Core Values

This year's Great Teacher, Patricia Kitcher, on the enduring importance of
Contemporary Civilization

Next year will mark the centiennial of the founding of Contemporary Civilization and the Core Curriculum, and Patricia Kitcher, the Roberta and William Campbell Professor of the Humanities and the Carnoy Family Program Chair for Contemporary Civilization, will be a key celebrant. Kitcher has been a leader in CC for five years, and the course’s principles are more vital now than ever.

A white woman wearing glasses and a blue collared shirt


A native of New Haven, Conn., Kitcher became interested in philosophy as a teenager after taking a course on Plato at Yale. She graduated from Wellesley in 1970 and earned a Ph.D. from Princeton in 1974.
A renowned Kant scholar, Kitcher specializes in Kant’s theories of mind and knowledge and the philosophy of psychology; recently she has turned her attention to Kant’s ethical theories.

Kitcher joined the Columbia faculty in 1998; earlier this year she was awarded a Society of Columbia Graduates 2017 Great Teacher Award. Roosevelt Montás ’96, GSAS’04, director of the Center for the Core Curriculum and associate dean of academic planning and administration, says of Kitcher: “Principled, rigorous and kind, her influence has made Contemporary Civilization an even stronger course.” Columbia College Today spoke with Kitcher about Kant, the Core and being a student during troubled times, then and now.

CCT: What was it like being at Wellesley in the late 1960s?

Patricia Kitcher: Well, I can tell you the president of my dorm was a young woman named Hillary Rodham.

Really?! Were you friends?

We were not close friends, but I did know her. She was just like she is now — her conversation ranged from Republicans to Democrats. An impressive person.

It was an interesting time because of the Vietnam War and the Civil Rights movement;
we lived through the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. It was a very fraught time.

How did that affect your studies? Were you aware that this was such a significant time in history?

Oh yes, it was part of every conversation. We fought wars differently then —we had the draft, there was much more resistance to the war. In 1969 Hillary was the first student to give a commencement speech [at Wellesley]; she condemned the guest speaker [Sen. Edward Brooke (R-Mass.), the first African-American elected to the Senate] for supporting the war.

It was on everybody’s mind. It was just everywhere. The country was much more united then because the burdens were being shared, in a way they’re not being shared now. Professors at Yale were giving out A’s so men wouldn’t fail out and receive draft notices.

We’ve been talking about that as the 50th anniversary of the 1968 protests comes up, how the canceling of classes may have saved some men from the draft.

And then there was Kent State, with students being shot. We just didn’t know where it would end. I didn’t take my final exams in 1970 because the students were on strike. The valedictorian of my class didn’t get to give her speech because she was in jail [for protesting].

How was it when you left an all-female college and went out into the world? The feminist movement was just getting started at that time.

I went on to grad school and it was a nightmare, I hated every minute. Th ere were hardly any women there. It didn’t feel safe. You didn’t dare overstay at a party. There were professors you couldn’t work with or be alone with.

That’s sad.

It is sad. Being in graduate school can be unpleasant, anyway, but this was really unpleasant. The four women ahead of me all failed out — they failed exams, some opted not to continue. I’ve spent my entire career trying to make it better for graduate women than it was for me.

Contemporary Civilization has always been about contemporary problems, and when you’re living in interesting times — well, we haven’t had any great trouble making the CC texts seem relevant.

When I was teaching at UC San Diego I chaired the committee that changed the procedures for cases of sexual harassment. There had been eight steps in the process! We got it down to three, which is as few as you can have, because there must be an analogue of an indictment, a trial and an appeal [by the defendant]. Being expelled or fired from a university are costly penalties, so the procedures need to be fair. Yet there must be a system in place to protect the women — and sometimes men — who are targeted by sexual aggressors. It is demeaning, harmful behavior that should not be tolerated in any community.

Do you feel like you’re succeeding at creating a better environment for female students?

It’s certainly better. But academia is still not very woman-friendly. Philosophy has always been 80 percent male. Our department is good compared to others, but it’s still hard for graduate women. Academia is still very family-unfriendly. We’ve come a long way but there’s still a lot of work to be done.

a crowd of white men holding Nazi and Confederate flags

Kitcher expects that her Contemporary Civilization classes will be considering the issues around free speech that arose from August’s white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Va.


You’ve taught at a number of different colleges, in California, Vermont, Minnesota ...

They all had wonderful things to offer. And I’ve enjoyed every minute at Columbia. Receiving a Great Teacher Award was a great honor and a great surprise.

When you received the award, you spoke about teaching “courses that impart intellectual skills that are essential for getting by in the world we now face.” What can you say about the importance of Contemporary Civilization in today’s world?

I’ve thought about my job in terms of trying to see what would be most relevant in the contemporary scene to the texts that we teach. CC has always been about contemporary problems, and when you’re living in interesting times — well, we haven’t had any great trouble making the CC texts seem relevant.

In the section we have about revolutions we sometimes put in the Constitution as well as the Declaration of Independence — this year we had it in, just to make sure we’d all read it. We have thematic arcs that you can go through the whole course with.

What theme do you have planned for the coming academic year?

The one I would like to add is about the refugee crisis. The beginning of the Trump presidency has forced people to think about principles that do or should govern the treatment of refugees. The real issue is the enormous scope of the problem and the inadequacy of all the responses to it. If students want to be challenged, as ours do, then they can try to see whether they can find any resources for thinking about the refugee problem that are up to the task, and if not, whether they have any ways of developing more adequate approaches to this humanitarian disaster.

