Columbia College as had World War I. The College's faculty had spent the war years revising and perfecting a curriculum that had maintained largely the same goals since 1919. Columbia had chosen its path, and it was content to continue along it. By contrast, World War II prompted a major rethinking at Harvard, which had supported the elective system for so many years. Now Harvard's committee sought some unifying principle to guide American education as the United States assumed an even more prominent role in world affairs. Indeed, the Harvard Redbook has been described as "the national symbol of renewal" in American education after World War II.19

Despite this lofty claim, Columbia College graduates would see little new in the renewal proposed in the Harvard Redbook. Its authors were concerned with education's role in balancing the needs of individuals and of the community in a democratic society, much the same concerns that had given life to general education courses at Columbia twenty-five years earlier. In order to combat a lack of cohesiveness and commonality in collegiate education, the Redbook advocated the creation of required undergraduate courses in the humanities, social sciences, and natural sciences that would emphasize the heritage of Western civilization and endow all students with a common intellectual background.

The content of the Redbook's proposed humanities course (Great Texts of Literature) and of the social sciences course (Western Thought and Institutions) only heightens the sense of déjà vu. Both proposed courses cover the same ground as Humanities and CC. As the sociologist Daniel Bell noted, "In the specific proposals of the Harvard report, the rationale is strikingly that of the Columbia Humanities and Contemporary Civilization courses."20 But the Redbook was curiously reticent in acknow-ledging its debts to Columbia or Chicago, though both these schools had promoted general education for years. The Redbook did recognize the originality of CC, noting that its proposed social science course was "not unlike the very successful introductory course, 'Contemporary Civilization,' which has been given at Columbia during the past twenty-six years."21 All in all, there is little originality in the Harvard Redbook. "Seldom has such an effort, two years in the process, been devoted to reinventing the wheel," remarked W. B. Carnochan.22

More important, if there was a competition to provide the most successful general education program, slow and steady still wins the race. And Columbia College clearly played the tortoise to Harvard's hare. While Harvard's faculty voted in principle to follow the Redbook's recommendations, it never implemented rigorous, cohesive required courses in the humanities, social sciences, and natural sciences; instead, it allowed students to select from several alternatives in each field. Later, even the limited distribution requirements that were implemented at Harvard were further undermined.23 By contrast, the Columbia Redbooks, designed only for use in Columbia College, came to be used by nearly two hundred other colleges.24

More was at stake here than bragging rights. The similarities between Harvard's and Columbia's visions are what truly matters. Looking back from the 1960s, Bell noted "the high degree of congruence, both in motives that shaped these proposals and in the agreement on approach and subjects."25 Unintentionally, the Harvard Redbook implicitly reaffirmed the continuing value of the Columbia Redbooks. General education was now a national concern, and it was neither obstinacy nor a sterile traditionalism that compelled Columbia to persevere in offering its core courses.


MEANWHILE, the College continued to polish its core curriculum. Since the beginning of the course, the College had commissioned original textbooks for use in CC. Some, like Randall's Making of the Modern Mind, proved quite popular. As we have seen, since the seventh edition of the syllabus, the College had used specialized text that more precisely corresponded to the thematic divisions in the course, and this tendency predominated. When the College decided to make greater use of original sources, which were eventually gathered together in the Source Book, it also launched a parallel effort to provide a reader of specialized articles written by the staff. By the 1940s, there was a conscious effort to replace textbooks with articles whenever possible.

In 1946, the articles were gathered together in the two-volume Introduction to Contemporary Civilization in the West: A Manual. This was the most serious attempt to date at creating a unique secondary source for CC, but even this was subject to almost immediate revision. In 1948, the CC staff revised this text into Chapters in Western Civilization, with articles by faculty from Columbia and other schools. This collection of background readings was updated along with the Source Book, with substantially revised (and expanded) editions coming out in 1954 and 1961-62. Even though Chapters was envisioned primarily as a complement to the Source Book, its editors recognized that "it is self-sufficient and can also be used as a basic text in European history and Western Civilization courses."26


THE COLLEGE DEMONSTRATED its commitment to general education in other ways. While both CC-A and CC-B focused exclusively on Western civilization, this was rarely viewed as a complete or even adequate introduction to the modern world. "In my first CC class Professor Harry Carman reminded the students that CC would just be dealing with the West," reminisced Wm. Theodore de Bary, who entered the College in 1937. "He suggested that someone in the class prepare himself to extend the program to Asia."27 Others shared this interest in creating courses to introduce students to Asian cultures, but World War II postponed any further plans, even as it heightened interest in Asia.

