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The Core Curriculum

Chapter 6: “College instructors are rare”

One of the most intractable problems facing the core curriculum over the years has been staffing. The MacMahon, Truman, and Belknap committees, along with Daniel Bell, all pointed to problems in staffing both CC and the Humanities. Finding full-time faculty willing to teach in the core was proving increasingly difficult in the 1960s, and the burden of teaching both courses fell more and more upon preceptors, full-time graduate students who became part-time faculty, teaching the course while completing their dissertations. This situation was unsatisfactory for many faculty and students - and, though few bothered to ask, for many preceptors - but it had not developed overnight. It was a result of the history and the underlying educational philosophy of the core. In all the discussions of texts and requirements and committee reports, it is easy to lose sight of an essential truth - that both CC and the Humanities rise or fall because of what goes on in the classroom.

Here the experience of CC proved decisive. Contemporary Civilization was established at a time when Columbia was re-examining its role in a changing world; it also reflected new educational perspectives. The dominant figure in educational debates at Columbia was the philosopher John Dewey, who had accepted a position at Teachers College in 1904. Dewey didn't help plan the Contemporary Civilization course, nor did he ever teach it. Nevertheless, his influence is clear.1 Dewey's great work Democracy and Education was published in 1916, shortly before the College began tinkering with its curriculum. Dean Woodbridge, who had helped plan the S.A.T.C. war studies course, was a close friend of Dewey, and we have already seen that John Coss, the first chairman of CC, corresponded with Dewey about the course.

While the modern practice of CC seems far removed from Dewey's philosophy, two of his ideas proved especially influential. First, he assumed that education was a process, beginning in childhood and continuing throughout a lifetime. He insisted on the active involvement of the student in learning. For Dewey, "Education must be conceived as a continuing reconstruction of experience," and he maintained that "the process and the goal of education are one and the same thing." Beyond imparting knowledge, education involved the cultivation of habits of learning that continued beyond formal schooling. Second, Dewey emphasized education's moral dimension, especially the way in which education helps direct society: "Through education society can formulate its own purposes, can organize its own means and resources, and thus shape itself with definitiveness and economy in the direction in which it wishes to move."2 Proper learning necessarily included "acquiring socially desirable attitudes and habits."3 Education thus supported democracy, while also encouraging beneficial change. In this process, the teacher played a crucial role as "a social servant set apart for the maintenance of proper social order and the securing of the right social growth."4

Overall, Dewey's educational philosophy has been described as "both practical and idealistic," an affirmation that morality is taught "not by imposing values . . . but by cultivating fair-mindedness, objectivity, imagination, openness to new experiences, and the courage to change one's mind in the light of further experience."5 To different degrees throughout its long history, these same ambitions have resonated in CC. Certainly the strong civic motivation - articulated by Coss and Carman and Hawkes - behind the creation of CC is consistent with Dewey's philosophy. He even may have influenced the content of the course in other ways. In its first years, CC emphasized the insistent problems resulting from industrialism; Dewey had characterized industrialism as his times' greatest social change, "the one that overshadows and controls all the others."6 But Dewey influenced CC most decisively in the format of the course. In embracing discussions rather than lectures, CC was insisting that students actively participate in their own education. Passive note-taking in large lecture halls wouldn't suffice.

THE EDUCATIONAL IMPULSE behind the Humanities followed a slightly different tack. All the Humanities courses, from General Honors to Humanities A, embraced small discussions and insisted that students actively read classics rather than merely reading about them. The experience in the classroom was all-important, not the communication of any particular information. In 1988, another University committee - this time headed by Professor Wm. Theodore de Bary - undertook a complete re-evaluation of Columbia's core curriculum and reaffirmed this traditional approach to Humanities. "In our view the format of instruction has priority over all else, and changes should be made only with the most careful thought," asserted the committee's final report. This commitment allowed for little backsliding: "There must be classes small enough to allow for steady discussion, and students should be encouraged to participate as actively as possible."7

