In 1949–50, Oriental Humanities (later called Asian Humanities) followed, and in 1950–51, Oriental Civilizations. Traditional “Orientalism,” which had been dominated by language study on the graduate level, was at a low ebb in those days, so the aims and methods of the new program derived from the educational philosophy and practice of general education in the College, which emphasized the reading and discussion of source materials in small classes. In the 1960s, Columbia added Asian Art Humanities and Asian Music Humanities, so that the Asian Core program included a full complement parallel the required Western Core courses.
While the number and variety of Asian Core courses grew, Columbia began to recruit and train additional staff so that the number of sections could be increased. Militating against this, however, was the increasing trend toward academic specialization and departmentalization of instruction. Though designed along the lines of the Core Curriculum, the Asian courses lacked the staff necessary to make them a required part of the Core. Without a large pool of scholars, expansion of the staff and sections for the Asian program was limited and slow. Nevertheless, with the arrival of Ainslie Embree in Indian studies, and the extension of the program at Barnard under John Meskill, gradual progress was made. Provost Jacques Barzun ’27 and Deans Lawrence Chamberlain of the College and Millicent McIntosh of Barnard were instrumental in supporting these efforts. Barbara Miller, a Barnard student who came up through the program, became a distinguished addition to the staff in Sanskrit studies and contributed many translations, and Irene Bloom, who succeeded Meskill at Barnard, became a leader in the joint Barnard-Columbia program after the 1990s.
The 1990s presented both fresh opportunities and more problems. One opportunity resulted from a recommendation of the College’s 1988 Commission on the Core Curriculum that all students satisfy a “Major Cultures” requirement; that is, study outside the scope of the Western Core. Asian Civilizations and Humanities courses are among the options offered. This, and the subsequent expansion of the College enrollment, have created greater demands for additional sections of the basic Asian courses — demands exceeding the staff availability.
In response, the University Committee on Asia and the Middle East (successor to an earlier Committee on Oriental Studies) set up a 1998 summer workshop to train graduate student preceptors and raised funds for two post-doctoral teaching fellowships. These have enabled a few more sections, though far short of what is needed.
The term “general education,” as it gained currency in the mid-20th century, originally referred to the reform of university education, which had become dominated by departmental specialization and by the elective system that lent itself to the same trend. The history of these movements tells us something about why “general education,” whether as a term or as a practice, is somewhat anachronistic and should be replaced with “core curriculum.” At the same time, however, the recent rise of “multicultural education” underscores the need for equipping that central “core” with multicultural dimensions.
The original educational challenge arose from the sense of both civilizational crisis and a new intellectual opportunity following World War I. The great aim (or at least the great ideological slogan) of that war had been “to make the world safe for democracy,” yet the devastation of Western Europe, the high cost to Britain and unsolved postwar problems left many people wondering whether civilization itself, much less democracy, could survive.
One response to these twin challenges was the development at the College of the “War and Peace Issues” course that addressed the civilizational crisis against the background of historical developments that shaped the issues. (John Herman Randall ’18’s The Making of the Modern Mind, a basic CC text in the 1920s and 1930s that placed modern problems in a historical context, became widely used in courses modeled on CC that proliferated in American colleges.) Given the focus of the “War and Peace Issues” course on contemporary problems in relation to basic civilizational values, it is hardly surprising that the course was rechristened “Contemporary Civilization.” Moreover, with its hope and concern for the establishment of a new world order based on the peaceful resolution of human problems, it is not stretching things to say that this central concern of the course was “civility” in its broadest sense.
The topical treatment, the concern for values and ideas, the contemporary interest combined with historical background and, above all, the use of challenging source readings as the basis for class discussion became defining characteristics of “Contemporary Civilization.” Another defining characteristic was that it was required of all students, a break from the dominant elective system.
The justification was civic. Along with the inescapable trend toward academic specialization, the College believed it should educate students to deal in an informed way with problems of contemporary society. Preparation for leadership and citizenship was undoubtedly among the course’s aims, but the method of personal engagement with urgent contemporary problems through active class discussion (rather than just lectures) was almost an end in itself. In other words, the discussion method promoted active civil discourse on civility — learning by doing.
These shared moral and social concerns, along with a sense of corporate responsibility, justified limiting students’ freedom of election — while also, it is important to add, limiting the faculty’s freedom to teach their own specialties. In the interests of education, the faculty had to subordinate their personal research interests to the needs of a common curriculum, taught in a collegial fashion.
