It was one of those balmy summer evenings, in the twilight that we’re only given when University President Lee Bollinger’s weather machine is hard at work during NSOP. After a long day flitting around campus between forgettable information sessions, 15 or so new students were lounging on Low Steps. Hailing from places ranging from Dubai to Chile, they summoned me—their leader for the International Student Orientation Program—as I walked past. We chatted away for several hours, opining about the value of majoring in English and discussing some of the finer points of the Bhagavad Gita.
Low Steps magics conversations like that into being. We’ve all had a conversation on those steps that lasted past 2 a.m. It seems as if the place has a compelling power to draw people in and enrich conversations with wonder and mystery. The trees lining College Walk serve as ushers, conducting you into the august presence of central campus. Then, Low Library towers above you, with its neoclassical façade and slim Ionic columns, a place of tangible power.
Flanked on the west by the Stars and Stripes, and on the east by Columbia’s crown-and-cross flag, Low declares its allegiances: the centerpiece of a college for the American Republic, rooted in Anglican Christianity and the ancient tradition of classical learning, as evidenced by the words etched above the colonnade:
King’s College Founded in the
Province of New York
By Royal Charter in the Reign of George II
Perpetuated as Columbia College by the People of the State of New York
When they became Free and Independent — Maintained and Cherished from Generation to Generation
For the Advancement of the Public Good and the Glory of Almighty God
The words themselves are powerful, but the physical layout of the plaza serves to reinforce the message. The steps leading up to the “temple of higher education” are broad and gently sloping; but the ascent is long, not to be undertaken on a whim. The path narrows as railings shepherd you toward the great doors between the central columns.
Alma Mater guards the way to Low. Her name is Latin for “nourishing mother,” already imbuing her with authority (in addition to her enthronement) over our destiny as her students. But she also represents Athena, Greek divine wisdom, with her classical pose and concealed owl. She reminds us that “Columbia” was the 18th century’s poetic way of referring to the young American nation in her struggle for independence. She lifts her left hand in welcome to her sons and daughters while wielding a scepter in her right. Alma Mater is undoubtedly welcoming—but, as “America deified,” she’s a little more awe-inspiring than we usually realize in the run-of-the-mill tourist image of our dear University.
The physical space of campus, its architecture, and its history are powerful reminders that there’s more to life than tomorrow’s deadline. We are human beings first and foremost: We can and should care about the Big Questions, we can and should ask them, and we can and should be unafraid to follow the answers—wherever they lead us. For this reason, I love to delve into what Columbia’s buildings tell us about the ideas and ideals woven into the fabric of our school.
Ideals and Architecture
To learn a little more on the subject, I interviewed Barry Bergdoll, professor of art history and archaeology, who has just returned to campus after a stint as a curator at MoMA. He emphasizes the historical context of the 1890s as key to understanding what the architects behind the Morningside campus were thinking. Charles McKim, William Mead, and Stanford White were commissioned during a time of Gilded Age optimism and heady progressivism. America was becoming a global power: annexing Hawaii, enforcing the Open Door Policy in China, and destroying the Spanish Pacific fleet in one morning at the Battle of Manila Bay.
Columbia College began life as King’s College in 1754. It was time for a change when Columbia moved uptown in 1896, says Bergdoll: “Columbia’s previous campus in Midtown was neo-Gothic, with its allusions to Oxford and Cambridge, the monastery and the cloister. America was coming of age, and McKim wanted his neoclassical campus to be an ideal city.” Morningside Heights, as the highest point in Manhattan, would serve as a beacon for the rest of the city. This campus was to distinguish itself from the neo-Gothic of Princeton and Harvard so that the sons of New York’s elite would stay in the city.
McKim and his colleagues’ new design centered on Low Library as a revived Roman Pantheon intended to claim the Greco-Roman heritage of the West for America. Each discipline of study was given one building: Philosophy, Mathematics, Avery, Fayerweather, Havemeyer, Pupin. The layout emphasized the unity of all subjects in the pursuit of common truths. Bergdoll explains, “McKim’s original plan was for an ideal city upon the Acropolis of Morningside Heights, with Low Plaza as a Roman Forum to welcome students for the exchange of ideas.” McKim’s Italophilia also led him to conceive of the first dormitories and classroom buildings (John Jay, Hamilton, Schermerhorn, etc.) as Renaissance buildings designed for light and windows, inspired by Thomas Jefferson’s University of Virginia.