How have the thematic focuses you suggest for CC changed through the years? What were some past themes?

The end of the Obama years saw the beginning of a serious discussion about over-punishing. This is one of the major moral issues of our time — why do we punish people so much? The French Constitution strives for minimal punishments. Our Bill of Rights added against “cruel and unusual punishment” at a later stage, and “cruel and unusual” is way out there. Why do you have a system that is so punitive? We added readings like The New Jim Crow [“Mass Incarcerations in the Age of Colorblindness,” by civil rights litigator and legal scholar Michelle Alexander] and writings about other interesting work that’s being done.

We have the Center for Justice at Columbia, and justice in punishment will continue to be a theme in CC. The problem hasn’t gone away and it seems to have some bipartisan appeal, which is good in some ways with the present climate of rancor. It is also a “good problem” for CC, if I can put it that way, because it is useful to go back and consider what serious thinkers have offered as rationales for punishment and to see how well they stand up — or whether they provide any defense at all for current practices.

On the topic of serious thinkers, there seems to be a disavowal of knowledge happening right now. Couple that with all the arguments about “fake news” ...

It pays to revisit the arguments about freedom of the press by John Stuart Mill — freedom of the press is more important for the ills it prevents than the good that it does. And that seems all the more true today, with the need for fact checkers. People have been worried about the relationship between fact and theory for hundreds of years. This administration’s accusations of bias are just such a crass version of anything that would count as an intellectual discussion of the actual issue.

And so intellectual discussions seem especially important to have right now. What do you think is the value of the Core Curriculum for current College students?

In terms of Contemporary Civilization, it’s about learning to think through complex issues, learning to see two sides of the same issue play out and learning what the foundations are. The assigned texts represent different perspectives on political and social problems and the students need to work their way into understanding those different perspectives. To succeed at the course, they can’t just parrot what Nietzsche or Du Bois wrote; they must gain some appreciation of why and how they develop the views they do. What are their reasons? What are they assuming or refusing to assume? Although students could still just look at various problems from their own points of view, they’ve at least had to try to understand what considerations might support other views.

Do you think Contemporary Civilization instills a sense of social responsibility in students?

Our goals are more modest — though not very modest. We try to get students to see problems where perhaps they didn’t see them before and to get them to think seriously about how such problems might be approached. To give an example, I often end my section of the course with Amartya Sen’s essay on concepts of poverty. Although it might seem at first that definitions of poverty aren’t very interesting, students quickly appreciate that they are very important in terms of providing resources to those in need. They also realize quickly that there are lots of reasonable approaches one might take in crafting a definition.

Giving students the tools to think seems to be a worthy thing to do.

How to defend your arguments, how to think, is one of the most valuable things in trying to defend a position or write a paper. “What do I think and why do I think that?” That’s actually much harder than you would believe.

What do you think about a movement toward vocational skills, or a major that leads more directly to a job, so that college turns into a path to a career rather than an exploration?

You just need to look at the studies that have been done for decades: People who have a broader education can move better in the world. Rejecting the humanities doesn’t make sense from a practical point of view. Students feel like they learn to see the world in a different way so it doesn’t look so puzzling to them. I just think the world looks like a friendlier place if you have the intellectual tools. Everyone comes in and takes the Core and immediately begins critical thinking. But it’s not just critical thinking — it’s how you can approach things in different ways.

I don’t separate what you might call the skills part from the substance part — it helps to approach a problem as Aristotle would, or to think about a problem as Mill would, because now you have a way to be in the world thinking about things. Reading a lot of insightful people, you can understand a lot of what’s going on.

Are you and your husband [Philip Kitcher, the John Dewey Professor of Philosophy] debating philosophy all the time?

[Laughs.] Our children had a firm rule — no work at any meal! We don’t always talk about work, but with a scholarly career it’s good to be with another scholar; they know what you’re going through and why. When you already have tenure and it’s a Sunday but you can’t stop.

You’ve written three books — are you working on another?

Yes, one of the theses I’m trying to defend is connecting Kant’s theory of ethics to his theory of cognition — how we understand another person as a thinker is through the understanding of our own mental activity. In my view, that’s what he’s doing with the ethics as well.

The basic idea is that when you encounter another human being, you automatically take them to be the same sort of moral creature that you are. You see the person, the human form, and you see a moral being: someone who can do the right thing for the right reason, a being who is for that reason worthy of respect. That’s what you have to get talked out of, either by yourself or others — something that you know immediately —
in order to dismiss others as unworthy and to consider only your own self-interest.

As a coda, since we met in July there’s been another national conversation about freedom of speech, related to the events in Charlottesville. Will this be a discussion point with your students?

To return to Mill, the great defender of freedom of expression, free speech loses its protection when done in a way to incite violence. Insofar as the organizers meant not just to express an odious opinion, but also to provoke violent reactions, they forfeited their right to speak. One could argue that history since Mill shows that anti-Semitism and racism are by their very content invitations to violence against members of particular groups. I’m not sure that Mill would disagree, but I expect that CC sections might try to think through this problem during the year and also think through the responsibilities of political leaders and ordinary citizens to respond to hate speech, even in cases where it might be protected by considerations of liberty.