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The Core Curriculum

Chapter 7: “the dilemmas of the modern world”

When the College decided to establish CC in 1919, there was widespread agreement that it was a worthwhile experiment, despite questions about how the course would be taught. In the 1970s, however, there was no question that such a course could be taught, but many now questioned whether it was worth teaching.

When the Belknap Committee recommended ending CC and the Humanities as undergraduate requirements in 1970, there was considerable faculty support. Indeed, many still felt that any academic requirement was a mistake. But conservatism - once an obstacle to creating the core curriculum - now saved it, and the faculty narrowly defeated the Belknap Committee proposals. This was only a reprieve, though; the core curriculum was not completely rehabilitated in the eyes of either faculty or students. The main difficulties facing CC flowed directly out of the 1968 Arden House decision to transform the syllabus. As Professor Smit noted, "Not everybody likes the way CC nowadays is approaching the model of Humanities in the emphasis on teaching great texts."1 Unlike Humanities A, however, CC did not keep a common syllabus. Indeed, just the opposite proved true. Under the new system, a set number of texts (though not particular assignments) would be required of all sections, while teachers would be able to supplement these with other readings of their own choosing. This compromise, designed to preserve a core list of readings, actually allowed a teacher unprecedented freedom in forming a syllabus.

In the absence of common exams for all sections and with no policing of sections, there was little chance to ensure that required readings were actually read. There was a real danger that the core would dissipate because of academic self-indulgence. In the early 1970s, Professor of History Eugene Rice discovered that a colleague in CC was omitting required readings in order to spend much of the spring semester discussing the ideas of Wilhelm Dilthey, the nineteenth-century German philosopher and historian. Dilthey had acquired something of a cult following in certain academic circles, but he was at best a dubious choice for CC since few of his works had been translated into English. Besides, the teacher knew no German. (After writing to Dean Carl Hovde complaining of this abuse, Rice became proof of the old adage that no good deed goes unpunished: he was made chairman of CC.) Nor, sadly, was this an isolated incident. Smit, who became chairman of CC late in the 1970s, was forced to ask an assistant professor to leave the CC staff for devoting the fall semester to Hegel and the spring semester to Marx.

The problem of balancing a common list of readings with instructors' reasonable desires for freedom remains. There have been few efforts to monitor individual classes, so the staff has been obliged to hope that its annual meetings on the reading list have created a consensus strong enough to permeate all sections. But there are wide variations. Even though the CC staff agrees on a list of required and recommended readings, there is no way to prescribe how much class time will be spent on each work, nor even if long works are read in their entirety. For example, each CC section is supposed to read Plato's Republic, but how much of it is read or how many classes are spent on it still depends on the instructor.

These concerns weigh more heavily on CC than on the Humanities, where the syllabus is more precisely formulated. Each year, the Humanities A (now Literature Humanities) staff not only chooses readings but also settles on minimal class assignments. There is some choice, to be sure. Looking at the 1994-95 syllabus, we see that the Book of Job is optional, and that the teacher decides which Shakespeare play to include, and chooses a modern work (or works) for the last week of the year. The instructor can also add to the required readings throughout the year. Nevertheless, the Literature Humanities staff teaches within much narrower param-eters than their counterparts in CC, and Literature Humanities students are much more likely to find consistency. This seems to be a persistent difference between the two courses. Students have occasionally suggested that CC should adopt a more standard syllabus, but the staff has always rejected this as an infringement on their freedom.2

THE GUIDING IMPULSE behind CC and Humanities A in the 1970s was a quest for relevance. Both courses could still claim that they provided students with a common background for further studies, but they clearly needed to explain why they, rather than new (or different) courses, should do this. Establishing relevance was perhaps most difficult in CC since students were still suspicious of the course's civic legacy. When CC lost an explicit patriotic or civic dimension, an intellectual void opened up. How could one teach a course when it wasn't clear what the course was about? In large part, excesses within individual sections reflected this fundamental lack of focus. Another justification for CC slowly began to emerge, identified in the 1988 de Bary report as the goal of fostering "a close analysis of selected classics of social, political and philosophical thought studied in their historical and institutional contexts." In this new formulation, CC attempts to encourage an "attitude of critical engagement" in order to understand "the dilemmas of the modern world."3 American democracy now didn't seem as resilient as when the course began, and CC spent much less time giving the nuts and bolts of Western history. But as a whole the course could claim to help analyze contemporary society - without pledging unequivocal support. In the eyes of its staff, CC remained a course about issues and problems, though perhaps there was less confidence that solutions were in the offing.