But these red-brick buildings also evoke Georgian English styling. The buildings themselves remind us that Samuel Johnson, Columbia’s founding president, secured a royal charter from George II to found an Anglican college. True, many of these plans were only partially implemented, and much has been changed since the 1890s. Now-prominent edifices such as Carman, Mudd, Lerner, and Uris were all added much later. Nevertheless, the brick and stone of our campus remind us that the legacy of classical learning came to Columbia through Westminster and Cambridge, through the British Crown and the Church of England.
As an architect and cultural historian, Bergdoll is attuned to the way that the physical spaces we inhabit shape our lives. He expresses my romantic affection for Low Plaza more articulately: “Low forces students to center their lives around it and to meet each other even when they’re going in different directions. It reminds us that learning is as much about interacting with and learning from other people, professors and students, as it is about reading books.” A Roman Forum indeed.
Forum for Thought
I got to hear students’ perspectives on the rich legacy that Columbia’s architecture adds to our education when I, as president of Veritas Forum, lead that organization’s kick-off event for the new school year, a panel discussion on “The Idea of a University.” Veritas seeks to provide a space for the Columbia community to grapple with the Big Questions of life in a way that’s both academic and approachable, rational and relatable. The panel gave six students from Columbia College, the School of General Studies, and the School of Engineering and Applied Science the chance to share what their Columbia education means to them in light of Columbia’s own traditions and self-understanding. During the evening, I realized that I was far from alone in having a kind of spiritual experience with the beauty of Columbia.
One of the speakers was Conor Skelding, a Columbia College senior, who praised the sense of unity and purpose that McKim’s unified architectural vision gives to a campus community. “Having an uncluttered campus with clear lines of sight between buildings helps you know where you are, giving you a sense of possibility and of the broader context of the history of ideas,” Skelding says.
Another panelist, Michael Cotton, a senior at the School of General Studies, felt compelled to come back to college after years traveling the world working for nonprofit organizations. He wanted to complement practical experience with scholarly reflection. “I thought I would educate myself and make time to read all these great books, but I couldn’t on my own. I had to come to a place dedicated and set aside for learning. Columbia’s in the city but walled off, creating a space for conversing with the great minds of the past,” he says.
Finally, Joshua Fattal, a Columbia College junior and Spectator opinion columnist, sums up the rich impact our campus has on being a student: “It makes me feel both big and small every time I read the names inscribed on Butler. This is an environment in which I can push myself to excel. Yet it’s also an environment saturated with the ideas and insights of past history, and I realize I can’t compete,” he says. “We’re constantly reminded of what’s gone before us, which is both humbling and challenging.”
From Time Immemorial to 1754
From Low Steps, the colonnade of Butler Library naturally meets the eye. The trim, clear lines of the Ionic façade lead up to those familiar names etched in the masonry: Homer, Herodotus, Sophocles, Plato, Aristotle, Demosthenes, Cicero, Vergil. As Fattal points out, the antiquity and weight of those names—representing the ideas and stories of Greece and Rome—give us a sense of the limitations of our own experience and insight. It’s deeply humbling to be reminded of our mortality and of our debt to generations that have gone before.
Yet Butler also gives a tremendous sense of empowerment. Those names are not there to humiliate us but to remind us that, through the Core, we get to converse intimately with people long dead. People like Homer, who invented epic poetry; like Aristotle, who wrote ethical psychology that millions still find illuminating; and like Sophocles, who could move audiences to contemplate the fragile beauty of human life.
Butler, like Low itself, traces the transmission of the ideas that make a university such as Columbia possible. On the western side of the library, we read the names of St. Augustine, Dante, and St. Thomas Aquinas. These medieval Christians transmitted and developed the Greco-Roman world’s learning to bequeath it to the modern age. Pope John XXIII articulated the central Christian humanistic belief in the greatness, yet incompleteness, of worldly wisdom: “Nothing positive, nothing noble, nothing beautiful that past ages had produced was in any way lost in the renewed order of Christendom.”