Subsequently, the idea of having a “required core” spread widely, but one hardly need mention today that the original sense of corporate responsibility and faculty esprit de corps has proved difficult to sustain. Thus the true esprit de core has often been dissipated, and today “core” at many places means only “what is required,” though few remember why. Usually a “core” amounts only to a distribution requirement — at best a methodological smorgasbord — and not a genuinely collegial effort to bring a range of disciplines to focus on questions of common concern.
This is what happened at the University of Chicago and Harvard, both of which embraced the idea of general education in the 1930s and 1940s with much fanfare. At Chicago, the program was identified initially with the Great Books program promoted by Robert Hutchins and Mortimer Adler ’23, but with the Great Books program spun off as a separate adult education foundation, the University shifted to a divisional structure tailored more to traditional disciplinary groupings (humanities, social sciences, etc.) and a common core became dissipated. At Harvard, the so-called “general education program” quickly became departmentalized, and Dean Henry Rosovsky’s reforms did little to arrest a gradual fragmentation. In effect, academic specialization reasserted itself at both schools, “general education” became converted into distribution requirements and the idea of core concerns, key issues and classic texts addressed by all students became less central.
In retrospect, one can see that the very generality and flexibility of “general education” bent too readily before academia’s centrifugal tendencies. From this one may draw an important lesson concerning the concept of a “core.” Difficult though it is to sustain against academic departmentalization and specialization, a “core” goes to the heart of the educational enterprise — the notion of a common humanity. Though “a common humanity” may itself be a difficult philosophical question, if it ceases to be a question and a key issue for shared discussion, we are in deep trouble, exposed to the divisiveness of ethnic and political conflicts.
Practically speaking, this is the real problem facing the Core Curriculum today, not the dead hand of Eurocentric tradition or the stolid resistance of a WASP establishment. For change has been taking place all along, and if not all of it has been for the good, by no means has all of it been for the worse, either.
The first important change in the Columbia Core came in the 1930s with the addition of the Humanities sequence, which consisted of the reading and discussion of major Western literary and philosophical works as well as parallel courses in art and music. There were always more masterworks than could be included in any course, and more than enough to command attention and provoke argument. The important thing was to have a common reading list, a shared discourse and collegial discussion. This ongoing, open-ended dialogue between past and present is sometimes referred to as “The Great Conversation”‘ because the great minds speak to each other, comment on their forbears and argue with them. Another way of putting it, with more intellectual bite, is “disputatious learning.”
Both the original Core courses and the Asian courses modeled on them make use of major works, not just to learn from the past but to put before students models that challenge, stretch the intellect and exercise the moral imagination. Thus, the true greatness of “great books,” from this educational point of view, lies not in their perfection but rather in their pivotal quality — their ability to focus on key issues and expose the mind to crucial alternatives. Far from settling things, they are unsettling, always open to reinterpretation. They encourage reflective thinking, critical analysis and the formulation of the student’s own arguments. The canon (if such it be) and the questioning of it have proceeded together. There should be questioning and something of value that has stood the test of time, worthy of serious consideration. Contrary to a common academic conceit, questioning alone is not enough: questioning without affirmation is sterile; affirmation without questioning can be stultifying.1
A “core” in this sense refers not just to content or canon but also to process and method — to a well-tested body of challenging material, cultivated habits of critical discourse and procedures for re-examination and redefinition. A viable core can neither be slave to the past nor captive to the preoccupations, pressures or fashions of the moment. It should serve rather to advance students’ intellectual growth and self-awareness, cultivate their powers of thought and expression, and prepare them to take a responsible part in society. The focus has differed in the two kinds of courses: on society and civility in the Civilization courses, more on the individual and on a shared, but at the same time diverse, humanity in the Humanities courses. In either case the method has emphasized practice in civil discourse in a collegial setting.
Almost from the beginning, proponents of the Core Curriculum were conscious of its initial Western focus and anxious to extend its horizons. This consciousness is reflected in the title, “Introduction to Contemporary Civilization in the West,” and the original syllabus of the honors course, “Classics of the Western World.” “West” in the original Core courses signified an acknowledgment of inadequacy and limitation, not an affirmation of Eurocentrism. And no sooner had the Humanities course been added to the Core in 1937 than leaders of the movement (e.g., Carman and Gutmann, though neither was an Asianist) began to agitate and plan for counterpart courses in Asian civilizations and humanities, which were added as soon as practicable after World War II.