This rationale raises its own difficulties. The first clearly revolves around the centrality of classic texts. A problem-oriented course is not always well served by a reliance on texts, especially complete books. As Smit asked in 1979, "How well does a course dealing with texts from Plato through Freud, omitting most of the twentieth century, serve the understanding of a civilization which has gotten further and further removed from its parochial European origins?" Not all books and authors read in CC are recognized as decisive to the course of Western civilization. Plato's Republic and Aristotle's Politics probably are, but the CC staff has argued over which Stoic philosopher to read, or whether Thomas More or Jeremy Bentham is essential. Nor can all the problems important for CC be approached through long texts. Both the American and French revolutions are best approached through documents - the Declaration of Independence, the U.S. Constitution, the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen - rather than through Thomas Paine's Common Sense or Rights of Man. There is a danger that CC will worry about what books to teach rather than what problems to confront. "It is a legitimate point of view that the concrete history of crucial institutional changes should determine more strongly the organization of the course," Smit noted.4

The second issue was how contemporary CC would be. Few doubted the value of providing a historical introduction to the ideas of the twentieth century, but how much time should be spent on the twentieth century itself? For nearly forty years, twentieth-century problems had been the domain of CC-B. The demise of that course had left the first year of CC "a headless torso," in Smit's words. At the same time that CC was struggling to find the best collection of original works to use, it also had to find ways to re-introduce modern problems into an already crowded year.

In spite of its original focus on "the insistent problems of the present," there has been widespread staff resistance to spend-ing too much class time on the twentieth century in CC. The enor-mous amount of material has daunted some, while the lack of consensus on topics for discussion has deterred others. But the basic objection among the CC staff has always been that focusing on contemporary works requires teachers to cut or skim over earlier readings. There has been no consensus on which required readings could be cut. In 1991, an attempt to pack Jean-Jacques Rousseau (normally the first reading of the spring) into the fall semester to make room for twentieth-century writers proved so unpopular that it was abandoned after one year. By the 1990s, it seems that the CC staff had rediscovered its love of classic texts and was unwilling to part with them.

At present, CC has only limited contact with twentieth-century authors and texts. The last required reading is Freud's Civilization and Its Discontents. After that, the plan allows the instructor a few weeks at the end of the spring semester to discuss recent texts. While no specific texts are required, the instructor is expected to discuss modern topics, such as race and ethnicity or gender issues. For those who have pushed for a greater concern with the modern world in CC, this is inadequate, but it is still difficult to obtain a consensus within the staff for more movement. As the end of the century approaches, it becomes more and more difficult to blacken a preference for modern authors with the charge of "presentism," and this issue continues to preoccupy the teachers of CC.

SIMILAR PROBLEMS OF RELEVANCE also buffeted Humanities A. Erskine's original General Honors reading list and its successors have stopped around the year 1800. For years, Humanities A ended the spring semester with Goethe's Faust. But many instructors became uncomfortable with the neglect of nineteenth- and twentieth-century literature in Humanities A, just as it was impossible to ignore the twentieth century in CC. By 1987, Humanities A had taken tentative steps into the modern era. After reading Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice, instructors in Humanities A spent the last week of the year teaching a text of their own choosing, preferably a nineteenth- or twentieth-century novel. By 1994-95, Virginia Woolf's To the Lighthouse had been sandwiched between Austen and the optional selection.

Other pressures also have refashioned the Humanities. One important transformation is symbolized in the change of name from Humanities A to Literature Humanities (often shortened to Lit Hum).5 On one level, this name change was little more than an attempt at uniformity, to fit with Art Humanities and Music Humanities. (Indeed, Literature Humanities became a popular designation for Humanities A long before the College made it official in the early 1990s.) But on another level, this change sym-bolizes a subtle shift in perceptions of the course, away from an emphasis on humane works toward literature defined much more narrowly. To some extent, the uninitiated misconstrue Literature Humanities as more literary than Humanities A.

While this shift undoubtedly resulted from specialization within the humanities, as literature scholars became increasingly uncomfortable about teaching texts outside their fields, it also reflected the corrosive effects of the new plan of CC on Humanities A. When CC began reading entire works, rather than just selections in the Redbooks, conflict with Humanities became inevitable. Some authors and texts - Thucydides, Plato's Republic, the Bible - continued to be read in both sections, but others - such as Lucretius, Machiavelli's Prince, and Descartes - came to be seen by many as more appropriate to the philosophical and historical ambitions of CC.

