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THE FIRST CLASS of Columbia College's course in Contemporary Civilization met in September 1919; the course has been given each year ever since, without interruption. That this required course, abbreviated to "CC" almost from the start, has prospered enough to celebrate its seventy-fifth anniversary is one of the great success stories of American higher education.

From this triumph sprang others. In the following years, the College expanded its required courses into the humanities - Literature Humanities, Music Humanities, Art Humanities - with no less success. By now, these core courses stand at the heart of the Columbia College experience, as familiar to any Columbia undergraduate as the shops on Broadway or the columned facade of Low Library.

In a time when it is common to bemoan the decline of academic requirements and the neglect of the "Western canon" in American colleges and universities, one would expect that Columbia's long-standing core curriculum would receive widespread praise and scrutiny. It hasn't. Students - both current undergraduates and alumni - often have little sense of the College's core curriculum beyond memories of their own classes. The Contemporary Civilization and Humanities staffs are committed to the core, but they don't always have a much better sense of its history than their students - at least not when they first start teaching core courses. (I certainly had little idea of what I had gotten myself into when I began teaching CC in 1990.)

Outside the College, impressions are much more fluid. Some educators praise the Columbia core; others barely recognize that it exists. A survey of academic deans by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching in the mid-1980s didn't even include Columbia among the top five schools with successful general education courses, although Columbia's program is older than any that made the list.1 Although the same study proposed that an integrated core curriculum be adopted in colleges throughout the United States, it didn't examine Columbia's successful program at all.

IN COMMISSIONING this essay, the Alumni Association of Columbia College sought to ensure that there would be a permanent record of the core curriculum, one that could provide context to the fond memories of alumni and encourage even greater loyalty to this essential part of a Columbia education. I hope that this essay will satisfy those worthy desires. In addition, though this essay is intended for the Columbia community, I hope that it might appeal to other readers interested in the problems of undergraduate education in the United States. Issues of multiculturalism, political correctness, and the Western canon continue to animate discussions of American education. Those interested in what a core curriculum can (and cannot) do need to look more carefully at the Columbia College model; perhaps this essay can act as a starting point.

Constraints of time and space have required that I make this essay a history of Columbia's core curriculum in a rather narrow sense: It focuses almost exclusively on the Contemporary Civilization and Humanities courses, which are required for graduation from Columbia College. In doing this, I have been obliged to give little attention to the College's efforts at creating general education courses in the natural sciences, though this has often been a priority. More troubling is the somewhat cursory treatment given to the College's many courses in non-Western cultures. Since the 1940s, the College has offered classes in Asian humanities and civilizations that emulate the scope and methods of core courses. With the decision in 1990 to require students to take courses in an "Extended Core" (now the Major Cultures requirement), these Asian courses have taken on even greater significance, and they deserve a more thorough examination than they have received here.

Even my treatment of required courses is lopsided. The reader will quickly notice that I primarily concentrate on developments within the Contemporary Civilization course - followed by Literature Humanities, originally known as Humanities A. Although the seventy-fifth anniversary of the Contemporary Civilization course occasioned this essay, the decision to focus on CC reflects more fundamental concerns. The experience and success of Contemporary Civilization was crucial in the decision to create other core courses. CC has also had the more dramatic history, with regular - often painful - alterations over the years. It has been said that CC was born revising itself, and it is appropriate that these revisions make up a large part of this essay.

The history of the Literature Humanities course is no less proud, and I have tried to do justice to a legacy that goes back as far as that of CC. But Literature Humanities has managed an impressive consistency that perhaps oversimplifies its history. Whereas the history of Contemporary Civilization is primarily one of change, in Literature Humanities continuity is more striking, though this sometimes conceals internal debate and smooths over outside criticism. Finally, if the progress of Fine Arts Humanities and Music Humanities is treated in less detail, it is mainly because they are more recent courses and they have derived their structure from the models of CC and Literature Humanities. I hope that the upcoming fiftieth anniversary in 1997 of the establishment of these courses as requirements will occasion a fuller treatment.

EVEN IN A SHORT HISTORY, the list of people to thank is long. Assistant Professor Eileen Gillooly, director of the Core Curriculum, recommended me for this project and consistently has helped me along the way. This project could not have been completed without the advice of Steven Marcus, dean of the College, Martin Kaplan, president of the Columbia College Alumni Association, James McMenamin, dean of College Relations, Kathryn Yatrakis, associate dean of the College, James Katz, editor of Columbia College Today, and Tom Mathewson, my editor. Research for this project would have been impossible without the help of the staff of Columbia's Rare Book and Manuscript Library and Hollee Haswell, curator of Columbiana. The University's Public Information Office supplied almost all of the photographs.

I am especially grateful to the teachers of the core - especially Professors Richard Brilliant, Wm. Theodore de Bary, Ainslee Embree, Eugene Rice, and Edward Tayler, along with many of my fellow preceptors - who have taken the time to speak with me about their experiences teaching Contemporary Civilization and the Humanities. Professors John Rosenberg and James Mirollo, past chairmen of Literature Humanities, helped guide me through the intricacies of that course. Professor J. W. Smit, longtime chairman of the Contemporary Civilization program (and my academic sponsor), has taken particular interest in this project. All of these people helped me enormously and saved me from countless errors; the mistakes that remain are, of course, my own.


  1. According to the survey, the five most important institutions were (in order): Harvard University, University of Chicago, Alverno College (Wisconsin), St. Joseph's College (Indiana), and Brooklyn College of the City University of New York. See Ernest L. Boyer, College: The Undergraduate Experience in America (New York: Harper & Row, 1987), pp. 99-100.