The way in which this was done is highly significant for today’s debate on multiculturalism. Its focus was on core concerns, humanity and civility, and the method of instruction put a premium on collegial discussion (that is, civil discourse). It did not assume the superiority of Western ways or values or the primacy of a European canon, but rather acknowledged the presence of other major civilizations of great depth, complexity and longevity as well as comparable discourses on perennial human concerns.
This assumption of parallel discourses had no difficulty gaining confirmation from the Asian works themselves, but without a single “Asian tradition” (in the sense of “pan-Asian”), some judgment had to be exercised in identifying major traditions for a one-year course; in our case, we identified Islamic, Indian (including both Buddhist and Hindu), Chinese, Japanese and, later, Korean civilizations. That judgment, however, was almost made for us, given our prior and most fundamental assumption concerning the nature of any tradition or canon: that it be self-defining and self-confirming. Thus it was not for us to find Asian counterparts to Western classics but only to identify what Asians themselves had recognized as works commanding special respect, either through enduring appeal or irrepressible challenge.
Within each major tradition, this is primarily an internal dialogue, independent of external involvement (except to the extent that, from at least the 17th century onward, many Western writers have embraced what the Islamic, Indian, Chinese and Japanese traditions have long esteemed). Thus, in the Islamic tradition, Al Ghazali and Ibn Khaldun have based themselves on the Qur’án and commented on the great Sufis, while European writers since the Middle Ages also have recognized the stature of Al Ghazali and, more recently, Ibn Khaldun. In the Indian tradition, the Upanishads and Ramayana take up the discourse from the Vedas, the Gita from the Upanishads, and Shankara from both. And in China, Mencius draws on Confucius, Hsun Tzu comments on both Confucius and Mencius, the Lao Tzu and Chuang Tzu confront the Confucians, and so on. Almost all Asian classics relate to each other as major players in their own league, members (even if competitors) of their own discursive company.
Enough of the original discourse must be reproduced for this internal dialogue to be recognized and evaluated meaningfully. To recognize and judge the adequacy of one writer’s representation of another requires familiarity with the other. The same is true of the literary. Indeed, in any domain, the genre, voice and medium of expression enters strongly into the judgment of what is a classic or canonical.
The Asian Core includes courses in humanities, civilizations, music and art, so Columbia’s overall program is less bibliocentric than the discussion thus far might lead one to believe. But it is in the discussion of classic texts that one can most easily observe the kind of internal give and take that should be incorporated in the larger discussion of a core. Including one or two such Asian classics in a world civilization, history or literature course is almost worse than including nothing at all. It is tokenism, and even if such a course is equally and uniformly sparing in its representation of all cultural artifacts, it is only tokenism on a grander and more dangerous scale. If one’s initial framework is Western civilization or humanities course, the addition of just one or two Islamic, Indian or Chinese works will almost always be prejudicial, no matter how innocently intended, for the work, bereft of context, will inevitably be read in a Western frame of reference. Even if the instructor compensates by lecturing about the breadth and variety of the non-Western culture, the information still comes second-hand, and the student must depend on the instructor’s word.
No one can prescribe a fixed or minimum number of classics for such a multicultural program. Nevertheless, one could offer as a rule of thumb that at least five or six such works are necessary to establish the context of any particular discourse, assuming that the works are well chosen and suggest not only a tradition’s range of possibilities but also how it has grown and developed. For unless a discourse’s cumulative nature — its continuities, discontinuities and mature syntheses — are adequately represented, a reader’s tendency is to see individual works as embodying some static cultural essence rather than being landmarks along the way.
In a multicultural education that serves human commonality as well as cultural diversity, both content and method may vary. A core program, however, should give priority to the repossession (both sympathetic and critical) of a given society’s main cultural traditions, and then move on to a similar treatment of other major cultures. To the extent that time and resources allow, it would consider still other cultures that, for a variety of reasons, have not played such a dominant role in world history so far. (In the East Asian context, I would certainly point to Korea in this respect.)
At least two other general principles seem applicable to this educational approach. One is that it is best, if possible, for the process to extend to more than one other culture, so that there is always some cultural triangulation. Such a multicultural perspective can then predominate over simplistic we/they, self/other, East/West comparisons. Thus, Columbia’s Asian humanities course includes readings from several major Asian traditions, which allows for significant cross-cultural comparisons quite apart from those students naturally make between their own and any single Asian tradition.