Many have seen this tension as inevitable, even beneficial: "Contradiction in our enterprise within Humanities and CC is absolutely essential [to] turn out students with a distinct plumage," argued Professor of History Marcia Wright, who served as CC chair in the 1970s.6 The CC and Lit Hum staffs note that the two courses have different goals and approach works differently, and that the overlap in theory shouldn't matter, but students can resent it.7 And attempts to limit overlap have often resulted in CC gaining disputed texts for itself (Descartes became the most recent prize), giving the false impression that Literature Humanities is primarily a literature course rather than a course in humane books. There are those who long for the ambiguity of the old designation Humanities A, which avoided this confusion.8

BUT IT IS THE NAMES added to the Literature Humanities reading list - Austen and Woolf - that signal the great issue of the core in the 1980s. In the fall of 1983, Columbia College began admitting women, a change that is still being felt. Some innovations were innocuous (the term "freshman" gave way to "first-year student"); others were more substantial. The College had been a male preserve and, though few recognized it at the time, so was the core. The staff had been predominantly male also, although women (including for a time Susan Sontag) began teaching Humanities A in the 1950s.

Humanities A began admitting women authors shortly after the College began admitting women. Partially as a nod to women undergraduates, Jane Austen first made it on to the syllabus in 1985; Sappho and Virginia Woolf joined later. Other books by women, notably Mme. de La Fayette's Princesse de Clèves (1678), were included on the Lit Hum syllabus for a time, only to fall off because they failed to capture the imagination of students. Women's concerns could also be approached through texts that had been used before, though perhaps not with this issue in mind (Euripides's Medea, Sophocles's Antigone).

Yet the inclusion of women authors (and women's issues) added a new element of rancor to curricular decisions. Professor John Rosenberg remembers that the quarrel within the Lit Hum staff over Princesse "was more bitterly divisive than any in my long memory of the course."9 In the 1980s, curricular decisions were again becoming politicized: It seemed that those who favored the inclusion of women authors risked the charge of tokenism; those who opposed one woman author (though they might support another) risked the charge of sexism. Ideological concerns were once again undermining the validity of the entire educational enterprise.

The issue of women was no less pronounced in CC. In July 1983, before the first women arrived at the College, Peter Pouncey, chairman of CC, reminded his staff that the topic of women "is now all the more likely to recur throughout the course, and we should prepare ourselves to discuss it knowledgeably."10 The least disruptive way was to address the issue of women as it arose in established CC readings. Plato, Aristotle, St. Augustine, John Locke, and other CC stalwarts treat women at length, and most readings say something about the condition of women. If CC was really a course about problems and issues, then one didn't need to change the readings, one just had to be more nuanced.

The inherent tension between the text-centered CC and the problem-centered CC surfaced in this debate because, for many, the only way to assure discussion of women was to include works by women. In the spring semester, this didn't prove especially difficult. By the late 1980s, Mary Wollstonecraft's Vindication of the Rights of Women had made it onto the required reading list, and many instructors chose Simone de Beauvoir's The Second Sex and Carol Gilligan's A Different Voice for use at the end of the year. In the fall semester, finding appropriate women's voices proved more complicated and led to more contentious choices. Before the 1990-91 academic year, the CC staff agreed to include The Book of the City of Ladies by Christine de Pisan (a fourteenth-century noblewoman) as required reading, even though only one staff member had read the book.

Concerns about tokenism in selecting texts are real. Many consider de Pisan to be inadequate as a CC text, regardless of its many merits, because it had so little circulation or influence. By contrast, Wollstonecraft fits in nicely with the other Enlightenment authors read early in the spring semester, but some feel that the class time would be better spent elsewhere. De Beauvoir, although not required, is widely used in CC sections, but she can hardly be considered representative of modern feminism. The debate continues within the staffs without any end in sight.

Yet this has clearly been a worthwhile debate. Few dispute that the inclusion of women has greatly enhanced the interest and relevance of the core curriculum, for all students. After some trial and error, women now fit smoothly into Literature Humanities. And the optional last week of the year allows a teacher to add another woman to the reading list. Similarly, it has become difficult to imagine CC not including discussions of women, even if some still question the appropriateness of particular authors.

WHEREAS THE COLLEGE has tended to treat these questions in the light of its own experience, curricular reform was fast becoming a national issue. During the 1980s, the intellectual life of American colleges and universities attracted outside scrutiny that had not been equaled in decades. The virulence of the polemic has perhaps never been equaled. It's hard for even the most determined reader to keep up. Multiculturalism. Eurocentrism. Political Correctness. Culture Wars. Many of the terms that dominate the current debate on higher education were virtually unknown ten years ago. Older terms (great books, general education, the canon, the core) are being used in new ways as factions stake out territory and look for allies in what many see as an ideological war for the soul of higher education.

