The Core Curriculum Defines Our Culture
By Brian Krisberg ’81
First Vice President, Columbia College Alumni Association
Academic institutions, like work environments, have cultures. Sometimes the
cultures are obvious and permeate every aspect of the institution. Other times
they are more subtle and one needs to dig beneath the surface to locate the
true culture. Either way, cultures are important and say a lot about an institution’s
mission and values system.
More than anything else, the Core Curriculum defines the Columbia College culture.
Certainly, there are other aspects of our community on which we place importance.
These include need-blind admission, full-need financial aid and Columbia’s
deep connection to New York City. But, in the end, the one thing that all College
alumni, students, parents, faculty and staff have in common is the Core. The
Core provides a bond and common set of experiences for Columbians of all generations.
The Core today is fundamentally the same as the Core I enjoyed more than 25
years ago: a year each of Contemporary Civilization and Literature Humanities,
a semester each of University Writing (“freshman composition” in
my day), Art Humanities and Music Humanities, three semesters of science (two
in my day; now improved with “Frontiers of Science”), four semesters
of language, the physical education requirement and two semesters of the major
cultures distribution requirement. Depending on how much of the language requirement
one places out of, the Core represents 30–40 percent of each student’s
The Core provides a bond and common set of experiences
for Columbians of all generations
As I reflect on the importance of the Core to the College culture, five aspects
stand out. First, through the Core, College students confront and examine the
larger and more important issues that our society faces daily. These are serious
issues that many people do not have the chance to consider in adult life. The
Core provides the forum to have civil and reasoned (if sometimes heated!) discussions
on societal issues that sometimes lead to incivility and disrespect when discussed
outside the classroom.
Second, the Core represents a significant commitment on the part of the College
and the University to the education of its students. As the Core is taught in
small sections, staffing it is a daunting task. In recent years, financial incentives
to Arts and Sciences faculty and fundraising for endowed chairs targeted to
Core teaching have been instituted. Through these policies, College leadership
has demonstrated its dedication to limited class size and senior faculty participation
in the Core.
Third, the Core reading list provides College students a rare opportunity to
read, in an organized and well-thought-out progression, civilization’s
great books. The authors, from Plato to Freud in CC and from Homer to Shakespeare
in Lit Hum, truly are an all-star team. I read few of these books at my Brooklyn
high school. As a result, the Core was a revelation and a special two years
where I absorbed and digested the material and looked forward to each successive
Fourth, the Core is a leveling experience. It doesn’t matter what high
school you come from, who your parents are or were, or in what socio-economic
background you were raised. In a Core classroom, issues of fairness, ethics
and equality are addressed on a level playing field. I listened intently to
what classmates said and learned from their perspectives. I had tremendous respect
for their intelligence and the depth and range of their understanding.
Fifth, the Core perpetuates the College’s fundamental policy of attempting
to generate educated citizens. Educated citizens are trained to think for themselves,
to challenge established ideas and mores and to have inquisitive minds that
can engage in spirited discussion on the day’s issues. Dean Austin Quigley
likes to say he enjoys walking into a gathering of College alumni because he
can immediately sense the difference between this group and any other group,
specifically the sharp and critical minds that are always prepared to participate
in a lively debate.
The Core played a significant role, the most important educational role, in
making me the individual I am today. I improve my work each day by applying
some of the critiques my CC teacher wrote on my papers in fall 1977 (“Brian,
you have a habit of missing the forest for the trees … ”). Art
Hum enabled me to explain to my kids how Renaissance artists transformed painting
from a two-dimensional to a three-dimensional world and exposed me to artists
I enjoy, such as Piet Mondrian and Fernand Léger. And I constantly battle
against my propensity for writing sentences that are too long, as my freshman
composition teacher recommended.
Though Columbia University recently celebrated its 250th year, we do not have
some of the “traditions” that our peer institutions offer. We don’t
have Harvard’s huge endowment, Princeton’s eating clubs, Dartmouth’s
fraternity houses or Yale’s house system. What we do have, however, is
the finest general education curriculum in the country, the Core Curriculum,
of which we should be extremely proud. That is our “tradition,” and
what differentiates Columbia College from other colleges. It is a source
of stability and strength and a cultural foundation to be built upon as the
College strives to improve itself in the 21st century.