Your Core Stories

Generations of alumni celebrate the works, instructors, and experiences of the 100-year-old Core Curriculum.

Illustrations by James Gulliver Hancock

The measure of the Core Curriculum resides not only in the number of years it has existed, but also in the generations of students it has influenced. And as the Core sails into its 101st year, that influence shows no signs of abating — it remains one of the defining experiences of a Columbia College education and unites the entire College community. For that reason, we knew that every alum would have a Core story to tell. Over the past year, as part of the College’s Core Centennial celebration, we’ve asked about your favorite works, thinkers, artists and writers; which professors had an impact; what you learned; and which part of the Core experience you enjoyed most. Here’s a sampling of your responses; share your story at

—The Editors

[ Core Experience ]

The Core is a century old, and I am getting close! The sum of my Core experience only became apparent to me after graduation and the realization that, year after year, without diminution to this day, the Core had become the foundation for a life of honesty, integrity, curiosity and an appreciation of the values upon which a virtuous life may be built. That “virtuous life” became, and remains, the primary goal toward which I strive in the small ways that present themselves day to day.

— John Weaver ’49


Learning is a painful experience sometimes. Unhinging your interior and allowing in new ideas and new thoughts, and new perspectives from other students, is not an easy or comfortable experience. The single institution to which I’m most indebted is Columbia College. I’ve drawn from what I learned there my entire life.

— Tony Kushner ’78


I came to Columbia with a background in math and physics. The Core opened my eyes, mind and heart to a lifetime of fullness and inspiration.

— Dr. Larry Harte ’53


I remember the first thing Elliot Gilbert, our Lit Hum instructor, said at the beginning of the course: “Only a very thin piece of asphalt or cement separates us from the jungle.” I’ve kept it in mind through everything and have, I hope, managed to increase its thickness.

— Harry Levy ’65


Herodotus: His work is dirty, mythical, action-packed.

— Sara Cherkezian ’94


Often my wife will ask me a question when doing a crossword puzzle, reading
a book or needing some fact. Often the answer comes to me out of the Core. She says, “HOW DID YOU KNOW THAT?” I smile.

— Gregory Tarsy ’65


There is no substitute for being an educated citizen, and the Core prepares you to be just that.

— Brian Krisberg ’81, LAW’84

[ core experience ]

So much of one’s experience is based on the ability of the professor to communicate, and to facilitate and elevate discussions, creating magic in the classroom and bringing home the Core. I enjoyed so many teachers — adjunct, graduate, full professors — who were able to do this consistently.

— Dehua “Wah” Chen ’92


Lit Hum and CC opened my eyes to civilization as a conversation, how authors wrote in response to their predecessors and how my classmates and I fit into that conversation. The Core taught me to read, to listen and to see.

— Dr. Jonathan Rosand ’88, PS’94


Genesis: Analyzing what is perhaps the most influential text in the Western canon for its literary value was fascinating to me.

— Jacob Kim-Sherman ’23


My first museum visit was thanks to Art Humanities; it changed my major from economics to art history.

— Laurence Berger ’69, SIPA’70, BUS’71


Great and constructive ideas can come from anybody at any time.

— Alan Freeman ’93


Symposium: It offers a lens into some of the most forward and progressive discussion around gender, sexuality and love in the Core, especially from someone as far back as Plato. It inspired me to look for other early queer discussions in the Core and my other literary endeavors.

— Salvatore G. Volpe ’19, GSAS’21


I was presented with two options among the Ivy League schools to which I was admitted. One was to effectively choose my own curriculum and, other than satisfying major requirements, I could choose any class I liked. The other, at the College, was to have the first two years of my education chosen for me.

I wisely decided that a 200-year-old college telling me what a good college education was would be a better choice than an 18-year-old kid (moi) guessing what a good college education might be. I have never regretted it.

— Mark Olsen Morris ’82

Core Stories_Picasso

I appreciated studying Picasso’s work because it reflected an intentional deviation from tradition and the very rules that we learned had served as the foundation for art forms for several centuries. Only with a strong understanding of those rules could he have masterfully broken them, and created an exciting way to express himself and connect with others. He was particularly striking to me because his journey embodies what the Core could be for CC students, as well: As we continue to engage with old texts/works through this shared experience, we develop pillars of critical thinking.

— Kavya Tewari ’20


Lit Hum is the great unifier for College alumni not only because of the conclusions that we arrived at through the texts, but also by the act of searching for answers in the words.

— Anna Couturier ’10


Lysistrata: It made me fall in love with theater and the power of women on stage.

— Siobhan Gilbert ’09


One Lit Hum exchange with Professor Larry Lapidus stands emblematic: I raised my hand to respond to a classmate’s comments and prefaced my remarks by saying “I was thinking ... ” when he interjected, “Good, Mr. Halpern, good.”