While the sides have never been as clearcut as some would make them appear, most of the issues are grouped under the rubric of "political correctness" - an ambiguous term that includes many different, sometimes contradictory, goals. At American universities the debate centers on a few major issues: speech codes, intended to protect women and minorities from harmful or offensive speech; minority representation in both the student body and the faculty; and the so-called Western canon, often caricatured as the domain of "dead white males."

The last concern is clearly the most important for the future of the College's core curriculum. We should not think that the notion of "dead white males" is an empty criticism. For its radical critics, a core curriculum has embodied much that is wrong with American society: sexism, since the authors were almost exclusively men; racism, since the authors read were almost exclusively white; and irrelevance, since the writings of ancient authors had little to say to a modern, multicultural society. As we have seen, Columbia's core curriculum had confronted many of these issues before they became jumbled together, but recent conflicts have made finding solutions much more urgent.

There is no manifesto of multiculturalism, and these tendencies were first brought into focus by their critics. The controversy first drew public attention with the publication of Allan Bloom's The Closing of the American Mind (1987), which decries moral relativism on college campuses and proposes return-ing to "the good old Great Books approach" as the solution.11 Other conservative critics of political correctness soon followed. Roger Kimball's Tenured Radicals (1990) complains that "a new academic establishment of tenured radicals" is assaulting the humanities and the Western canon in order to impose as teachers the leftist ideas that they had embraced as students in the 1960s.12 Dinesh D'Souza's Illiberal Education: The Politics of Race and Sex on Campus (1992) argues that a "victims' revolution" on college campuses has undermined academic standards in favor of a radical political and social agenda.13

These authors criticize college curricula, especially for abandoning required courses in Western civilization in favor of multicultural offerings and for substituting books of little literary worth by women and minorities for classic Western texts. They claim to represent academic freedom and high intellectual standards. D'Souza in particular castigates Stanford University for abandoning its Western civilization course for a multicultural requirement in "Cultures, Ideas, and Values." Given their commitment to great books and to the "traditional" liberal arts, one would expect these conservatives to claim Columbia's successful core curriculum for their own. But none of them scrutinize Columbia's core courses, and when they do mention the College they tend to distort its experience.14 Kimball only mentions a few Columbia faculty who he claims espouse dangerous leftist ideas, and he implausibly suggests that the "dominant current of opinion" at Columbia is undermining the core.15 D'Souza grimly announces that core courses "at such institutions as Columbia University and the University of Chicago are now under attack," though he doesn't say what these attacks are.16

NONETHELESS, we shouldn't dismiss the message because of the messenger. Multiculturalism and political correctness do raise troubling issues for the core. In many ways, multiculturalism restates the problem of relevance for a new generation of students. In 1968, when CC students built barricades, the undergraduate population was still largely white and male. By the 1980s, the student population was much more diverse: Not only women but ethnic and cultural minorities were represented on campus in higher proportions than ever. Multiculturalism flows out from the College's success in expanding its student base, though many of these students reject the kind of education that the College had provided to the Jewish and Southern European immigrants who had flooded the College decades earlier.

It is clear that multicultural concerns color the way students perceive the core curriculum. Some resent it as a sneak attack on their ethnic, religious, or cultural distinctiveness. In this light, the idea of a common intellectual experience, even within the College, is politically charged folly. Others insist that the only voices empowered to speak for minorities and disenfranchised groups must come from those groups. This means that a reading list of dead white males (even if this phrase doesn't accurately describe the authors) can never be appropriate for those of different backgrounds, regardless of the subject matter.

Curiously, both sides suffer from a similar mis-understanding. Both treat the core curriculum as a type of intellectual drug. For conservatives, it will inoculate students against Marxism, radicalism, relativism, and a host of modern ills. For radicals, a core curriculum becomes a dangerous potion that gives a false allure to the very prejudices and falsehoods that education is supposed to cure. Both extremes assume that there is a single, dominant Western tradition that is homogeneous and unambiguous, and they identify the core curriculum with an unthinking acceptance of Western culture - despite all the evidence to the contrary.

