COLUMBIA'S 250TH ANNIVERSARY
250 Years: Columbia College, 1754-2004
An Inner Life of Sufficient Richness - From General Honors
to Literature Humanities.
In the November 2003 issue of Columbia College Today,
Queen Wilhelmina Professor of Dutch History J.W. Smit discussed
the origins of “Contemporary Civilization,” the original
Core course that was created in 1919. Many may not realize, however,
that the Humanities sequence — Literature Humanities, Music
Humanities and Art Humanities — which was formally established
in the late 1930s, has nearly as long a history. Beginning with
an unprecedented General Honors course in 1920, Columbia gradually
developed the three humanities courses that all College students
In this excerpt adapted from An Oasis of Order: The Core
Curriculum at Columbia College (Columbia College, 1995), Timothy
P. Cross ’98 GSAS recounts the curricular and
social developments that prompted the College to create its humanities
courses. Cross, who earned a master’s degree and doctorate
in European history from Columbia, has taught in the Core Curriculum
frequently since 1990. He wrote An Oasis of Order as part
of the 75th anniversary celebration of the Core Curriculum. Cross
is director of electronic programs in the Alumni Office and a contributing
editor to Columbia College Today.
The full text of An Oasis of Order is available online:
By Timothy P. Cross ’98 GSAS
While faculty in the social sciences were collaborating in the
creation of the Contemporary Civilization course, the humanities
at Columbia were beginning their own revolution. Under the incessant
prodding of Professor of English John Erskine (Class of 1900), in
1920 the College instituted an optional two-year General Honors
course, built around “great books” read in translation
and discussed in small groups. Although no one seems to have realized
it at the time, this proved to be the first decisive step toward
the creation of the second main pillar of Columbia’s Core
program — the Humanities sequence.
As with CC, the chain of events that led Erskine to push for the
General Honors course went back before World War I. In fact, many
of the same issues that encouraged the creation of CC also contributed
to this humanities course. Looking back, Erskine traced the genesis
of his course to a widespread concern within the faculty about “the
literary ignorance of the younger generation.” In particular,
many faculty believed that students rarely, if ever, read truly
classic texts: “the Bible, or Homer, or Vergil, or Dante or
the other giants whom the world at large have long esteemed.”
Ideally, it was thought, a college education would be a perfect
remedy for this problem, but the Columbia curriculum — especially
the tendency toward professional and academic specialization —
and the rush toward degrees did not encourage this kind of reading.
The older, gentlemanly ideal of being “well read” was
hardly mentioned at all.
Erskine had a solution. As he later recalled, “If the faculty
believed that the boys in college ought to be familiar with more
than the titles of great books, that happy result could be achieved
in a new kind of course, extending through two years, preferably
the junior and senior years, and devoted to the simple principle
of reading one great book a week, and discussing it in a weekly
meeting which would last two or three hours.” This was an
idea whose time had come. In 1891, George Edward Woodberry, a Harvard
graduate who taught at the University of Nebraska and edited The
Nation, was appointed to a comparative literature chair at Columbia.
For Woodberry, “literature was life itself,” and in
both his writings — especially Great Writers (1912) —
and his literature courses at Columbia, he championed reading great
books. Erskine emerged as one of Woodberry’s most brilliant
pupils, and when he returned to Columbia after World War I, Erskine
applied his teacher’s ideas in the General Honors course.
Erskine's real innovation was to "treat
The Iliad, The Odyssey and other masterpieces as though
they were recent publications ..."
