The Columbia College Core Curriculum
Since 1919, the Core Curriculum has been the centerpiece of the undergraduate intellectual experience at Columbia College. The Core Curriculum consists of five required courses in important books and works of art in the Western tradition. The courses are meant to prompt students to grapple with fundamental questions of human existence and to think deeply about how the contemporary world has been shaped by the past. With an emphasis on oral and written expression, the courses also hone students’ skills of analysis, clear and cogent argumentation, and persuasive exposition.
Courses in the Core Curriculum share four basic characteristics which, together, embody the College’s intellectual and institutional commitment to liberal arts education:
1. they are uniform, required courses;
2. they focus on primary texts, eschewing secondary or scholarly literature;
3. they are small, discussion-driven seminars; and
4. they are taught by an interdisciplinary faculty.
The content and organization of the Core Curriculum are guided by the view that the ultimate ends of a liberal education necessarily reflect a vision of the ultimate ends of a human life. The Columbia Core is the result of debates and conversations among faculty that span the entire history of the modern College and that have evolved along with our understanding of the place of undergraduate education in the university and in the contemporary world. The effort behind the Core Curriculum presupposes an acceptance by the faculty of the responsibility to present to students a vision—if always a provisional vision—of what a liberal education means. The conversations across disciplines and specializations that sustain the Core Curriculum as a non-disciplinary requirement for all students also give it its vitality and force. They represent an exercise in the complex arts of consensus-building, compromise, and honest debate—liberal habits of mind that we hold as fundamental to the education we aim to provide and to the intellectual communities we wish to foster.
At bottom, the Columbia Core Curriculum aims to cultivate the capacity for reasoned judgment in complex human matters. We study texts and works of art that confront us with fundamental questions of human experience. By analyzing complex and challenging works closely and discussing them in small groups, we aim to develop in our students a capacity for deep inquiry and a life-long habit of self-examination and honest engagement with ideas. Our approach to learning aims to make students more acutely aware of the premises that inform their views and of the ultimate values that guide their decision-making. This awareness heightens the intensity with which students pursue the rest of their studies at Columbia and shapes how they go about organizing their lives beyond their college years. In this way, the Core Curriculum seeks to cultivate virtues of both intellect and character. Our focus is not on the mastery of particular bodies of knowledge, but on the development of the human capacities required for a life of self-reflection, deliberative action, and freedom. The small classes and intimate discussions promote an intellectual and affective integration that carries beyond the classroom and into the rest of their lives. The Core educates by affirming each students’ intellectual freedom, irreducible worth, moral autonomy, and dignity.
The Core Curriculum is taken by all undergraduates at Columbia College in small seminars of around twenty students. Two of the courses are year-long, allowing students the rare opportunity to read and discuss important books with the same instructor and the same group of peers for an entire year. The two year-long courses anchor the first and second-year experience of each student. During these first two years, all College students read the same books at roughly the same time, creating an intellectual and social community that unites them with each other, with students further along in their degrees, and with all College alumni.
Additionally, all first-year students take a one-semester course that integrates modern science into the Core Curriculum. Before their senior year, all students also take a semester-long course in important works of Western art, and one in important works of Western music.
Visiting Professors in the Core Curriculum will teach one of the two year-long courses in the Core (Literature Humanities or Introduction to Contemporary Civilization) and possibly one course in a home department.
Literature Humanities (whose formal name is Masterpieces of Western Literature and Philosophy), is taken by all first-year students in the College. Beginning with Homer, students read and discuss, chronologically, one important book each week, up to the present. As in all Core courses, each section of Literature Humanities has a maximum of 22 students, and every section reads the same syllabus in tandem.
Introduction to Contemporary Civilization in the West (or simply Contemporary Civilization) is the original Core course and has been offered without interruption since 1919. Contemporary Civilization is taken by every College sophomore. Beginning with Plato's Republic, and advancing chronologically, students read classics of moral and political thought—including the Hebrew Bible, the New Testament, and the Holy Qur'an—up to the present.
Faculty Community and Pedagogical Support
Every week, instructors in Literature Humanities and Contemporary Civilization meet over lunch to discuss the text to be taught the following week. These faculty meetings bring together instructors from nearly all humanities and social science departments in the University and from every stage of the academic career: retired professors, tenured faculty, junior faculty, postdoctoral lecturers, advanced graduate students, and adjunct professors.
Four Basic Characteristics of Courses in the Columbia Core Curriculum
1. Uniform and Required Courses
Core courses are uniform required courses that provide a common intellectual experience to all students. Discussions begun in the classroom spill over into hallways, dining halls, and dormitories. Through the Core, the student body engages in a campus-wide conversation about what one of its founders called the “insistent problems of the present.” These “Core conversations” become anchor points that organize the often bewildering experience of the early college years. These formative intellectual encounters—the texts, issues, and questions of Core courses—also become touchstones to which students return again and again as they advance in their studies and mature in their lives.
It is hard to overstate the extent to which these campus-wide conversations allow students to build communities, equip them to talk to each other across differences of background and opinion, and allow them to see themselves as part of a human continuum that is larger than themselves and their particular interests. Core questions are not merely academic, but concern issues that everyone confronts, more or less consciously, throughout his or her life.
2. The Study of Original Texts
Core courses focus on primary texts, eschewing secondary or scholarly literature. Students examine important texts from antiquity to the present that speak compellingly to the most basic and enduring questions of human life. All of the texts are meeting points for conversations that have been going on for centuries; conversations that, at every turn, stimulate reflection about the nature of the human good and prepare our students to live more thoughtful and examined lives.
3. Learning Through Conversation
All Core courses are taught in seminar format; that is, they are organized as conversations around a table that are led, but not dictated, by an instructor. The capacity for reasoned and civil conversation about fundamental questions is a critical capacity for democratic self-governance. Our classrooms are training grounds for those intellectual and affective virtues that make collective action, whether it be collective inquiry or collective decision-making, possible. Core courses ask students not only to read complex texts, but to engage in conversations about some of the most challenging and persistent questions of their individual and collective experience. Students learn to express themselves coherently and compellingly, to listen to opposing viewpoints and to evaluate them honestly, and to articulate the rationale for their positions in ways that can be understood by others. Core seminars prod students to reasoned examination of their own views, and to attentive and open dialogue with others whose views may differ in fundamental ways.
The Core classroom is also the place where the College realizes most vividly the value of its diversity. In the Core classroom, students meet face-to-face and listen to each other. Because Core conversations are about human questions of the deepest order, they serve as vehicles for individuals from sometimes starkly different backgrounds to experience what it means to see the world through someone else’s eyes.
4. Non-Disciplinary Approach
Core courses are taught by an interdisciplinary faculty and are not governed by disciplinary concerns. A Columbia professor once quipped that while the Core is touted for the education it provides to students, its real value is the education it provides to the faculty. Interdisciplinarity, admired and praised everywhere, is actually rarely found in academic institutions, which tend to be organized around highly specialized disciplines. The Columbia Core provides structure, context, and support for exploring the pre-disciplinary human questions from which the disciplines arise. Indeed, what happens in Core classrooms or in Core faculty meetings is best described as meta-disciplinary. The Core, from its very inception, has been conceived as a non-disciplinary endeavor, requiring faculty from various disciplines to come together regularly to share their insights, absorb the insights of others, and teach outside their intellectual comfort zones. Our program, our students, our faculty, and the University in general are enriched by the cross-fertilization of expertise and perspectives that the Core occasions.