Both views are present in the College. Traditionalists, including some alumni, sometimes treat even the most minor changes in the curriculum as a dire threat to education. But the staff also includes strong critics of a traditional approach to the core. "I am troubled by the current tendency of Humanities students to suppose that the syllabus is so masculine and Euro-centric because there are no other choices available for the earlier texts," offered one dissenter from the de Bary committee.17 Yet neither side firmly grasps the success of Columbia's core, which emphasizes the process of learning more than the particular conclusions of particular authors. In 1988, the de Bary Report explicitly denied the existence of a fixed canon of Western classics, even as it affirmed the continuing value of the College's core courses. Nor does the core confuse education with indoctrination. In Literature Humanities' steadfast commitment to the notion of sensibility and humanitas, as in CC's focus on problems and issues, there really isn't any desire to impose a common ideological viewpoint. If there were, there probably wouldn't be so many staff quarrels about what books to read.

It seems fair to say that most teachers in CC and the Humanities courses embrace the idea of a general education, no matter how much they might argue about what to include in core courses. At some level, these debates about content show that the core is still vibrant. As the College entered the 1990s, most faculty - both full-time and preceptors - were unwilling to abandon these courses, despite the discontents of multiculturalism. As the 1993 Report on the Future of Columbia College reminded everyone, "the Core has shown itself to be of continuing educational value. In contrast to the largely distribution curricula of other institutions . . . it is an oasis of order and purpose."18

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

  2. For one student's opinion of CC, see Alan Lessoff, "All That Tearing and Pulling: A Student's View of C.C.," Columbia College Today 6, no. 1 (January/February 1979), p. 10.

  3. Report of the Commission on the Core Curriculum [de Bary Report] ([New York]: Columbia College, 1988), p. 4.

  4. Smit, "The Core of the Core," p. 7.

  5. The Columbia College Bulletin lists the official name of the course as "Masterpieces of Western Literature and Philosophy," though no one calls it that.

  6. Eileen Tabios, "General Ed Hailed, Faulted on Its 60th Birthday," Columbia Spectator 26 March 1979.

  7. The author recalls that in his first semester teaching CC, a student complained that it was "unfair" that she was obliged to read the same books of the Bible in CC that she had read a year earlier in Literature Humanities.

  8. The author is grateful to John Rosenberg, who helped clarify many points in this section.

  9. John D. Rosenberg, "The Imperiled Heart of the Core," Columbia College Today 20, no. 1 (Winter/Spring 1994), p. 18.

  10. Staff memorandum, July 1983, quoted in David A. Kaufman, "The Building of a Tradition: A History of Columbia College's Core Curriculum." Unpublished thesis. Columbia University, 1990, p. 48.

  11. Allan Bloom, The Closing of the American Mind, foreword by Saul Bellow (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1987), p. 344.

  12. Roger Kimball, Tenured Radicals: How Politics Has Corrupted Our Higher Education (New York: Harper & Row, 1990), p. 166.

  13. Dinesh D'Souza, Illiberal Education: The Politics of Race and Sex on Campus (New York: Vintage Books, 1991, 1992), pp. 59-93.

  14. Indeed, Mortimer Adler harshly criticized Bloom's work (which claimed to focus on America's premier academic institutions) for acting as if teaching great books was a new idea, even though it had been carried out at Columbia and the University of Chicago (where Bloom himself taught) for half a century. See Adler's "Great Books, Democracy, and Truth," the prologue in his Reforming Education: The Opening of the American Mind (New York: Collier Books, 1988).
          Although D'Souza claims to be describing a victims' revolution that "can be seen on any major campus in America today," he only discusses six universities; moreover, the accuracy of D'Souza's accounts of damage from "the new McCarthyism" of political correctness has been seriously challenged. See Illiberal Education, p. 2. For some criticisms of Illiberal Education, see Russell Jacoby, Dogmatic Wisdom: How the Culture Wars Divert Education and Distract America (New York: Doubleday, 1994), pp. 21-23, et passim.

  15. "What is particularly depressing about such spectacles is the thought that, far from being atypical, they represent the dominant current of opinion in our most prestigious institutions of higher education. Yale, Harvard, Princeton, Johns Hopkins, Columbia, Brown--the company represented is nothing if not renowned." Kimball, Tenured Radicals, p. 27. The spectacle that prompted this evaluation was a symposium at Yale where a Columbia literature professor, in Kimball's words, "displayed a thoroughgoing animus towards the Western democratic tradition" (ibid., p. 25).

  16. D'Souza, Illiberal Education, pp. 67-68.

  17. Siobhán Kilfeather, "A Dissenting Commentary," Columbia College Today 16, no. 1 (Winter 1989), p. 25.

  18. Report of the Committee on the Future of Columbia College, 27 May 1993 (New York: Columbia College, 1993), p. 24.