In concentrating exclusively on classic texts, the course marked
a new approach, but Erskine’s real innovation was to “treat
The Iliad, The Odyssey and other masterpieces
as though they were recent publications, calling for immediate investigation
and discussion.” Not only did this mean reading works in translation,
which was bad enough for many of his colleagues, but also reading
them outside of traditional academic disciplines. In Erskine’s
plan, students would read and discuss each book rather than being
introduced to it in lectures and through secondary sources. In fact,
although the plan was to teach “classic” texts, General
Honors was actually a reaction against the empty classicism of many
contemporary liberal education programs. While Greek and Latin texts
were to feature prominently in the General Honors course, the Greek
and Latin were relatively unimportant — it was ideas that
While few denied that reading many classic works in translation
was inevitable, even for the highly educated, many still felt that
reading in translation was incompatible with true scholarship. And
there were other, more serious objections. One professor wrote privately
to Dean of the College Frederick Keppel, voicing the common concern
that “such an ambitious program like this can lead only to
a smattering of knowledge, and not to a real understanding of any
one author.” The College, this critic continued, “should
stand for exact knowledge of a few things rather than for superficial
acquaintance with many things.” Erskine’s response was
devastating in its simplicity. Every book, he noted, had to be read
for a first time, and there was a profound difference between a
humane familiarity with great authors and an academic exploration
Discussions took place within the faculty during 1917, and they
had agreed to offer (though not require) this course when America’s
entry into World War I interrupted all plans. Erskine went to Europe
to help educate American soldiers, the College geared up for war
and the great books course was put on hold. When Erskine returned
to Columbia in 1919, he pressed again to begin the course, and in
1920 he received permission. Although in later years Erskine gave
the impression that Columbia’s faculty suffered his plan rather
than supported it, the number of dedicated and energetic instructors
who taught the course in the 1920s suggests that his may not have
been such a solitary voice. In the first year of General Honors,
Erskine was joined by Mortimer J. Adler ’23, Raymond M. Weaver,
Emery E. Neff, Mark Van Doren, H.W. Schneider, Rexford G. Tugwell,
Arnold Whitridge, Henry Morton Robinson, Clifton Fadiman ’25,
Irwin Edman ’17, C.W. Keyes and J. Bartlett Brebner.
By any standard, this was an impressive list. Adler would leave
Columbia in the 1920s for the University of Chicago, where he would
transform the curriculum along lines suggested by the General Honors
course and begin his lifelong support of great books programs. Van
Doren, of course, would stay at Columbia, achieving an unparalleled
career of original poetry, prose, scholarship and teaching. But
for the larger history of general education at Columbia, this list
holds a different interest. Not only did many of these professors,
still young men when they began teaching General Honors, go on to
distinguished careers, but they later became instrumental in establishing
the Humanities sequence in the 1930s. Nor was General Honors the
only effort at general education for these men. Edman and Keyes
were instrumental in establishing CC, and Brebner, a history professor,
taught CC for many years. The economist Tugwell taught CC for much
of the 1920s and early 1930s until he began to serve in Franklin
Delano Roosevelt’s “Brain Trust” during the Great
For many, the absence of required humanities study
for freshmen and sophomores left an important gap in the curriculum.
One problem — perhaps the crucial problem — persisted:
What constitutes a great book? This thorny issue proved the major
impediment in 1917, when the course was first proposed, and the
College’s Committee on Instruction came to no firm conclusion,
preferring to let Erskine draw up a list of his own to see what
happened. Although Erskine later admitted that it became easier
to define a great book after the General Honors course had been
given for a while, he had a few general ideas from the start about
what books should be included. “A great book,” he said,
“is one that has had meaning, and continues to have meaning,
for a variety of people over a long period of time.” This
did not mean that there would be a consensus about the meaning of
a particular author since “the really great writers have been
accepted by large groups of people for many different reasons.”
Put another way, for Erskine, greatness came from richness and ambiguity;
books were important not simply because people read them, even less
because people agreed with them, but precisely because people often
couldn’t agree about them — at least not completely.
While the idea of studying great books had its most significant
impact at Columbia, it quickly spread to other colleges and universities.