— Mitch Halpern ’78


I did not like the Core when I was going through it, but once in the workforce, I realized what an advantage it was. It gave me a broad perspective that allowed me to relate to strangers and colleagues. It made it easier to find common ground.

— Michael Sin ’05


Crime and Punishment. It was a life-changing book that made me reflect on the ideas of religion, guilt, human existence and our inner condition.

— Johnna Wu ’12


Song of Solomon: the way in which Toni Morrison uses language to both tell her story and subvert traditional power structures is just ... too good.

— Jane Watson ’22


There are many fine colleges where students read Aristotle, Shakespeare, Dante and Morrison. What distinguishes the Core is the academic “hothouse” that comes from contemporaneous academic study of these fundamental works with one’s peers.

— John Vincenti ’90


The Prince. I was so absorbed in it that I read it in one sitting. I was amazed by how much of a book written in the 1500s could be applicable to politics today.

— Andrew West ’13


Herodotus, for his great storytelling abilities and sage observations of human nature. I remember the “Wheel of Life”: Sometimes you are on the rise, or at the top; sometimes at the bottom. But the wheel keeps turning.

— Michael O’Connor ’69


After a term of Music Humanities, I convinced my parents to buy an annual subscription to the New York Philharmonic. We had it for about 45 years.

— Beril Lapson ’64, SEAS’73, BUS’77


Before Columbia I did not have much appreciation of art and certainly not of art history. However, after taking the Core class as a freshman, my interest grew; I ended up majoring in biology and became a physician, but I also ended up with a minor in art history. Throughout the years I had visited a few art museums here and there, and three years ago my wife and I finally visited Italy. Among our stops were the Vatican collection in Rome and the Uffizi Gallery in Florence. It all came flooding back to me as I could see in real life what I had only seen in books and prints all those years ago. It was awe-inspiring, to say the least, and I am forever grateful for the foundation I received from the Core.

— Robert Werner ’77


Latin phrases! De facto, ad infinitum, a priori, a posteriori.

— Wanda Marie Holland Greene ’89, TC’91


The Oresteia: The compelling drama and conflict between the characters felt so modern — thrilling as a new Columbia student.

— Hope Silberstein ’14


Some of us thought at the time that the Core’s purpose was to equip us for cocktail conversation. We were wrong.

— Steve Conway ’93


The Core exposed me to a lifetime’s worth of enjoyment of the classics, philosophy and art. It provided a nibble of what has turned out to be a veritable banquet.

— Dr. Ilan Hartstein ’81


A classmate and I were both commuters. After some stimulating discussions in the Core courses, we would continue our intense “debates” near our homes, often well into the early morning hours. We were sometimes greeted from a raised window with “Go home already!”

— Gordon Silverman ’55, SEAS’57


Thucydides, because among other things, he illustrated how fragile democracies are — how the fortunes of a society are shaped by good and bad leaders, and how important it is for citizens to be on guard against demagogues and thus work to become acquainted with the prevailing economic and social issues of the day, to vote intelligently. I believe History of the Peloponnesian War is the most relevant and engaging of all the books we studied in Lit Hum and should always remain on the syllabus. I have read it five times since graduation, once (partially) in Greek. It is truly a kteima eis aei, a possession for ever.

— Paul Schwarzbaum ’84


Freshman CC: Arthur Danto GSAS’53, hand in the air, flicking ashes from his cigarette, eyes looking to the clouds as he groped for just the right words to glean the kernel of wisdom from Plato or Bentham.

— Dr. William Greenfield ’66


Plato’s The Republic was the first book I read at Columbia College in 1975; I realize how relevant it still is today. I recently checked out the insights of this philosopher, who was born in 427 B.C. Plato was disillusioned with his democratic government and wrote about behaviors ideal for people “to whom you would entrust your state.” From the yellowed page 280 of my 1974 Penguin Books edition, Plato wrote: “Good memory, readiness to learn, breadth of vision and grace, and be a friend of truth, justice, courage and self-control.”

— Dr. Jeffrey B. Freedman ’79


The Core made me switch majors. I started out as a science scholar and biology major on the premedical track, but a wonderful experience in Literature Humanities set me on a different course. There, I gained a wonderful mentor in a professor who not only cemented my love for literature, but also believed that my education and intellectual development in a eld wildly different from my own were nevertheless valuable and worthwhile. Now, I’m doing my Ph.D. in English literature at Harvard, continuing my studies in Anglo-Saxon literature, manuscript studies and philology.

— Emily Sun ’19


Contemporary Civilization: I loved reading the Bible as a piece of literature rather than as a piece of religion.

