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The Core Curriculum

History of the Core

Yearsort descending Title Description More Information
1880 New language requirement

The modern language requirement de-emphasizes Greek and Latin signaling changes in the conception of what the appropriate educational requirements should be.

1895 Gymnasium program

The Gymnasium program emulates the German model.  Professor Henry Peck writes to President Seth Low to endorse it. There is robust debate about its merits.

1897 Morningside Heights

Geographic change and curricular change: the campus comes uptown and the Greek requirement is eliminated; the Latin requirement, reduced.

1905 "Columbia plan"

President Butler unveils the "Columbia plan," allowing students to pursue work at professional schools after just two years of undergraduate study. While advocates of liberal education saw this as a major step in the wrong direction, some saw this as a visionary accomodation of the needs of students, especially the sons of immigrants,  for a more efficient path to professional careers.

1916 Latin requirement eliminated
1917 "War Issues"

Spurred by World War I, the U.S. Army commissions Columbia faculty to create a course for the Student Army Training Corps. About the course Dean Hawkes said: "Its significance rested on the fundamental principle that in the long run man's accomplishment can rise no higher than his ideals, and that an understanding of the worth of the cause for which one is fighting is a powerful weapon in the hands of an intelligent man."

1919 Admitting for "Character and Promise"

Admissions standards change to allow consideration of an applicant's "character and promise". Interviews are to be conducted if possible.

1919 "Contemporary Civilization"

The "peace issues" course, conceived in contrast to the "war issues" course of 1917 is created.  "Introduction to Contemporary Civilization in the West," makes it debut and replaces Philsophy and History freshmen requirements.  It is a small, year-long class, with the same instructor. It meets five times a week for an hour a day.  The format prioritizes student discussion over lectures. The History and Philosophy Departments replace  their freshman requirements with CC, as it came to be known. Instructors are pulled from History, Philosophy, Government, Economics, and Sociology.  A weekly meeting for all CC instructors is held. Each CC class elects a student representative to attend regular meetings with the instructor and the dean and convey student impressions of the course.

1920 "Honors"

Professor John Erskine's course, the predecessor to today's Literature Humanities.  The basic idea: small groups of students who would read one book a week and subsequently spend a few hours discussing it with a pair of instructors. The main controversy: Erskine's endorsement of reading classics in translation, void of secondary sources or more traditional introductions. Erskine designed the reading list independently. A number of Columbia's best professors, including Mortimer Adler, Mark Van Doren, and Irwin Edman, signed on to teach the course. The course was open only to students who had performed well on special exams, received recommendations, and possessed stellar academic records.

1928 Contemporary Civilization Expands (CC A and B)

The freshman segment of the expanded Contemporary Civilization course, CC-A, focuses on the history of Western civilization from the year 1200 through the present. The essential inquiries from the original CC course remained: How do men make a living? How do they live together? How do they understand their world?  The sophomore segment, Introduction to Contemporary Problems in the United States (or CC-B), emphasized the question of making a living in the United States. Thiswas due in part to the Economics and Government departments abandoning their popular introductory courses in favor of the expanded CC.

1928 The "maturity credits"
1932 "Colloquium in Important Books"

The Honors course returns in a second incarnation with much in common with its first: upperclassmen selected after an interview process read one book per week and discuss it in small sections with two instructor.  The reading list expands to include the nineteenth century.

1932 CC-B Revised

Complications arising from the US economy (the Depression began as the course began) made it necessary to revise the syllabus of CC-B in 1932 to introduce the most pressing questions about the nation's economic security and survival.

1934 Thinking of a Humanities Sequence

Irwin Edman heads a committee to discuss a Humanities sequence. A Humanities counterpart to CC was seen as crucial to a well-rounded liberal education.   The first ideas centered on a single two-year course covering literature, music and visual art.

1934 Science Sequence

Dean Hawkes advocates for a science sequence (Science A and Science B) to be modeled after the expanded Contemporary Civilization course.  The courses did not, however, survive: small discussion courses were untenable, and lectures were not well-received.

1937 "Humanities"

Inaugurated in 1937, the Humanities sequence consists of Humanities A, a mandatory freshman survey of classic texts of Western literature and philosophy, spanning from antiquity through the end of the eighteenth century, and Humanities B, a sophomore elective focused on visual arts and music.  Humanities A was never described as a "great books" course, since that implied emphasis on a fixed reading list, while Humanities A placed emphasis on developing students with critical appreciation of texts. Instructors understood from the outset that the course was incredibly - often, unrealistically - demanding, asking students to read a book a week in its entirety.  Humanities A was modeled after CC A: small classes, two-semesters with same instructors, instructors drawn from multiple departments, common reading list.