This impact still is being felt. Erskine’s original reading
list had approximately 75 books, ranging from classical antiquity
through 1800. In the 1920s and 1930s, Columbia modified Erskine’s
list — as did the University of Chicago, Notre Dame, St. John’s
College and other schools that adopted great books seminars —
but most later great books courses have kept about 85 percent of
Erskine’s original readings. At Columbia, the General Honors
course entailed a two-year program, with students reading one book
each week. Classes met in sections of 25–30 on Wednesday evenings
to discuss the work. Each section had two instructors, who were
there to spur discussion and who, it was hoped, would not argue
too much. As with CC, the crucial assumption was that discussion,
not lectures, would lead to the desired result: an immediate appreciation
of the works.
In the General Honors course, there was no attempt to limit the
works to strictly literary texts, if by that we mean books read
for their literary merits rather than for their religious, philosophic
or scientific content. Students read Homer and Aeschylus, Dante
and Shakespeare, but they also read the Bible, Plato, Aristotle,
St. Augustine and Spinoza. The inclusion of philosophers and theologians
was perfectly consistent with the overall aim of the course, which
was to produce educated men, not men with a strong literary background.
General Honors was designed to provide an introduction to works
that would repay frequent re-readings; it was the first step in
a lifelong education. Here, the General Honors course adopted an
outlook similar to that which animated CC, namely, that “the
principal obligation of the College is to help develop the student
into a more complete human being.”
This wasn’t a course for everyone, however. It even embodied
a not-too-subtle elitism since not all students participated, but
only those who passed special examinations, received recommendations
and demonstrated superior academic performance. Justus Buchler (chairman
of CC in the 1950s) observed that General Honors threatened to create
an “Honors aristocracy” among students at the College.
Unlike CC, which caught all students as they entered the College,
General Honors could only be a brass ring grabbed by a select few.
There is a fundamental continuity in the humanities
courses that has persisted to the present.
Erskine’s General Honors course was discontinued in 1929.
1 Nevertheless, interest in a great
books course continued, and in 1932, General Honors was resurrected
as the Colloquium in Important Books. The colloquium maintained
several characteristics of the earlier course: small classes of
juniors and seniors who were selected after interviews, reading
one book a week, and then participating in Wednesday evening discussions
moderated by two instructors. While Erskine supported this new colloquium,
he only advised the three younger faculty members — Jacques
Barzun ’27, James Gutmann ’18 and Weaver — who
were in charge of planning it. Brebner was responsible for developing
a new reading list, which was now extended to cover works from the
19th century. The plan called for four single-semester colloquia,
each treating works from a particular historical period (antiquity,
the Middle Ages and Renaissance, the 17th and 18th centuries, Romanticism
and Modernism), with select juniors and seniors chosen for the course
Like General Honors, the Colloquium was designed to offer students
“a program of reading worthy of their fullest and continued
application” and would express “the delight of a cultivated
layman.” But like General Honors, this colloquium wasn’t
meant for everyone, for concerns about professional preparation
asserted themselves in its planning. In some ways, the Colloquium
represents a rather narrow scholarly enterprise: the desire to prepare
would-be scholars for further study. As Gutmann observed, “Students
of exceptional ability whose intellectual interests are in what
is still called the liberal arts tradition have not always been
equally well served” at the College as students pursuing careers
in other disciplines. The Colloquium was designed to provide specialized
academic training for future liberal arts graduate students, rather
than for all students.
All in all, despite any similarities in staffing and interdisciplinary
content, General Honors and the Colloquium embodied different ideals
from CC. Both great books courses were designed for upperclassmen,
not freshmen. Nor did either match the lofty goals of Contemporary
Civilization: giving all students information valuable for life.
Rather, both General Honors and the Colloquium resemble other attempts
to give new educational outlets for above-average students, such
as the Honors program developed by Frank Aydelotte at Swarthmore
College in the 1920s. Nor did the later development of the Humanities
sequence for freshmen eliminate the usefulness of an upper class
great books course.