Nevertheless, the Humanities never embodied a commitment to Western democratic society in the same way that CC originally did. Van Doren always insisted that Humanities placed culture against history; students approached classics directly, not as historical texts. In the same vein, Trilling suggested that the program of Humanities A entailed "a fundamental criticism of American democratic education."8 Indeed, the de Bary Committee recognized the different impulses at work in Humanities A when it described the course as "training in civil discourse, intellectual manners, and the ability to communicate in writing."9 This desire to inculcate sensibility or humane learning remains fundamentally distinct from the civic impulse in CC, though it was not necessarily opposed to it. If the College was serious about creating "whole men" - as Van Amringe had wanted - then it had to cultivate both the humane and the civic impulses.

WHILE PHILOSOPHICAL CONSIDERATIONS may have influenced the original decision to create these small discussion courses, the format continued because it worked. Both students and faculty quickly identified the discussions as the best feature of the course. For all the changes in CC over its seventy-five years, this commitment to discussion in small classes has remained constant. It might also be CC's greatest contribution to the other core courses, because both Humanities A and Humanities B eventually adopted it. And the College usually has worked valiantly to preserve small discussions in core courses (except for a recent, disastrous experiment in 1993 to increase the size of two Music Humanities sections).

This is an expensive way to teach, however, since one professor lecturing many students is much more cost-efficient than a smaller class - where students do (or are supposed to do) most of the talking. Small classes meant many sections, and departments had to sacrifice departmental offerings in order to give teachers time to teach core courses. Even more daunting was the task of finding individuals who were willing and able to teach in the proper way. The discussion format often required a certain self-effacement so that students would have the opportunity to express themselves, and the interdisciplinary content of CC required teachers to work outside of their particular academic disciplines. As Harry Carman noted, "Only those who are willing or eager to do a great deal of painstaking and diligent study in order to acquaint themselves with such a diversified field and who have shown a marked ability to cooperate are taken."10

Even at the beginning of CC, these teachers were envisioned as a special breed. "From the first we have set our standard high and have insisted on having teachers who are dynamic and inspiring and who are persons of fine character, intelligence, broad education, and craftsmanship," noted Carman. "We want teachers who are concerned not merely with imparting factual knowledge but with the meaning of knowledge in terms of attitude and behavior, and with moral values. We regard a teacher as unfit for instruction in any of our general-education courses who is not interested in students as individuals and who cannot win their confidence and respect."11

This wasn't always easy: Coss admitted that in the first decade of CC "three decided misfits" temporarily made it onto the staff.12 Part of the difficulty lay in the College's unwillingness to accept teachers who only taught core courses. The core curriculum has always relied on the kindness of departments for its staff, and this was deliberate. "We wanted on our staff not tread-mill repeaters year after year of material once formulated," Coss re-marked. "Had we been satisfied with this we should regularly have expected one man to teach several sections of Contemporary Civilization, and nothing else. We thought . . . that we should have men who kept fresh and alert because they taught only one section and grew in other directions as well . . . ." Given academic and pro-fessional pressures at Columbia, such well-rounded and dedicated instructors became a precious commodity. "Specialists seem to be many, graduate instructors seem not hard to make," said Coss, "but College instructors are rare."13

WITH ITS EMPHASIS on broad knowledge and experience, one might have expected CC to draw upon the College's most senior faculty. But the College didn't want to coerce anyone into teaching the new course, and the first volunteers were a mixed lot. Of the thirteen original staff members of Contemporary Civilization in 1919, only three - Coss, Adam Leroy Jones, and Benjamin B. Kendrick - were full professors. The rest were junior officers of different ranks, though some (like Irwin Edman) stayed at Columbia their entire careers. Nor were these teachers always much older than their students. Coss was barely thirty, and the youngest member of the CC staff, Horace L. Friess, must have been wise well beyond his nineteen years.14 In 1932-33, the situation for CC-A wasn't that different. Only three senior faculty taught the course (Coss, Carman, and I. W. Raymond), assisted by nine junior professors, six instructors, and one associate dean.15