A second principle is that any such treatment should give priority to identifying central concerns. I have suggested “civility” and “humanity” (to which “the common good” or “commonality” could well be added) as basic categories or core concepts. A main reason for using original texts has been to proceed inductively — to ask what are the primary questions being addressed in each reading, what are the defining concepts and values, in what key terms are proximate and ultimate concerns expressed? Such questions may well be open-ended, but at this stage of learning — and for purposes of cross-cultural discussion — we should be looking for centers of gravity, points of convergence, common denominators.2 Why? Because as a matter of educational coherence, it is best to work from some center, however tentatively constructed, to the outer reaches of human possibility. For purposes of establishing civil discourse, some working consensus, initially tradition-based but increasingly multicultural, is needed.
The priorities and sequence just proposed would, it seems to me, be applicable to almost any cultural situation. Other peoples set their own priorities, so one naturally expects each tradition to confront its own classics first, and then move on to ingest others’. Indeed, one would concede this as of right — that in China’s schools, for instance, Chinese civilization would have priority; in India, Indian; and so forth. Starting from the premise that every person and people needs its own self respect, as well as a minimum of respect from others, each must have a proper self understanding — to come to terms with its own past. This is essential not only to its own cultural health but to healthy relations all around.
The key to success in such an endeavor is how well one identifies core human issues and how one selects texts that illuminate them. This requires constant reflection, re-examination and dialogue among world traditions. But as each tradition participates in this multicultural discourse, we can hope to expand gradually the horizons of civil discourse and the scope of shared values, which will be key to the solution of our common global concerns about the environment, human rights and world peace.
Translation has been an issue for the Core Curriculum from the beginning, whether the works translated were referred to as “classics,” “important books,” “Great Books,” or “major texts.” Under whatever rubric they were offered, these books, it was said, were ones any educated person ought to have read — as if what it meant to be “educated” could be taken for granted in those days, even though education itself was undergoing rapid change.
In the early 20th century, the elimination of Western classical languages — Greek, Latin and Hebrew — from college requirements was followed by a widespread desire to continue reading of the “classics,” still thought essential for educated “gentlemen,” in translation. When this change occurred, defenders of the classical languages objected that something would inevitably be lost if the classics were not read in the original. That there would indeed be some loss could hardly be doubted, but John Erskine (Class of 1900), an early proponent of reading the classics in translation, didn’t consider the loss overwhelming. “How many people read the Bible in the original?” he asked.
Indeed, Mark Van Doren, who subsequently became a leading proponent of the Humanities curriculum, insisted that one test of a real classic was that it could survive translation. He meant, of course, that such a work dealt importantly with issues, concerns and values so pertinent to, and so perennial in, human life that any work addressing them in a challenging way would not become obsolete. This is true of Latin and Greek classics translated into English, French or German, and it is no less true of the quick ascent and commanding position of Shakespeare in non-English literatures and cultures.
Nor is this true only of the West. “Classics” of several Asian traditions have survived translation within Asia. Chinese works translated into Korean and Japanese have become accepted as “classics” in their adoptive lands, just as Greek and Latin works became “classics” within many European cultures. The same, of course, has been true of Indian works translated into South and East Asian languages and, now, Western works esteemed as classics in Asia.
To say this, however, is not to dismiss translation as a minor issue. The standing of classics in one tradition may compel our attention, but the availability and quality of translations has clearly influenced Humanities courses. To a degree greater than most people today are aware, enough had been translated from Asian languages so that major works, already well-known in 19th- and early 20th-century West, had long since challenged Western thinkers.
Nevertheless, Asian translations were not complete or satisfactory for the purposes of general education when Asian Humanities and Civilizations was inaugurated in the late 1940s. Enough good translations were available to launch a worthwhile program, but there were many gaps. A major problem also faced the extension of the program beyond a select few in an honors colloquium — the lack of accessible translations, not heavily burdened with scholarly annotation, that were suited to the general reader.