For many, the absence of required humanities study for freshmen
and sophomores left an important gap in the curriculum. For all
its popularity, CC did not satisfy the hunger for general education
at the College or offset the dangers of a curriculum still full
of narrowly practical and specialized courses. In 1930, the educator
Abraham Flexner (who had spent a year at Teachers College) noted
that “a student at Columbia College may study serious subjects
in a serious fashion. But he may also complete the requirements
for a bachelor’s degree by including in his course of study
‘principles of advertising,’ ‘the writing of advertised
copy’ … ‘business English,’ ‘elementary
stenography’” and other less-than-liberal offerings.
Flexner was hardly a typical critic, but there is no denying that
worries about making a living could motivate students more than
a any commitment to liberal education. Indeed, the urge to prepare
for a career has remained a constant in American higher education,
and Columbia students couldn’t be expected to deviate from
this pattern without some encouragement.
The planners of Humanities A recognized that the purpose
of a college education went beyond planning for a career.
Within the faculty, it was widely felt that a required course
in the humanities would complement CC’s introduction to the
social sciences and would reaffirm the College’s commitment
to making men, not businessmen. The College did not rush to introduce
the second great pillar of the Core program, however. Discussions
about a humanities sequence began with the appointment of a committee
headed by Edman in October 1934. Later, two subcommittees —
one headed by Van Doren and another by John H. Randall ’18
— played major roles. As much as CC, the Humanities element
of the Core Curriculum was the result of careful deliberation and
the work of many faculty. 2
The original plan was to offer courses on literature, music and
the fine arts in a single two-year course. “In the field of
the Humanities, a student has no opportunity in the first two years
of his college work to get a generalized picture of the relations
of literature and the arts to each other,” stated a memorandum
from the Edman committee, “and all of these to the civilization
of which they are an expression.” Here, CC provided a crucial
model: “A course in the Humanities would be designed to do
for the field of arts and letters (including philosophy) something
analogous to what Contemporary Civilization does for the social
On September 23, 1937, the College began its new Humanities sequence
designed specifically for underclassmen. The names of the courses
were unimpressive. Humanities A, a yearlong course required of all
freshmen, covered a series of classic texts of Western literature
and philosophy from classical antiquity to the end of the eighteenth
century. Humanities B, an optional course for sophomores, was devoted
to the visual arts and music in the West. In 1947, Humanities B
would become required, changing its name to Art Humanities and Music
Humanities. Much later, Humanities A would become Literature Humanities.
But these were changes in name only, for there is a fundamental
continuity in the humanities courses that has persisted to the present.
In 1937, however, the future was uncertain. Instructors approached
their new enterprise with a mixture of enthusiasm and apprehension
because while the idea of teaching humanities was appealing, there
were real concerns about giving complicated material to “unselected
and, so to speak, unprepared freshmen.” Difficulties in planning
the course weighed heavily also. Well into 1936, the College still
had hoped to fashion a single, two-year course that would cover
literature and the arts from the ancient world through the 20th
century, but practical problems — especially in the musical
component — eventually obliged the College to require only
the first year.
HUMANITIES READING LIST (1937-38)
Sophocles. Oedipus the King; Antigone.
Euripides. Electra; Iphigenia in Tauris; Medea.
Plato. Apology; Symposium; Republic.
Aristotle. Ethics; Poetics.
Lucretius. On the Nature of the Universe.
Niccolò Machiavelli. The Prince.
François Rabelais. Gargantua and Pantagruel (Books
I and II).
Michel Montaigne. Essays.
William Shakespeare. Henry IV, Parts I and II; Twelfth
Night; Hamlet; King Lear.
Miguel de Cervantes. Don Quixote.
John Milton. Paradise Lost.
Baruch Spinoza. Ethics.
Molière. The Physician in Spite of Himself; Tartuffe;
Jonathan Swift. Gulliver's Travels.
Henry Fielding. Tom Jones.
Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Confessions.
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. Faust.