A pattern quickly emerged. A large number of instructors (permanent teachers who began their careers before receiving doctorates) taught the course at the same time they completed their dissertations. In addition, many junior faculty (mainly assistant professors) taught CC regularly, though not necessarily year in and year out, in addition to their departmental offerings. At the top were a few senior faculty, who did teach the course year after year, and thus provided both continuity and guidance to newer teachers. Tenured faculty (full professors and associate professors) have never made up a majority of the teaching staff, though their influence could be enormous. But this pattern has not always been clear, even to the College's administration. In 1960, the Truman Committee complained that only three full professors and five associate professors were on the CC-A staff of thirty-eight, seemingly unaware that this was not a new trend.16

The large number of younger teachers involved in CC does not imply that the College lacked commitment. Senior faculty had made the decision to create the new course and had helped write its syllabus. Besides, part-time faculty (if they are successful) can become full-time faculty, just as junior faculty (if they are successful) can become senior faculty. The core curriculum gave young instructors the opportunity to begin their professional careers in an organized, cooperative enterprise, and they often grew with the course. Many of the most successful teachers at Columbia - including Edman, Dwight Miner, Jacques Barzun, James Gutmann, and J. Bartlett Brebner- began as instructors in CC. What is most striking, however, is how many of these stuck with CC when they became established, even famous.

The experience in teaching the Humanities was remark-ably similar. If we go back to Erskine's General Honors course, it is clear that senior faculty provided the generals, not the troops. Although Erskine was a full professor, observers noted that the course was "permeated by the energies of a corps of tutorial assistants."17 As with CC, the Humanities courses - in all mani-festations - provided instructors with an introduction to teaching undergraduates. When Humanities A began in 1937, there were only seven professors on the staff of twenty. But this staff included many of the College's brightest stars: Edman, Gutmann, Henry K. Dick, Joseph W. Krutch, Mark Van Doren, Barzun, Moses Hadas,

H. T. Westbrook, Lionel Trilling, Herbert W. Schneider, and Raymond Weaver.18 As with CC, many younger members of this group, such as Trilling and Hadas, stayed with the course long after they had become prominent. Yet there were never enough permanent teachers of Humanities A to dispel worries about staff turnover.

ALTHOUGH THE IDEAL remained a teacher who taught only one section of CC in addition to departmental offerings, the large number of CC sections required to maintain small classes meant in practice that some staff had to teach more than one section. After 1929, it wasn't uncommon for someone to teach both CC-A and CC-B in the same year. By the late 1930s, several members of the history staff were teaching two CC-A sections a semester.19 In the fall semester of 1942, three instructors taught two sections of CC-A, and one instructor taught three sections - though clearly this was wartime staffing.20', 'PopupPage', 'height=500,width=480,scrollbars=yes,resizable=yes'); popup.focus(); return false">20 One reason why instructors came to be so dominant in core courses was that they were the only faculty teaching more than one core course at a time.

Even though there is no substitute for senior faculty, the core probably benefited from such youthful enthusiasm. It's clear that many instructors were willing to devote considerable energy to core courses. "When I first began teaching CC," the historian Peter Gay recalled, "it was with something of a Deweyite (or shall I say, dewey-eyed?) Common Faith. Those of us in CC-A taught eleven hours a week instead of the customary nine without complaining."21 As the urge toward specialization grew in the 1950s and the 1960s, however, teaching in the core became less valued. The Truman Report put the matter clearly: "Many young instructors regard their obligation to teach Contemporary Civilization as the substantial price to be paid for employment at Columbia, not as an intellectual challenge to their professional skill."22 Gay put the problem more bluntly. "The senior faculty dropped away; most of the junior faculty wished that it, too, could drop away. Word got out that promotion, let alone tenure, depended on performance in departmental courses, and above all in publication, both of them impeded by concentration on general education," he remarked. "Generalists became rare; they were, by and large, potential failures or real suckers."23

This dissatisfaction manifested itself in high turnover rates. The Truman Committee noted that CC staff turnover in 1960 was fifty percent, "placing an unduly high proportion of instruction in the hands of inexperienced teachers."24 Bell also noted high turnover and the lack of senior men as the most vexing problems facing the core.25 It is not clear that turnover was dramatically different in the 1960s than in earlier decades, but in a period when the intellectual justification for the course was being called into question, it didn't help that even faculty wouldn't commit to it. The problem seems to have been more pronounced in CC than in Humanities A for specialization was more pronounced in the social sciences. Humanities A still attracted many assistant professors, while CC relied more and more on instructors.

