A Century of Shared Intellectual Experience

“The endurance of the Core conveys our conviction that there are certain things that every educated person should have exposure to.”

Dean Valentini

Jaime Danies SEAS’20

This issue of Columbia College Today is the first in Volume 47 of our alumni magazine. More significantly, it is the first issue published in the 100th anniversary year of the Core Curriculum. Many things make Columbia College special, but the Core is the most special. The Core is not just a collection of required courses; it is also central to the identity of Columbia College and the expression of our ideals. So the Core — its past, present and future — is quite appropriately our focus this year. In this issue of CCT, you’ll find a variety of features that might remind you of the Core’s promise to all undergraduates, as well as invite you to revisit the unifying role the Core plays in the lives of so many former students.

I believe the Core is the greatest communal, organized, general education effort in the world. Each year, the entire first-year and sophomore classes study in the Core, engaging with hundreds of instructors, thousands of pages of text, and countless discussions and debates. There is nothing on a scale like it anywhere else.

The endurance of the Core conveys our conviction that there are certain things that every educated person should have exposure to. When our students are exposed to fundamental, and often difficult, ideas, there is value in both knowing the ideas’ origins and also in developing a response and understanding of them that is shaped by who they are, who surrounds them and how they view the world. In this way, the Core is always the same and always changing. Always the same in its clear objective to expose our students to philosophy, literature, art, music and science that has been consequential in civilization. Always changing because each student brings their own perspectives, experiences and values into a rich and dynamic conversation, where no one leaves the classroom quite the same as when they entered. In that sense the Core is always experimental — trying out new things and then seeing whether they advance the achievements of its timeless objectives.

During this centennial year, we will look back on the history of the Core and how it evolved during the last century. Just as importantly, we will look ahead to the next century to ask how it can and should evolve, examining the components that are deeply loved as well as those that are questioned and constructively criticized.

We should look to enhance and enrich the experience of the Core by preserving those elements of the curriculum and the academic experience that have value now, and will continue to have value, and then adding things that are made possible by developments and improvements in technology and pedagogy. The entire Core, not just Contemporary Civilization, must remain timely in its implementation so that its persistent objectives can be met. We continue to examine the eternal joys and challenges of human existence, and to learn how humans express those joys and challenges, and how societies of every scale have developed in response to them.

The Core also is the first part of a complete and rich College education; afterward, students transition to one of many majors and concentrations that allow them to explore their individual and specialized academic interests. By enhancing the experience of the Core we also prepare students for the intellectual engagements that become their focus. The Core creates a tradition of close interaction between students and faculty for every year a student is an undergraduate here, in classroom seminars, in labs and in undergraduate research programs.

Our goal as an institution is to prepare students for a world that neither they nor we can know or conceive. What we do know is that their success — personal and professional — will depend on their ability to interact with anyone, anywhere in the world, at any time. The Core offers a learning environment where that ability can be developed. This exchange of ideas helps students develop a profound level of self-awareness and empathy, and deepens their understanding of humanity. So many recent events in the world show us that the questioning, the intellectual openness of the Core Curriculum, has never been more important. It is a common intellectual experience that gives rise to a powerful sense of community, not just between students, but also with all of you, our almost 52,000 Columbia College alumni.

And so, as we celebrate the first century of this shared intellectual experience, we say: On to the second century!


James J. Valentini