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The Core Curriculum

Chapter 8: “the integrity of the core curriculum”

In 1988, the College, adopting a major recommendation of the de Bary Committee, established the Standing Committee on the Core. By creating this committee, originally headed by Professor Smit, chairman of CC, the College signaled its continuing commitment to its core courses. But it was also acknowledging that in a charged political atmosphere - and in light of the increasing financial difficulties facing the College - the core was going to have to run just to stay in place.

The de Bary Report, worried that existing core courses would lose coherence and integrity from the haphazard or arbitrary insertion of non-Western material, had reaffirmed their primary focus on Western civilization. But it also recognized the need to examine civilizations and cultures outside the West, and it recommended enlarging the core for that purpose as well as for further discussion of contemporary issues and problems.1 In 1990, the Standing Committee established the "Extended Core" to treat these themes. As Associate Dean Kathryn Yatrakis remarked, "We did not want a student to graduate from the College without at the very least an introductory course about a major culture not covered in a course like CC."2

The language describing this new requirement has changed somewhat: "Extended Core" has given way to "Major Cultures." (Political correctness probably played some role here since some objected that the term "Extended Core" suggested that non-Western cultures were somehow less central than Western ones.) But the requirement itself has remained basically the same. In order to graduate, students must take two courses about non-Western cultures from a list that the Standing Committee draws up.3

While most applaud this decision, there is concern about the courses used to fulfill this requirement. There aren't many small discussion courses on the Major Cultures course list, so most options listed are really standard departmental offerings. Of course, students can take the Asian Civilizations and Humanities courses, closely modeled on core courses, but they can just as easily take approved lectures. Professor de Bary has suggested that the College only allow courses on the Major Cultures list "that meet the criteria for a genuine core course."4 There are hopes that more such offerings will be forthcoming. In an encouraging move, Professor Marcia Wright is spearheading the formation of courses in African civilizations and cultures that are based on CC and the Humanities.

MULTICULTURAL IMPERATIVES also contributed to changes in the Contemporary Civilization course. In 1993, the Standing Committee approved the formation of two "experimental" tracks of CC to test new formats and new readings. Track A follows the chronological sequence of CC, although it offers some unfamiliar material, including some ancient texts and non-Western readings. Track B, a more radical break with tradition, divides the course into separate sections (on topics including ethics or social formation) and uses readings from different eras for each section.

These experimental sections have proven popular, and the Standing Committee has decided to continue them. After all, tinkering with the plan of CC is as old as the course itself. Nevertheless, some question the wisdom of offering CC sections that differ so profoundly from the others. A major virtue of CC has been the common intellectual experience that it offers all students. In the 1970s, the course had great difficulty re-establishing this common experience because instructors carelessly handled the rather flexible list of required readings. What happens to the goal of a common experience if the two experimental tracks continue to diverge from the majority of CC classes and (as has increasingly been the case) from each other? Even popular innovations can become problematic in light of the course's enduring goals.

For the vast majority of CC sections, however, changes have been more subtle. As has been so often the case over the years, a great deal of energy has been devoted to improving the readings available to students. To complement the paperbacks that still form the backbone of the course, in 1991 the CC staff compiled Readings in Contemporary Civilization, containing short works, substantial extracts from large works, and documents. In its first two editions this reader was merely a bound collection of photocopies of materials not easily obtained or too expensive for students to purchase separately. The third edition (available for 1994-95), called the Contemporary Civilization Reader, reached 820 pages and was professionally produced.5 A recently completed fourth edition includes brief introductions to the selections.

Both practical and philosophical considerations support the CC reader. It's less expensive and more efficient for the College to create this source book than to continue distributing photocopies of hard-to-find materials. But the Contemporary Civilization Reader also emphasizes that CC is a course about problems, not great books. Some issues are best approached through selections or documents, and the CC reader accommodates that need. (Some staff worry, however, that students won't take materials in the reader as seriously as the paperbacks they purchase. One hopes that this problem will dissipate as the reader becomes an established ingredient in the course.) Indeed, the CC staff has rediscovered many of the virtues of the old Redbooks, without abandoning the in-depth analysis that reading entire works allows.

EXPERIMENTAL SECTIONS and expanding source books demonstrate the continued vitality of CC. Literature Humanities has not experimented with its format, but it, too, has adapted with the times by including new authors and allowing more modern texts. Nonetheless, this vitality offers little protection against the many practical problems facing the core in the 1990s. Some of these aren't new. Departmental obligations and scholarly ambitions continually assert themselves at the expense of general learning. Smit recently complained that the faculty "had lost a lot of interest . . . in the whole deliberation over the changes in CC."6 Generalists are again finding themselves to be black sheep. "People do not come to graduate school or to teach at Columbia because they are interested in wrestling with large issues," noted Wright. "Our era is one of retreat into something that is less ambiguous."7

The unambiguous needs of Columbia do require im-mediate attention. In June 1994 the Committee on Undergraduate Education (CUE) issued a report complaining of the "insufficient attention and insufficient resources" available for majors. But in its efforts to enhance the majors system, the CUE Report looks at core courses in the same way that a cat looks at a mouse. It encourages the College to consider "a possible reduction and redesign of general education requirements" for undergraduates to free up time for advanced work, perhaps by combining CC and Lit Hum into a single three-semester sequence.8