In 1947 the College established the first Oriental Studies program in the United States.28 The colloquium in Oriental Humanities, given in 1947-48, studied Asian classics following the two-instructor format of the Colloquium in Important Books. The early supporters of Columbia's Oriental Studies program - not only Carman, but also Van Doren, Weaver, and Moses Hadas - were not specialists on Asia but rather, as de Bary remembered, "amateur types, liberal-minded gentlemen who took education, and not just their own scholarly research, seriously."29 Indeed, Hadas, a classicist, and Herbert Deane, a political scientist, co-taught in the first year of this colloquium.

The fuller development of general education on Asia came in the 1950s, when de Bary began to build courses (rather than colloquia) on Asia that were modeled directly upon CC and Humanities A. Oriental Civilizations (later renamed Asian Civilizations) "dealt with historical and political problems in Japan, China, India and the Arab world." Oriental (later Asian) Humanities read "masterpieces from all those civilizations."30 Like their Western counterparts, these courses generated their own source books, syllabi, translations, and teachers' guides.31 Like other Columbia primers, they have traveled beyond the Columbia campus. Indeed, the three volumes of source readings prepared for the Oriental Civilizations course have been widely used the world over and are among the all-time best-sellers from the Columbia University Press.

Despite similarities in aims and structure, the parallels with CC and Humanities are not perfect. Difficulties in staffing these Asian courses have meant that the College has rarely offered more than four or five sections of each; nor has there been any attempt to require them. But in the late 1980s, when the College decided to implement an "Extended Core" (now the Major Cultures requirement) to give fuller treatment to the non-Western world, it already had one set of courses with sophisticated materials and a proven record.


TO SOME, Columbia after World War II was approaching Nicholas Murray Butler's dream of creating an "Acropolis on Morningside." Dwight David Eisenhower served briefly as Columbia's president, before being called to other duties. Columbia faculty - Van Doren, Trilling, Hadas, Richard Hofstadter, and Gilbert Highet, among others - were figures of national importance. The historian Dwight Miner even appeared on the cover of Time magazine as one of America's great teachers. All in all, the University seemed to be flowering, offering "a clear view of 1950s intellectual life."32 In 1954, the bicentennial celebration of the founding of King's College provided an opportunity for both students and faculty to look back with satisfaction at two centuries of achievement, including thirty-five successful years with core courses.

For many, the postwar years were also the glory days of Columbia's core curriculum. In 1949, the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching sponsored trips by faculty from other schools to examine Columbia's successful core courses. They witnessed a College where the most distinguished faculty members - often professors with national reputations - taught freshman CC and Humanities courses, and enjoyed it. Miner used to try to take each of his CC students to lunch during the year. Van Doren happily remembered that "nothing I ever did with students was more fun" than the seventeen years he spent teaching Humanities A.33 Trilling described Columbia as "an academic community which was informed by a sense not merely of scholarly, but of educational purpose, and which was devoted to making even more cogent its conception of what a liberal and humane education consists in."34 The ideal of liberal education gripped the imagination of students no less than faculty. In 1953 a Spectator editorial renewed calls for the creation of required general education courses in the natural sciences, ignoring all unsuccessful previous attempts to create just such courses.35 As the College entered the 1950s, the edifice of core courses at the College seemed more stable than it had ever been.

  1. The early years of Science A and B are described in "The Two-Year Course in Science," in Columbia College Education: The Plan of the First Two Years (New York: Columbia University Press, [1939]), pp. 20-24.

  2. 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. 67.

  3. A College Program in Action: A Review of Working Principles at Columbia College (New York: Columbia University Press, 1946), p. 75.