— John Rodin ’97


Virginia Woolf: She taught me to appreciate the small moments in life.

— Jonathan Young ’17


The Odyssey: Despite the fact that it was “written” more than 2,000 years ago, human nature remains the same — we are brave but also cowardly, adventurous but also homebodies, and above all else, we value the bonds with family and friends closest to us.

— Genevieve Thornton ’02, BUS’09


You have to ask the right questions in order to get the right answers.

— Henry Berumen ’81


I was lucky enough to be assigned to Professor Jacques Barzun CC 1927, GSAS 1932’s section for CC. His erudition and courtesy to his students so impressed the class that several of us referred to him as “The Prophet.” After a few weeks we decided that this did not do him justice. The more suitable name would be “God.”

— Dr. Jerold Schwartz ’52


Truth may not be a singularity.

— Harrison Zhang ’22


Even though I excelled at writing in high school, I could not master “Logic & Rhetoric.”

— Jessica Craig ’94


I recall that tingling sense of excitement I felt the first day of Lit Hum as my professor chanted The Iliad’s opening line, “Sing Goddess, the anger of Peleus’ son Achilles.”

— Benjamin Apfel ’18, LAW’21


Hannah Arendt: Her thought gave me a framework to make meaning, and set upon a course of purpose, in my life.

— Adam Sieff ’11


I had Susan Sontag as an instructor for Lit Hum. The rigorous reading and interpretive thinking she expected was sobering; after a few months I began to appreciate what in-depth scholarship by a brilliant mind was about.

— Dr. Jack Singer ’64


I was brought up in a fairly strict Christian church. The Core taught me that there are philosophical ideas and principles that you can learn to live a good life by, with plenty of room for questioning and understanding.

— Reginald H. Henderson III ’84


From Gregorian chants to Bessie Smith — what a journey.

— Abe Greene ’99


The Federalist Papers: The tension between the greater good and individual rights continues today.

— Dr. David Borenstein ’69


What a gift it is to read the works that inspired generations of art, literature and thought. Thirteen years after I read The Iliad, my parents and I traveled to Greece. Its history and culture were brought to life by those years spent in Hamilton Hall. The pebbled foundation was once the citadel of Mycenae — can you imagine what terror and power ran through those halls?

— Avanti Maluste ’08


The Iliad: There was so much intricate and unique language that it was easy to just get lost in the wording.

— Bryan Uceda-Alvarez ’23


In 1965, Professor Everard Upjohn assigned an Art Humanities paper to compare and contrast the architectural style of City Hall with that of the Parthenon. One Wednesday midday I took the subway downtown to examine City Hall and noticed a poster for the musical Funny Girl at every stop. Unable to suppress the urge, I got off the train at Times Square, walked to the Winter Garden, bought an orchestra seat to the matinee for $9.50 and fell in love with Barbra Streisand’s performance. The next day I went to Korvettes and bought all of her albums for $1.97 each.

P.S.: I did eventually get to City Hall, and received an A on my paper!

— Alan “Buzz” Zucker ’68

[ Core work ]

I could write a book about the Core and someday just might. Wallace Gray assigned The Brothers Karamazov to be read before Spring Break; I was so frustrated at its length that I decided to do no other work until I finished it. I spent two weeks doing nothing but, and it shook me up so much that I wound up learning Russian, spending time in Russia and returning to Columbia for grad school in Russia stuff. I’ll read it again in 20 years and update this post. Books live and grow along with us.

— Eric Roston ’93, GSAS’98


I think that the Core made me more curious about philosophy. I had a Lit Hum professor who shouted, “Why do people think they actually have a purpose? Why can’t we simply exist?” He was obviously being provocative and making a point. But those questions stuck with me and made me think of my life differently. Now that I’m in my 50s, I think I better understand what the hell they were getting at.

— Dr. David Kornguth ’87


Acknowledging the other side to an argument and active listening is crucial to understanding. But recognize it’s OK to disagree.

— Brian Sarfo ’17


Plato’s The Republic: Our Core discussions were very foundational in my learning process, and it was during these discussions that I discovered and developed my confidence in sharing my thoughts.

— Noor Habboosh ’14


The Core Curriculum is the soul of the University. It is the place where we concern ourselves not with what we know, but with who we are. It’s an invitation to look inward; the “deliverable” in the Core is a clearer vision of yourself.

— Roosevelt Montás ’95, GSAS’04


Don Quixote, because it exposed me to humor that transcends time.

— David Donner Chait ’07, BUS’13


The same things that affect me have affected scholars, heroes, dreamers and people of the world for millennia.

— Christian Palomares ’22

Ready to share your Core Story?

Write to us at or share online.

Watch illustrator James Gulliver Hancock create this issue’s cover: