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College leads “Tradition and Innovation: Liberal Arts Education Through Core Texts” workshop

Friday, August 1, 2014

On June 1, Columbia College welcomed 26 faculty members from 13 institutions from across the United States, Europe, and China to participate in “Tradition and Innovation: Liberal Arts Education Through Core Texts,” a two-week intensive workshop on designing and teaching Core courses  conducted in partnership with the Association for Core Texts and Courses (ACTC) and Yale University’s Directed Studies Program.

Supported by a major grant from the Teagle Foundation, the seminar is part of an initiative that brings together Columbia, Yale and the University of Chicago to examine the place and prospects of undergraduate Core Curricula in research universities.  Additional support was provided by the Bradley Foundation and by the Association for Core Texts and Courses.

“The seminar was an opportunity to share some of the accumulated know-how accrued by Columbia and Yale on how to run Core programs, as well as to learn how others are thinking about and advancing the liberal arts tradition,” said Roosevelt Montás CC’95, GSAS’04, director of Columbia’s Center for the Core Curriculum and associate dean of academic affairs, who is spearheading the project. “Working with these teams, I was struck by the variety of institutions they represented, and by the enthusiasm they shared for rigorous, discussion-based courses that study texts of enduring cultural significance.”

The first week of the seminar was conducted at Columbia, while the second week took place on the Yale campus.  Participating professors, temporarily converted into students, lived in University Residence Halls.  Participation in the seminar was by selective application and required institutions to propose plans for curricular development and to commit to supporting the implementation of courses developed or revised by the faculty members who attended the seminar.  Each institution sent two faculty members, a senior (tenured) and a junior (untenured) professor, who were then divided into two groups of 13 students. Each group read an intensive common syllabus that included Plato, Aristotle, Machiavelli, Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau, De Tocqueville, Nietzsche and Freud, selections modelled on the Core courses offered at Columbia and Yale, with one seminar section taught by Kathy Eden, the Chavkin Family Professor of English Literature and professor of Classics, and the other by Norma Thompson, associate director of the Whitney Humanities Center and senior lecturer in the humanities at Yale. 

On each of the two Fridays of the seminar, Montás and J. Scott Lee, executive director of the Association of Core Texts and Courses, met with each of the 13 teams to offer advice on curricular and institutional development.

The schools represented came from all over the United States and included both public and private, small and large, and religious and secular institutions.  There was also a strong international presence: one school from Canada, two from Europe, and three from China. 

“The interest of foreign universities in the American Liberal Arts tradition was another striking aspect of the workshop, Montas said. “In particular, these schools see Core Curricula as a way to liberalize their educational models while grounding students in intellectual and artistic traditions that illuminate their contemporary world.”

In April 2015, participants from this year’s seminar will reconvene at the Association of Core Texts and Courses’ annual conference, which will take place in Plymouth, Massachusetts, to report on the progress of their curricular projects.  A second “Tradition and Innovation” seminar is being planned for the summer of 2016, to be held at Columbia and at the University of Chicago.

“It was clear that this workshop would reverberate in the institutions that participated,” said Montás, who is a product of Columbia College’s Core Curriculum. “Generating new courses, inspiring curricular reforms, creating a network of collegial collaboration and, most importantly, bringing the power Core text based education to more students.”