Fortunately, help was forthcoming from young scholars whose translations were to establish a new standard, not only for scholarly excellence but also for accessibility. First, Donald Keene ’42 compiled his Anthology of Japanese Literature (1955), which made Japanese classic writings available in a convenient, low cost form, albeit at the cost of abridgement of works better read in whole. Keene later made up for this limitation by translating whole works only partly translated in the Anthology. Most notable has been his translation of Kenkō’s Tsurezuregusa, published as Essays in Idleness in the “Translations from the Oriental Classics” series, which was launched specifically to meet the needs of the Asian Humanities course. Next came his translation of Major Plays of Chikamatsu, and subsequently the drama Chōshingura. With follow-up work from Keene’s students, Royall Tyler and Karen Brazell, Keene’s translations of Nō plays in his Anthology have been substantially supplemented by competent, inexpensive paperback translations. Ivan Morris, before his untimely death a teacher of Asian Humanities, translated the Pillow Book of Sei Shōnagon, a Japanese classic only excerpted in Keene’s Anthology. These translations have become standard works and virtual classics of the translator’s art.
Although many Chinese classics already had been translated, most notably by James Legge and Arthur Waley, and were indispensable to the Asian Core program, many other Chinese classics remained either untranslated or unavailable in a form suitable for students. In response, Burton Watson ’50’s translations of Chinese classics convey the diversity and range of the Chinese — and what subsequently became the East Asian — tradition. Watson’s early versions of alternative ancient Chinese “classics”— Mo Zi (Mo Tzu), Xun Zi (Hsün Tzu), Zhuang Zi (Chuang Tzu), and Han Feizi — quickly made available in paperback by Columbia University Press, became standard items on Humanities reading lists, and indeed set a new standard for Chinese translations for the general reader. Watson’s translating range, versatility and virtuosity also was apparent in his renderings of the Records of the Grand Historian by Sima Qian (Ssu-ma Ch’ien), the Vimalakirti and Lotus sutras, and his anthology, the Columbia Book of Chinese Poetry — all of which made their way on to the Asian Humanities reading list.
The biggest translating challenge came with the Neo-Confucian tradition, which was a response to the challenge of Buddhism and Daoism. The key texts are mostly the commentaries of Zhu Xi (Chu Hsi) on the Confucian classics, and commentaries often are far more difficult reading than the original works. For this reason, many instructors avoid the Neo-Confucian texts in favor of more literary works (of which there is an almost unlimited supply). But these Neo-Confucian texts were the operative “classics” that shaped intellectual and ethical traditions of China, Japan and Korea from the 13th to the 20th centuries, and avoiding them is like ignoring everything in the West after Dante.
A similar problem presented itself with medieval Islamic and Indian traditions. It is not an easy dilemma to resolve, considering, for example, the lack of a suitable translation of Shankara-charya’s commentaries on the Brahma Sutras. To some extent, excerpts can address this deficiency. Students have access to Shankara in the Sources of Indian Tradition, and to Zhu Xi in new translations included in the second edition of the Sources of Chinese Tradition. Still this is a compromise — better than nothing but less than satisfactory.
The Asian Core program has produced a major translator of Indian thought and literature. Barbara Miller, who began as a Barnard undergraduate taking Oriental Humanities, went on into graduate studies in Sanskrit. She composed accessible translations of the Bhagavad Gita, the Shakuntala of Kalidasa, The Love Song of the Dark Lord (Gita Govinda) and the lyric poetry of Bhartrihari. Before her premature death, Barbara established herself as not only a prime contributor to the Asian Humanities program but also a leading figure in Indian and Sanskrit studies.
Thus, while an Asian Humanities program can rely on the inherent greatness of certain works recognized as “classics,” still their ability to “survive translation” (in Van Doren’s terms) depends on having skilled translators able to convey their contents in terms meaningful enough to new audiences in changing times and different cultures.
Yet, there will never come a time when all translation is finished for all eligible texts, since there will never be a complete, definitive and final rendering of the “original” meaning of such texts. Dealing as they do with pivotal issues, subject to different interpretations, and expressing themselves in highly suggestive, expandable ways, these works may always be brought to life in new renderings. Readers who wonder how much of a gap may exist between the original and translation can look at alternative translations to get a sense of common ground and lines of difference. They have recourse, too, to scholarly expertise, but since specialists differ among themselves as much as translations do, this is not a perfect solution.
It remains true, however, that, though any translator is welcome to take up the challenge and offer his own interpretation, not all translations meet the need equally well. We in the Asian Core can count ourselves fortunate in having had an especially able group of translators, whose great translations almost match the great works themselves.