As the required course in the sequence (and as the course required
of freshmen), Humanities A received the greatest scrutiny. At heart,
it wasn’t an attempt to replace or resurrect the earlier humanities
courses, despite many similarities. After its first year, Barzun
stated four crucial beliefs supporting the new course: “First,
that a college granting the Bachelor of Arts degree should not merely
pave the way to professional training, but should try to produce
educated men. Second, that if educated men are those who possess
an inner life of sufficient richness to withstand the slings and
arrows of outrageous fortune, they must have learned to feed their
souls upon good books, pictures and music. Third, that the memorizing
of labels, catchwords and secondhand judgments about art and books
is not educative in any real sense. And lastly, that to know and
to be at home with books a man must at some time or other read them
for the first time.” Overall, Humanities A focused on important
books read as humane texts rather than as adjuncts to courses in
literature, philosophy, or history. The course emphasized that these
books “address themselves primarily to man as man, and only
secondarily to man as philosopher, historian or college undergraduate.”
These assumptions combined the liberal civic-mindedness of John
Howard Van Amringe (Class of 1860, former dean of the College) and
John Coss (the first director of CC) with the humane and cosmopolitan
aspirations of Woodberry and Erskine. Like the founders of CC, the
planners of Humanities A recognized that the purpose of a college
education went beyond preparing for a career. Like Woodberry and
Erskine, the planners committed themselves to the study of important
books that could provide the basis for discussions of the human
experience. No one thought that Humanities A would exhaust these
texts or satisfy the desires of students; instead, the emphasis
was on, in Parr Professor of English Emeritus James Mirollo’s
words, “introducing students to the critical reading and comprehension
of a powerful and resonant work.”
To Jacques Barzun '27, "educated men are those
who possess an inner life of sufficient richness to withstand
the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune."
Those planning Humanities A wanted students to purchase their
books, for they believed firmly that “some books must be read
alone, in bodily comfort, and at a sitting the length of which follows
desire rather than the clock. Besides, books densely packed with
ideas must be marked, underlined and annotated by the reader.”
Nevertheless, to keep up with the heavy reading load, students would
have to follow both desire and the clock.
The reading list owed a great deal to Columbia’s earlier
humanities courses, though it had somewhat fewer books because everything
had to fit into one year. It emphasized Greek and Latin classics
more than the earlier lists, not because any classical texts were
added but because fewer were cut to create the one-year list. The
fall semester concentrated exclusively on the heritage of Greece
and Rome. From Greek culture, students studied epic (The Iliad),
drama (Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides, Aristophanes) and philosophy
(Plato and Aristotle). From Roman civilization, students read Lucretius,
Vergil and Marcus Aurelius. In contrast to this deliberate march,
the spring semester of Humanities A sprinted 1,500 years, from St.
Augustine’s Confessions through Goethe’s Faust.
READING LIST (2003-04)
Homer. Homeric Hymns..
Herodotus. The Histories.
Sophocles. Oedipus the King.
Thucydides. History of the Peloponnesian War.
This is the minimal list of readings
to be covered by all sections and to be included in
the final examination. The syllabus includes three "choice"
periods when instructors may require additional readings,
such as The Epic of Gilgamesh; Sappho, Lyrics;
other plays of Sophocles or Euripides; and additional
Plato (e.g. Apology), Aristotle selections,
or more Hebrew or New Testament scripture.
Virgil. The Aeneid.
St. Augustine. Confessions.
Dante. The Inferno.
Boccaccio. The Decameron.
Michel Montaigne. Essays.
William Shakespeare. King Lear.
Miguel de Cervantes. Don Quixote.
Jane Austen. Pride and Prejudice.
Fyodor Dostoevsky. Crime and Punishment.
Virginia Woolf. To the Lighthouse.
The recommended additional readings
for the three Spring semester choice periods are Marie
de France, Lais; A
Thousand and One Nights (selections); lyric poetry;
and a 20th-century text.