The opposite side of Butler has the names of great thinkers from the Renaissance and Enlightenment: Milton, Cervantes, Voltaire, and Goethe, bringing the discussion of divine revelation and the highest human learning in the 18th century and up to Columbia’s own founding. The mural of the great staircase in the Butler lobby repeats many of the same elements. Alma Mater, as both Columbia and Athena, offers wisdom to those who ask for it. Tablets with the Ten Commandments and Roman law—representing Judeo-Christian revelation and the ancient classics—descend to help her banish the darkness of ignorance.
What’s more, our campus presents the West’s intellectual tradition as climaxing in the founding of the United States. At the time of the Revolutionary War, Columbia was still called King’s—a Tory institution loyal to King George. But independence came, and now we have statues of Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton—which cast these figures as visionary statesmen—and a grand hall named for John Jay, the first chief justice of the United States and the architect of the New York abolitionist movement. The smaller inscriptions between Butler’s columns frame early American literary figures and political figures such as Mark Twain, John Adams, and Daniel Webster as worthy successors to the Greeks and Romans above them.
The Idea of a University
Columbia’s architecture advances some bold claims, but they make sense within the history of the liberal arts and higher education in America. Andrew Delbanco, director of American studies, cares deeply about the roots and future of college education and has written about it in his book College: What It Was, Is, and Should Be. He explains, “College as we know it is fundamentally an English idea.” Delbanco characterizes the tradition of humanistic learning, brought to America by English Protestants in the early 17th century, as intended to widen and deepen students’ spirits, to make them more aware of the Goodness, Truth, and Beauty that God had built into the world.
John Henry Newman’s Victorian classic on education, The Idea of a University, explains that this ideal is called “the liberal arts,” because it is meant to be liberating: “A habit of mind is formed which lasts through life, of which the attributes are, freedom, equitableness, calmness, moderation, and wisdom.”
For Delbanco, the moral implications of that view are perennially relevant: “College, more than brain-training for this or that functional task, should be concerned with character—the attenuated modern word for what the founders of our first colleges would have called soul or heart.” Despite economic and political pressure to focus on the cash value of education, a second facet of college culture is also vital: that “college students are capable of engaging the big questions—questions of truth, responsibility, justice, beauty, among others—that were once assumed to be at the center of a college education.”
Delbanco gave a rousing talk on these issues for the Columbia Undergraduate Scholars Program in September, asking us, “Do You Wonder What College is For?” He focused on the public and communal obligations that our Columbia education brings to bear on us, and worked to undermine the self-congratulation that comes with the assumption that the value of education can be measured statistically in U.S. News & World Report. He contrasted a typical current convocation speech’s flattery for first-years with the Puritan-style welcome: “You’re all miserable sinners who deserve nothing.” To instill self-loathing, he clarified, was not his goal—he hoped to move us to gratitude and a willingness to sacrifice for those given fewer opportunities.
On Joyce Kilmer and Honor
JJ’s Place is known for Jamba Juice, light-hearted conversation, and procrastination with friends, not for somber reflection. But one evening, as I was stuffing my face with ice cream and gobbling chicken strips, I happened to notice the old marble fireplace in the back corner. On the mantelpiece was engraved, “To the Men of the Class of 1915 who died in the First World War.” The names of young men who graduated exactly a century before I hope to receive my diploma followed—men who thought it not beneath them to die for their country in the mud of French trenches.
Joyce Kilmer graduated from Columbia in 1908, having been vice president of the Philolexian Society and a Spectator editor. The young philosopher and journalist wrote poems about the beauty of creation (“Trees” is his most famous), lectured and debated about the goodness and existence of God, married a fellow writer (Aline Murray), and became father to five children by the time he was 30. Then, he volunteered for World War I, choosing to be an enlisted man when he could have been an officer, and died scouting the German lines at the Second Battle of the Marne. There was much wrong with Columbia in his day—it was a deeply racist institution accessible only to the well-connected few. But it produced a man of character and courage, deeply in love with his family and attuned to the wonder of the world because he believed God had made it. Today’s Columbia lionizes its wealth-creating (and –donating) alumni, but honors few men who seem to me as honorable as Kilmer.
Kilmer’s story serves as a stark reminder of the kind of spirit of service to which Delbanco calls us. The enormous power and privilege of an elite education at a place like Columbia is something to use generously and sacrificially: for our local communities, for our countries, and for the world. We do not deserve to be here in some absolute sense—we’ve been given a great gift, and should use it generously. That should operate at the personal level—we should be building the character to treat our friends and family lovingly for the rest of our lives—and at the historic. Studying the Western classics has awakened many of us to the beauty of our cultural, political, and intellectual inheritance but, through recognition of its flaws, gaps, and biases, ought also inspire us to cultivate and add to it.