The hoped-for solution was twofold. First, the College tried to encourage more full-time, permanent faculty to teach the course - especially senior faculty. Not much could be done in this regard, however, beyond exhortation. The second thrust was more concrete. Through the creation of Chamberlain grants, which the MacMahon Report had described as an "urgent remedial measure" for the core, the College sought to encourage instructors and assistant professors to remain with the course by guaranteeing a semester's sabbatical for junior faculty who taught six semesters in the core. Over the years, Chamberlain grants have remained an important incentive to attract younger faculty.

TWO FURTHER DEVELOPMENTS exacerbated tensions in staffing the core. First was the decision to require core courses for engineering students in 1959. As a result, the College had to ensure adequate instruction in the many new sections that would be added. The second and far greater change was the creation of a new academic rank - preceptor - to teach in the College in place of instructors. A preceptor is an advanced graduate student who teaches part time while completing a dissertation.26 Preceptors were the creation of fiscal imperatives, not academic ones: They were the low-cost alternative to the older position of instructor. "Columbia College used to spend immense sums for full-time instructors who often remained graduate students for many years. Henceforth, two or three graduate students would subsist as preceptor on the salary of a single instructor."27

The very idea of preceptors quickly became a lightning rod for dissatisfaction with teaching at the College. In the winter of 1962 when preceptors were first proposed, Dean Palfrey was openly hostile: "I find it difficult," he said, "to see how preceptors would be as effective as the instructors of today."28 Professor of History Robert K. Webb, chairman of the Contemporary Civilization program, publicly opposed their use in CC. The College's Committee on Instruction vowed not to use preceptors in CC and Humanities A, fearing that both courses would suffer in "quality and reputation."29 Barzun, who was now dean of faculties, stated he "had no ground for disagreement" with those who opposed the introduction of preceptors, and he insisted that departments would not be obliged to use them.30 The School of Engineering also opposed the use of preceptors in core courses for its students.31 So great was the outcry that a week after the idea was proposed a Spectator editorial happily announced that the whole enterprise was doomed. "It is apparent that the College will not have very much use for the preceptor," it opined. "This is good news since, for a variety of reasons, he is likely to be a lower quality teacher."32 Such were the financial imperatives facing the College, however, that preceptors began teaching core courses in the fall of 1962.

It is not clear why so many feared for the quality of instruction, since many who became preceptors under the new system would have become instructors under the old. But the introduction of preceptors institutionalized the staffing problems that plagued the core. And the College's plan for these new teachers meant that they would never become truly experienced. In the 1960s, preceptors were not permitted to teach for more than two years, while an instructor under the old system theoretically could have taught full time for eight years, with the possibility of joining the regular staff.33 Previously, high turnover in the core had been a problem; now it became policy. At first, fears that tenured faculty would abandon the core curriculum also seemed to be coming true. In the fall of 1962, the first semester with preceptors, there were no full professors and only three associate professors on the CC-A staff of twenty-three teachers.34

The tenure of preceptors remains a troublesome issue within the core. Many departments (including religion) still limit preceptorships to two years, though others (such as history) allow three years. The basic problem is a conflict between the Graduate School's need for student funding and the College's desire for experienced teachers. Many still consider preceptorships to be a form of financial aid, while the core courses search out good teachers and try to keep the ones they find. Humanities A, noted the de Bary Report, "is a difficult course to learn, and takes two or three years of hard work before one teaches it as well as one can. At that point, Columbia forces many preceptors to yield their places to others, depriving them and the students of the fruits of their labors so that new graduate students can have the opportunity to teach."35