  4. The vicissitudes of the natural science sequence are described in A College Program in Action, pp. 116-31. See also "Science: The Missing Link in General Education," Columbia College Today 8, no. 1 (Winter 1981), pp. 19-20.

  5. A College Program in Action, p. 98.

  6. Memorandum from Harry J. Carman to John J. Coss, t.ms., 3 December 1935, Harry J. Carman Papers, Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Columbia University.

  7. "Columbia Tests New Approach to the Humanities," New York Herald Tribune 30 November 1941.

  8. Untitled memorandum, in subject folder "Contemporary Civilization," in Carman Papers. While the memorandum is undated, its contents place it after the creation of Humanities A and before the creation of the CC Source Book.

  9. Memorandum [see note 6 above].

  10. Buchler, "Reconstruction," p. 106.

  11. New York Herald Tribune, "Columbia Tests New Approach to the Humanities."

  12. Eugene Golob to CC Revision Committee, 3 November 1941, in Carman Papers.

  13. Preface to Introduction to Contemporary Civilization in the West: A Source Book, 2 vols. [first edition] (New York: Columbia University Press, 1946).

  14. Buchler, "Reconstruction," p. 107.

  15. A College Program in Action, p. 97.

  16. Preface to Introduction to Contemporary Civilization in the West: A Source Book, first edition.

  17. Preface to Introduction to Contemporary Civilization in the West: A Source Book, third edition, 2 vols. (New York: Columbia University Press, 1960).

  18. Daniel Bell, The Reforming of General Education: The Columbia College Experience in Its National Setting (New York and London: Columbia University Press, 1966), p. 38.

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

  20. Bell, Reforming of General Education, p. 44. Since Bell was a member of the CC staff in the 1950s and 1960s, he might be thought a biased source, though (ironically) he subsequently left Columbia for a position at Harvard. An almost identical critique of the Harvard Redbook can be found in W. B. Carnochan, The Battleground of the Curriculum (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1993), pp. 90-94. Professor Carnochan, the Lyman Professor of the Humanities at Stanford University, was formerly director of Stanford's Humanities Center.

  21. Quoted in Bell, Reforming of General Education, p. 44.

  22. Carnochan, Battleground of the Curriculum,93.

  23. Ibid., pp. 91, 94-97.

  24. Buchler, "Reconstruction," p. 108.

  25. Bell, Reforming of General Education, p. 45.

  26. Preface to Chapters in Western Civilization, edited by the Contemporary Civilization Staff of Columbia College, Columbia University, third edition (New York and London: Columbia University Press, 1961, 1962).

  27. Wm. Theodore de Bary to the author, 27 February 1995.

  28. John D. Rosenberg, "The Imperiled Heart of the Core," Columbia College Today 20, no.1 (Winter/Spring 1994), p. 19.

  29. Wm. Theodore de Bary, "Asian Classics as 'Great Books of the East,'" in de Bary and Irene Bloom, eds., Approaches to Asian Classics (New York: Columbia University Press, 1990), p. 40.

  30. 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. 59. The educational issues entailed by these courses are analyzed in de Bary, "Asian Classics." The readings for each course in the 1970s are listed in Tradition and Innovation, pp. 104-9, 111-12.

  31. The source books are Sources of Japanese Tradition (New York: Columbia University Press, 1958), Sources of Chinese Tradition (New York: Columbia University Press, 1960), and Sources of Indian Tradition (New York: Columbia University Press, 1960). Background readings were published in Approaches to the Oriental Classics (New York: Columbia University Press, 1958) and Approaches to Asian Civilizations (New York: Columbia University Press, 1964).

  32. Russell Jacoby, The Last Intellectuals: American Culture in the Age of Academe (New York: Basic Books, 1988), p. 78.

  33. The Autobiography of Mark Van Doren (New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1958), p. 211.

  34. Lionel Trilling, "The Uncertain Future of the Humanist Educational Ideal," in The Last Decade: Essays and Reviews, 1965-75, edited by Diana Trilling (New York and London: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1979), p. 165.

  35. Columbia Spectator 12 March 1953.