The Big Questions and Us
I love Low and Butler, but in their grandeur they sometimes lack a little in approachability. When I’m frazzled and frantic, I find myself wandering to the beckoning, warm red brick of St. Paul’s Chapel. The letters cut onto the cornice, “Pro Ecclesia Dei” (“for the church of God”), remind me of the sacred purpose of the building and of the sacredness of life. The vast vault of the dome is over-awing, calling me to approach God acutely aware of my own fragility and mortality. It’s brightly lit—the dome’s windows allow celestial light to stream down in—yet the corners retain enough shade to instill a sense of mystery in me as a worshipper.
The stained-glass windows at the east side of the church, behind the altar, depict a New Testament scene from Acts, chapter 17. St. Paul, a Jewish rabbinical scholar, spent his life traveling the Mediterranean world telling the story of Jesus of Nazareth, executed by Rome and resurrected. He claimed that this Jesus was the one creator, God, who became a man to sacrifice himself in order to forgive humanity of all evil and to restore a broken world to the perfection of love.
One day, Paul began to find common ground with the Athenians: “Men of Athens, I perceive that in every way you are very religious. For as I passed along and observed the objects of your worship, I found also an altar with this inscription, ‘To the unknown god.’”
Paul went on to claim to have seen the answer in the person of Jesus. Yet he expressed it in the language of Greek poetry: “What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you. He is actually not far from each one of us, for ‘In him we live and move and have our being’; as even some of your own poets have said, ‘For we are indeed his offspring.’”
Choosing this moment for the windows is incredibly significant. Paul was speaking to Epicurean and Stoic philosophers, on a hill overlooking the Parthenon. This is the collision of Judeo-Christian faith in a monotheistic God, who participates in history alongside the highest achievements of Greek civilization. Yet Paul is not rejecting what the Athenians already know, but claiming that the beauty of their own poetry reflects a longing for “an unknown god” who has become a human being. This conviction—of the congruency of Christian truth with the highest human achievement—leads to the lineage of the names on Butler, with Christian saints inheriting wisdom from classical philosophers, adding to it, and passing it on to modernity. That same conviction rings in the final line on Low’s façade: “For the Advancement of the Public Good and the Glory of Almighty God.”
Architect I.N. Phelps Stokes was responsible for St. Paul’s Chapel—his aunts had donated a fortune for its construction. St. Paul’s fits with McKim’s original campus plan to locate a chapel aligned with the wing of Low Library, facing east—toward Jerusalem, as was customary for churches. Stokes explained to his aunts that he had designed the church “with nothing false or deceptive, and everything—even the treatment of the interior decoration—structural and permanent.” (Architecture professor Andrew Dolkart has documented this history in his Morningside Heights: A History of Its Architecture and Development.)
The net effect of St. Paul’s, then, from the prominent iconography down to the decorative details, is to reassure students in their pursuit of truth that ultimate Truth has made itself tangible. If this is true, our lives as studentsare deeply meaningful. That’s why the lettering above the entrance to St. Paul’s reads, “In Lumine Tuo Videbimus Lumen.” It’s a quote from Psalms 36:9, “In Thy light shall we see light.” According to Columbia’s founders, enlightenment starts with being given God’s light. This acknowledges that we are humbly dependent, not self-sufficient, yet the sentiment is pregnant with humanity’s potential for glory.
At a Veritas Forum last fall, I witnessed Low Plaza serve as a forum for civic discourse when Columbia asked an Oxford scholar, John Lennox, one of the hardest questions of all: “Where is God in suffering?” It was the 11th anniversary of Sept. 11, 2001, and hundreds of Columbians gathered, both to reflect on the worst horrors that humanity has committed and to ask if there could be any hope for redemption. In my own life, I have to wrestle with how God’s love can make sense in a suffering world, and my own solution is to go to St. Paul’s, fall on my knees, and pray for an answer.
For the beauty of our campus architecture reminds us that these are not merely academic and abstruse questions. They are human questions, and they show up in the art, music, philosophy, and literature of ages past. They are questions of the human spirit, and remain relevant today.