Skip navigation

John J. Coss

No Columbia faculty member had a greater influence on the course in Contemporary Civilization in its first decades than John J. Coss. A confidant of John Dewey and Nicholas Murray Butler, Coss was an original member of the committee drafting the CC syllabus. As the first director of CC, he guided the course through its infancy and helped the staff develop a unique esprit de corps; as a teacher, he became a model for two generations of staff.

John Jacob Coss received his undergraduate degree from Wabash College in Indiana, where he later became a trustee. He went on to study in Germany and at the Union Theological Seminary. When World War I broke out, his administrative abilities were put to use by the U.S. Army's Personnel Department in Washington, D.C. Shortly before the Armistice that ended the war in 1918, Coss was made a Lieutenant Colonel, and he kept the title "Colonel" within the Columbia community thereafter.

At the war's end, Coss returned to academic life with an appointment to Columbia's philosophy department. But his career took another turn when the College decided to create CC. Colleagues, especially younger members of the staff, benefited, in Irwin Edman's words, from the Colonel's "enthusiasm for the idea of the course, his obvious devotion to the interests of the students, his unflagging personal contribution, his concern for the problems of the instructors." Coss also helped establish Columbia's Summer Session, which he directed for many years.

Like some other great teachers, Coss was not an especially prolific or original scholar: his commitment to students and his many administrative responsibilities didn't give him the time. He was Columbia's first Moore Collegiate Professor and, after his untimely death in 1940, the College erected its permanent memorial to him in the periodical browsing room in Butler Library.

Return to Faculty Profiles | Return to Core History: An Oasis of Order