1941 Humanities B Splits: Art & Music

Humanities B, the sophomore course focused on music and art, splits into two, with Humanities B1 becoming what would later be known as "Music Humanities" and Humanities B2, "Art Humanities". Each course meets three times a week: one large lecture and two smaller discussion seminars.

1941 Optional Science Sequence Dropped
1941 CC-A Sets Itself Apart

1935 marks the first time that CC-A includes excerpts from contemporary modern fiction. Until this point, only readings from the course textbook were used.  Though the fiction in CC concept did not last, that of moving away from textbooks did.  In 1941, primary source readings become mandatory in CC-A. This made the freshman course (A) very different from the sophomore course (B); it also made it much more similar to the newly developed Humanities A course which only dealt with primary texts. 

1946 A Source Book

The efforts to create a unique secondary source for the Contemporary Civilizations course culminates in the publication of "Introduction to Contemporary Civilization in the West: A Source Book" in 1946. Previous efforts to put together a source book had failed over disagreements amongst faculty about what to include. Even as the book becomes available, many faculty are uncomfortable with texts included which they feel are best covered by Humanities A.

1947 "Oriental Humanities"

Professor Wm. Theodore de Bary establishes the first "Oriental Studies" program in the country. First offered in the 1947-1948 academic year, the colloquium in studied Asian classics. Students met with two instructors.

1947 "Art Humanities" and "Music Humanities"

Having dropped the weekly lecture in favor of only seminars, Humanities B1 and B2 courses are renamed "Masterpieces of Western Music" and "Masterpieces of Western Art," respectively. The names that really stick? Music Humanities and Art Humanities.  The courses become mandatory signaling a commitment to giving visual art and music the same serious attention given to literature in the Humanities sequence of the requirement.

1948 "Chapters in Western Civilization"

Providing background reading, and including new articles by Columbia faculty, "Chapters in Western Civilization" was an addition to the original materials collected in the Source Book.

1950 "Oriental Civilization"

Modeled directly on CC much as Oriental Humanities course had been modeled on Humanities. Both Oriental courses were electives.

1954 A Major

The maturity credits system ensured that all graduating students had done advanced work, but took no account of which field(s) student work was concentrated in. Changing to a "Majors" system allows specific departments to confer the degree together with the College. This change coincided with increased specialization in the social sciences. The introduction to the major system had a negative impact on CC-B: students preferred taking introductory courses in the departments in order to pick a major rather than CC-B.

1955 "Man in Contemporary Society"

The first version of a CC-B reader actually appeared in mimeograph form only in 1951. "Man In Comtemporary Society" is finally created and contains excerpts 1861 to 1954.

1957 The MacMahon Report

Formally known as "The Educational Future of Columbia University" but referred to as "The MacMahon Report," the curricular review report contains serious criticisms of CC, highlighting challenges with staffing.  Chamberlain grants, guaranteeing junior faculty who a semester's sabbatical for six semesters of Core teaching are described as "urgent remedial measures".

1959 Core for Engineers

Core courses become mandatory for engineering students.

1960 The Truman Report

David Truman is appointed head of a committee to scrutinize the CC sequence in 1958. After two years of investigation, the report is published in 1960. CC-A and CC-B, are found to have common problems, including staffing. The report praised CC-A for its "long record of success" but it suggested that CC-B be suspended, given increased specialization in the social sciences and student interest in studying in the specific departments.

1960 "Redbooks"

The CC-A Source Book undergoes its third revision. This will be its final edition. The red book's binding gives it its name.

1961 CC-B becomes elective
1962 The Core Preceptors

The rank of preceptor is proposed as a way to alleviate the financial pressures of maintaining many small courses in the Core. Faced with initial skepticism that preceptors could teach in the Core, Dean Barzun made their enlisting optional for departments. In the end, the first semester with preceptors found them teaching in the Core. They taught for two years.

1962 "Literature Humanities"

After a year of deliberation, the Stern committee finds that the aims of Humanities A (Literature Humanities) are not easily defined. It further criticizes the course for not providing "context" for the reading of the texts.  This critique meets the resistance of Humanities A faculty and students. Students surveyed express no interest in having background readings or critical essays added to their reading list. Literature Humanities students and faculty prove more enthusiastic about their course than the committee.