Much of the attention paid to preceptors has been negative, helping make teaching as a preceptor something of a mixed blessing. Teaching CC or Humanities is as rewarding as ever - and perhaps more valuable since the opportunity to be a generalist is now rare. And there is real collegiality among the staff: Regular faculty teaching the core invariably treat preceptors as younger colleagues rather than as students. But most graduate students find that teaching core courses (if it is done conscientiously) slows down their dissertations, often by years, and preceptors sometimes become anxious when they see their non-teaching colleagues completing doctorates. Nor does the College always encourage preceptors to stay even to the end of their limited eligibility. Writing in 1979, Professor of History J. W. Smit, chairman of the Contemporary Civilization program, asked rhetorically, "If the preceptors are as crucial to the success of our enterprise as is generally maintained, should they not be paid a living wage?"36 In 1988, financial pressures obliged the College to discontinue Chamberlain grants for preceptors, though it continued them for assistant professors.

The College is aware of these problems. "Teaching in the Core, as well as participation in staff meetings, puts a much greater demand on one's time than teaching courses in one's own discipline," noted the de Bary Report. "Consequently, the dedication and idealism of this staff should be supported by appropriate incentives." It also insisted that "special consideration should be given to the preceptors, whose contribution to the teaching and staff work is indispensable." In its recommendations for improving instruction, the de Bary Report recommended the creation of fellowships for preceptors, and it suggested resurrecting the rank of instructor if that was the only way to restore lost benefits to preceptors.37 In practice, both CC and the Humanities also have extended the tenure of preceptors beyond three years whenever possible.

SINCE THE SUCCESS of the Columbia core directly depends on what goes on in the classroom, in recent years there have been major initiatives to help new teachers orient themselves in these old courses. In the late 1980s, James Mirollo instituted the "practicum" - regular meetings to train new teachers in Humanities A. Similar efforts are under way in CC, with regular conferences for first-time preceptors before weekly staff meetings and the preparation of new teacher handbooks.38 These measures are designed mainly for preceptors, but not exclusively; even experienced teachers new to the core curriculum can benefit from an introduction to its ethos.

No less important than training new teachers is keeping experienced ones. Perhaps the most exciting initiative to this end has been the establishment in 1988 of the Society of Senior Scholars at Columbia's Heyman Center for the Humanities. Senior Scholars "are a select group of scholar-teachers who wish to continue part-time teaching in the general education programs of Columbia University after their retirement from full-time service." In return for modest stipends, Senior Scholars teach one course a semester and participate in other University activities as they wish. This society strengthens instruction in core courses by allowing experienced teachers to continue teaching and by allowing the College to offer more sections of core courses at minimal cost.39 "As teachers in the classroom they can share their wisdom with students and junior colleagues in core courses," noted de Bary, who originated the program.40 In a promising turnaround, part-time teaching - once thought the enemy of experience - has now become a friend.

  1. Looking back from Columbia's bicentennial, Justus Buchler, then chairman of the Contemporary Civilization program, noted that Dewey's ideas were "in the air" when CC was being created. See Justus Buchler, "Reconstruction in the Liberal Arts," in A History of Columbia College on Morningside Heights, edited by Dwight Miner (New York: Columbia University Press, 1954), p. 50.

  2. John Dewey, My Pedagogic Creed, reprinted in Dewey on Education: Selections, with an introduction and notes by Martin S. Dworkin (New York: Teachers College Press, 1959), pp. 27, 31.

  3. Dewey, The Science of Education, reprinted in Dewey on Education, p. 125.

  4. Dewey, My Pedagogic Creed, p. 32.

  5. Richard J. Bernstein, "Dewey, John," in The Encyclopedia of Philosophy, vol. 2 (New York: Macmillan Publishing Co., Inc. & The Free Press, 1967), pp. 384, 385.

  6. John Dewey, The School and Society, reprinted in Dewey on Education, p. 35.

  7. Report of the Commission on the Core Curriculum [de Bary Report] ([New York]: Columbia College, 1988), p. 11.

  8. Quoted in Daniel Bell, The Reforming of General Education: The Columbia College Experience in Its National Setting (New York and London: Columbia University Press, 1966), p. 30.