The Humanities A syllabus never was intended to represent a fixed
canon of texts. Indeed, the College avoided describing Humanities
A as a “great books” course precisely because of the
unwelcome dogmatic associations that the phrase conjured up. As
the College’s Committee on Plans observed, “What tradition
suggests, when one comes down to it, is remarkably changeful.”
And tradition did change. In 1938, selections from Herodotus and
Thucydides were added to the fall reading list. In 1940, the Bible
(the Book of Job) was belatedly added, the only non-classical text
in the fall’s reading. By 1946, Tacitus had replaced Marcus
Aurelius. There were changes in the spring semester as well. The
Tempest replaced Twelfth Night and Macbeth was added
to the Shakespeare readings; School for Wives was added
to the Molière readings. Nor was this a case of initial revisions
followed by ossification. As Professor John Rosenberg ’50
observed, of the 150 titles that have been included in the Humanities
since 1937, only a few titles have never left the list: The
Iliad, the Oresteia, Oedipus the King, Dante’s
Inferno and King Lear.
Humanities A called on students not simply to read one work each
week, but to read all of it whenever possible. “Nearly everyone
on the staff … concurs in the opinion that whole books are
better than parts,” stated the College’s Committee on
Plans in 1946. “And where parts have to be chosen the consensus
is: the longer the better.” The rapid pace and the heavy reading
load placed special burdens on students, who, after all, were new
to college. The instructors recognized that they also would have
to help students learn how to read, so learning “mechanics
of success” in dealing with coursework became integral to
the experience of Humanities A. There are signs that instructors
realized that they might be expecting too much; prior to the spring
of 1938, instructors advised students to begin both Don Quixote
and Tom Jones during Christmas break. In later years, only
the first part of Cervantes, or excerpts from both parts, were read.
From General Honors and the Colloquium, Humanities A inherited
an unswerving devotion to close reading and discussion of important
texts, approached from the perspective of an enthusiastic amateur.
In structure and staffing, however, Humanities A followed CC. There
was a common syllabus, though it was much simpler than the CC syllabus,
as it only listed the one book to be read each week. In 1937–38,
sections met four times a week, though this was reduced to three
times a week in 1941. (Now all Core classes have two-hour sessions
twice a week.) There were weekly quizzes and four papers spread
across the two semesters. Despite considerable strains on the College’s
resources, sections were kept small, averaging only 24 students.
In its first year, there were only 20 sections (compared with 56
today). Each section had only one instructor, who remained for the
entire year. Like CC, Humanities A relied on staff, drawn from different
departments, who met each week to discuss the assigned text.
The Humanities A syllabus never was intended to represent
a fixed canon of texts.
At the start, those departments contributing instructors for Humanities
A overlapped with those teaching CC. Instructors were chosen from
the departments of English, philosophy, history, classics and modern
languages. While in later years the Humanities staff and the CC
staff could often become estranged, initially the College encouraged
faculty to teach both courses. And some of Columbia’s most
famous professors did teach both, such as the historians Harry Carman,
Barzun and Brebner and the philosopher Edman. This community of
purpose is hardly surprising, for there was widespread acceptance
among the faculty of the goals that both courses shared. On a practical
level, both were introductions to the offerings of the College’s
many departments. But since these introductions went beyond academic
guidance, they were foundational in a much wider sense, providing
incoming students with ideas and information that would be valuable
for a lifetime.
1. The reasons for the
ending of the General Honors course remain unclear. James Gutmann
was vague, referring only to a “variety of reasons”
and “the defects which had caused the Faculty” to abandon
the course. In 1954, Justus Buchler argued that the General Honors
sequence was abandoned “because it became incongruous with
a systematically evolving organization” of the College.
2. Erskine’s influence
on the Humanities sequence was tangential at best. The General Honors
course had been abandoned years before Humanities A began, and Erskine
only had consulted with the faculty in charge of creating the Colloquium
on Important Books. He retired from Columbia to pursue his literary
career before Humanities A was first offered. Some of Erskine’s
students shaped Humanities A, but not Erskine.