1963 CC-B Struggles More; History Drops It
1963 Music Humanities textbook

Columbia's Music Department compiles source readings for Music Humanities.

1966 Experimental Hum seminars

The experimental sections, created by the Committee on Instruction as a response to the Stern committee, included critical essays as supplements. The seminars were short-lived, and had little-to-no long-term impact.

1966 The Daniel Bell Report

President Truman approached Daniel Bell in 1965 to reappraise general education at Columbia. Bells' report, "The Reforming of General Education: The Columbia College Experience in its National Setting," served as an introduction to the national problems of general education beyond Columbia. His major proposition consisted of a "third tier" of interdisciplinary general education to allow greater consideration of twentieth-century issues and texts.

1968 CC-B Dropped Entirely

After many years of struggling to define its aims and engender the kind of student appreciation that its sister-course enjoys, CC-B is dropped entirely.  CC-A becomes simply "CC".

1968 Revised CC: Whole Texts, Revolution

The new syllabus substituted source books with entire texts.  Additionally the spring semester has a focus on "Revolutions". These changes do nothing to allay student activist critics of the course, which they claim is irrelevant.

1970 Elective Core?

Dean Carl Hovde appoints the Committee on Educational Policy, headed by Professor Robert Belknap. As a response to increased student dissatisfaction with the heavy load of mandatory requirements, the committee proposes shifting CC and Humanities to electives. Faculty vote against it.

1977 "Tradition and Innovation"

Professors Robert Belknap and Richard Kuhns publish "Tradition and Innovation: General Education and the Reintegration of the University, A Columbia Report"

1979 Sixtieth
1985 Women in Literature Humanities

Two years after women are admitted to Columbia College, Jane Austen is the first female author to be incorporated into the Literature Humanities course, with the addition of "Pride and Prejudice" to the syllabus.

1988 The de Bary Report, A "Core Curriculum"

Professor de Bary heads a committee charged with re-evaluating the curriculum. The committee applauds the structure, and calls for the establishment of a Standing Committee. The committee additional restates the importance of the pedagogical aims and distinctive features of the curriculum. Like reports before it, it comments on current and looming challenges, including faculty staffing. 

At the time, the phrase "General Education" still reigned. Initially intended to suggest an education for a "general" audience, the committee felt it now became an idea of general content that was not desirable. The better designation of "Core Curriculum" is proposed instead.  It sticks.

1988 Society of Senior Scholars

Professor de Bary establishes The Heyman Center for the Humanities Society of Senior Scholars. The society allows professors who elect to do so to teach in the Core after  retiring from full-time service. Scholars receive stipends to teach one course a semester. This begins a long tradition of dynamic and invaluable contribution to Core teaching and faculty life by some of Columbia's most distinguished professors.

1988 The Committee on the Core

The Standing Committee on the Core is established.

1990 From "Extended Core" to "Major Cultures"

The Standing Committee on the Core creates the "Extended Core" requirement. It requires students to take courses in cultures not covered in CC and Humanities.  The Standing Committee maintains a list of courses that may be chosen to fill the requirement.

Later revisions would change the requirement once more and call it "Major Cultures". Under the Major Cultures requirement, students take a sequence of two courses in either Asian, African, Latin American or Native American civilization.  A committee on Major Cultures maintains the lists.

1993 "Report of the Committee on the Future of Columbia College"
1993 Raising Class Size?

A college experiment to increase the size of two Music Humanities sections (to 39 and 56 students respectively) causes an uproar as 800 disatisfied students sign a petition.  Small seminar size prevails once more.

1993 Experimental CC Seminars

Experimental sections of CC are approved by the Committee on the Core to try introducing non-western texts and older texts as well (track A) and to organize the course not chronologically but thematically (track B).

1994 Seventy-fifth
1994 The Committee on Undergraduate Education

The CUE report, published in January, states that majors have "insufficient attention and insufficient resources," a problem that, the report states, should be corrected by reducing general education requirements. One suggestion: combining CC and Lit Hum into one three-semester course.  Recommendations are not adopted but this is not the first nor the last time that the Core Curriculum requirements are presented as antagonistic to study in the majors.

1994 "The CC Reader"

CC staff compiled "Readings in Contemporary Civilization," which included short works and excerpts, as a complement to the books read in their entirety in CC.  In 1994 the third edition, called "Contemporary Civilization Reader," was professionally produced. The fourth edition expanded to include introductions to selections.