As the CUE contemplated these proposals, financial pressures prompted misguided experiments with core courses. The first "major recommendation" of the 1993 Report on the Future of Columbia College was to "maintain the integrity of the core curriculum, including the format, size of classes and discussion technique in Contemporary Civilization and the Humanities courses."9 Nevertheless, in the fall of 1993, two sections of Music Humanities were enlarged (to thirty-nine and fifty-six students respectively) from the normal maximum of twenty-six. The experiment failed miserably. Students in the two sections were openly dismayed, more than eight hundred students signed a petition complaining about the change, and the College abandoned the plan. "The experiment in Music Humanities has come to an inglorious end," Dean Steven Marcus announced. "It was something of a misadventure to begin with."10 Many still fear that if the College chooses to increase enrollment significantly, enlarging core courses will prove inevitable, though Dean Marcus has insisted that the College has "no plans for enlarging the size of core classes."11

As the core curriculum enters its seventy-sixth year, many worry about its future. Financial and ideological pressures are still growing, without any end in sight. "I believe that the core is imperiled by the expansion of the College without commensurate increase in faculty, and by the strengthening of undergraduate majors at the inevitable cost of contracting the current general education requirements in the first two years," Rosenberg has remarked. "Unwittingly, the best of intentions may bring about the worst of consequences."12

COLUMBIA'S CORE CURRICULUM, which has captured the interest and imagination of more students and teachers over the years than anyone had the right to expect, stands at a crossroads. What started as an educational experiment has become the defining feature of a Columbia College education - the soul of the College. Teaching in the core remains difficult, but few consider it a burden. Among both professors and preceptors, commitment is remarkably high, especially under the difficult current conditions. In contrast to the dark days of the 1970s, faculty, students, and alumni care about the core, and are working toward its survival.

While partisans of the Columbia core curriculum take solace that this is still a history without an end, the core faces formidable obstacles. One does not have to be a conservative to recognize that the barrage from multiculturalism has taken its toll on the core. At the same time, adapting the core to a new era is like cutting off the hydra's head. The College rightly decides to expand the core curriculum, but it now has to find teachers and courses to satisfy its new requirements. There are signs that tenured faculty participation in core courses is on the rise, but this may reduce the number of departmental course offerings.

And while the College struggles to maintain its core curriculum, other schools have stumbled in similar efforts. Fairly or not, Stanford University is still criticized for abandoning its Western civilization requirement. As this essay was being written, Yale University was obliged to return more than twenty million dollars to a disgruntled alumnus, unhappy that the school had not used his gift to support an undergraduate Western civilization program. Little wonder, then, that so many at Columbia bristle at criticisms of the core and are so willing to man the barricades in its defense. Now more than ever, there is a recognition that the legacy of CC and the Humanities would be easy to squander, yet difficult, perhaps impossible, to redeem.

Nevertheless, despite all the centrifugal forces threatening to unravel the core, a siege mentality doesn't help. A core is a center, not a whole; it's a foundation, not a fortress. If the educational ideal embodied in Contemporary Civilization and the Humanities is not to become a mere curiosity or a dusty heirloom from a bygone era, the Columbia core must embrace both its own traditions and the insistent problems of an ever-changing present. For the core to remain vigorous, there must always be small classes, dedicated teachers, and interested students, but it will also have to evolve as its teachers - upon whom responsibility for core courses ultimately rests - adapt it to changing conditions. It does no good to deny change, since change has been part of the experiment from the beginning. It does no good to deny tradition in favor of an idealized multicultural present, since our present makes so little sense without an understanding of our past.

At the end, the image of the core as an oasis - fertile, nourishing, and welcoming - returns. In the 1990s, the escalating costs of a college education and intense concerns about getting into graduate or professional school, or just making a living after college, have made Contemporary Civilization and the Humanities anomalous - and indispensable. Where else in their college careers are students encouraged to step back from their pressing and worthy march toward a degree and look squarely at themselves and the world around them? But this garden needs constant tending. If Columbia College is to remain true to its most noble impulses, it must cultivate these core courses - which remain a refuge from the fleeting and the trivial - not just continue them. Isn't that what a liberal education is all about?

  1. See J. W. Smit, "Other Voices, Other Cultures," Columbia College Today 18, no. 1 (Winter 1991), pp. 64, 62.

  2. Quoted in Ihtsham Haq, "CC Experimental Sections Praised," The Federalist Paper 18 October 1994.

  3. In 1993-94, as part of an effort to promote the study of contemporary problems, the "Major Cultures" requirement became the "Cultures and Issues" requirement. In this regimen, students took two Major Cultures courses or one Major Cultures course and one Contemporary Issues course. Two Contemporary Issues courses did not suffice. Because of the difficulty in establishing an acceptable list of Contemporary Issues courses, the Standing Committee abandoned this approach and returned to the simpler Major Cultures requirement in 1994-95.

  4. Wm. Theodore de Bary, "Asia and the Core," unpublished ms., 13 April 1995, p. 15.

  5. Contemporary Civilization Reader, third edition, edited by Contemporary Civilization Staff, Columbia University (New York: American Heritage Custom Publishing, 1994).

  6. Haq, "CC Experimental Sections Praised."

  7. Ibid.

  8. Report of the Committee on Undergraduate Education, June 1994 (New York: Columbia University, 1994). See especially Report of Subcommittee #1, pp. 3-4, and Report of Subcommittee #2, pp. 25, 26-27.

  9. Report of the Committee on the Future of Columbia College, 27 May 1993 (New York: Columbia College, 1993), p. 7.

  10. For a more thorough description of this controversy, and Dean Marcus's comments, see "Music Hum Experiment Sounds a Sour Note," Columbia College Today 20, no. 1 (Winter/Spring 1994), pp. 2-3.

  11. Steven Marcus, "Thriving and Self-Critical," Columbia College Today 20, no. 1 (Winter/Spring 1994), p. 24.

  12. John D. Rosenberg to the author, 3 March 1995.