  9. de Bary Report, p. 11.

  10. Harry J. Carman, "The Columbia Course in Contemporary Civilization," an address delivered before the Association of History Teachers of the Middle States and Maryland at Bryn Mawr, May 2, 1925 (published as a booklet by the Columbia College dean), p. 5.

  11. Harry J. Carman, "Reminiscences of Thirty Years," Journal of Higher Education (March 1951), p. 119.

  12. John J. Coss, "A Report of the Columbia Experiment with the Course on Contemporary Civilization," The Junior College Curriculum, edited by William S. Gray (Proceedings of the Institute for Administrative Officers of Higher Institutions, Volume I) (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1929), p. 141.

  13. John J. Coss to Harry J. Carman, 3 December 1935, Contemporary Civilization folder, Harry J. Carman Papers, Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Columbia University.

  14. Buchler, "Reconstruction," p. 99.

  15. "Columbia's 'C.C.' Course Attracts Wide Attention," Columbia Alumni News 13 January 1933, p. 5.

  16. President's Committee on the Contemporary Civilization Courses in Columbia College [Truman Committee], "Report to the President," ms., October 1960, p. 2. Copy in Columbiana Collection.

  17. "The American College and Its Curriculum": A Supplement to The New Republic 32, no. 412, Part B (25 October 1922), p. 209.

  18. James Mirollo, "Happy Birthday, Humanities A," Columbia (April 1987), p. 34.

  19. See "Contemporary Civilization A1 Staff Memo," 27 September 1937, and lists of staff in Carlton J. H. Hayes to Horace Taylor, 20 February 1939, Contemporary Civilization folder, Carman Papers.

  20. Jacques Barzun et al. to J. A. Krout, 19 October 1942, Contemporary Civilization folder, Carman Papers.

  21. Peter Gay, quoted in Robert L. Belknap and Richard Kuhns, Tradition and Innovation. General Education and the Reintegration of the University: A Columbia Report (New York: Columbia University Press, 1977), p. 53.

  22. Truman Report, p. 3.

  23. Quoted in Belknap and Kuhns, Tradition and Innovation, p. 62.

  24. Truman Report, p. 3.

  25. Bell, Reforming of General Education, p. 298.

  26. Readers are reminded that the author has served regularly as a CC preceptor since 1990, and, therefore, cannot claim disinterest in his discussion of preceptors.

  27. Robert Belknap, "Curriculum in Transition: Some Personal Reflections," Columbia College Today (Summer 1970), p. 58.

  28. "Palfrey Critical of Using Preceptors in Core Courses," Columbia Spectator 27 February 1962.

  29. "Oppose Preceptors in CC, Humanities," Columbia Spectator 1 March 1962.

  30. "Departments to Decide on Use of Preceptors," Columbia Spectator 2 March 1962.

  31. Robert Horowitz, "Engineering Deans Oppose CC, Humanities Preceptors," Columbia Spectator 2 March 1962.

  32. Editorial, Columbia Spectator 8 March 1962.

  33. In 1970, Professor Belknap complained that preceptors couldn't be appointed for more than two years, except in "extraordinary circumstances." Belknap, "Curriculum in Transition," p. 59.

  34. Jonathan Stein, "Use of Non-Tenure Teachers in CC A Defended by Webb," Columbia Spectator 6 December 1962.

  35. de Bary Report, p. 15.

  36. J. W. Smit, "The Core of the Core," Columbia College Today 6, no. 1 (January/February 1979), p. 7.

  37. de Bary Report, pp. 15, 17-18.

  38. Steven Cooper, a preceptor from the religion department, prepared an early version of a CC instructor handbook in 1991. Jennifer Greenfield, a preceptor from the history department, is currently preparing a revised instructor's handbook.

  39. Columbia University, "Heyman Center for the Humanities" [brochure].

  40. "Retiring Faculty Offered New Option," Columbia University Record 13, no. 22 (25 March 1988), p. 1.