Columbia Daily SpectatorThe debate over Eurocentrism in the Core Curriculum has never been hotter.Since its beginnings in 1918, the Core has drawn primarily on Western tradition to educate Columbia students. But after the recent protests on the steps of Low Library, which resulted in a group of students presenting University President Lee Bollinger with a set of demands that included a re-examination of the Core with an eye toward its lack of diversity, we may be seeing changes to even the most fundamental Core courses.
But still, there is no consensus on whether the Core should teach primarily Western tradition or incorporate non-Western and modern material as well. The main criticisms focus on the Core's lack of non-European texts and its alleged failure to address contemporary issues.
Questioning the Core is far from a recent phenomenon. Its history has seen constant experimentation and overhaul, with a re-evaluation of class syllabi every two years. The Core introduced the Major Cultures requirement in 1989, while a course devoted to contemporary cultural issues disappeared. These reassessments have dealt with the perennial challenge of not diluting a coherent curriculum while still responding to an increasingly multicultural student body and cultural environment. Supporters of the current Core hope that the major departments will allow students to pursue a focus on contemporary or non-Western cultural studies.
But recent events on campus, including the Affirmative Action Bake Sale and the controversial Fed cartoon, have led some students to band together and demand that contemporary cultural analysis not be optional in the Core. Skirting contemporary studies, they claim, does not provide Columbia's student body with knowledge and awareness of racial and gender oppression.
Student leaders proposed to President Bollinger the creation of a Core class to address "issues of power and oppression in the United States, the process of racialization and the ideology of gender." Their proposal recommended that a panel reassess the relevance of the Core to contemporary issues of race, class, gender, and sexual orientation.
As for the integration of non-Western material into the Core, one of the main obstacles is avoiding the appearance of tokenism, according to Classics Professor James Zetzel. Tokenism occurs when professors attempt to incorporate non-Western texts to serve only as a counterpoint to the Western canon, rather than analyzing them in their own context.
The 1988 report of the Commission of the Core Curriculum headed by Professor Emeritus Wm. Theodore deBary found just this problem: an attempt to avoid Eurocentrism resulted in what was deemed a tokenistic use of non-European material. Tokenism, the report claimed, resulted from the syllabus' predominantly European content and from the unfamiliarity of many instructors with the material.
The Core aims to reflect the knowledge base of the faculty en masse. But because of the wide scope of classes such as Literature Humanities and Contemporary Civilization, the specialization of professors makes teaching survey classes especially challenging.
Ovadia Labaton, CC '05 and a student member of the Committee on the Core Curriculum, cites "historical inertia given that the Core has been around since 1918" as a reason for the Core's Western leaning. A Western education will naturally turn out Western-educated professors, who in turn may only be comfortable teaching Western perspectives. This cycle reaches the point where many academes fail to recognize non-Western texts of comparable profundity and instead opt for the traditional Western canon. As one professor said, "I would be interested to know of corresponding texts, but I don't think there are any."
Another obstacle to proposals for a diverse Core is the problem of time, according to Labaton. "Since you cannot study seven cultures effectively, you study one and do it well," he said.
However, the Core's Western focus reflects the comfort zone of the students as much as it reflects that of the professors. Michael Seidel, professor of English and Comparative Literature and former chair of the COC, said the material included in the Core is "the basis of so much of what people know and think in this world. The authors you read later have read the same authors that you read in the Core."
Many people consider such a familiarity reason enough to learn the Western tradition first. Students' general familiarity with Western culture facilitates their comprehension and analysis of the ideas. Professor Robert Harrist, who teaches Chinese art, remembers "the immediate payoff from studying the Parthenon. Our everyday physical environment is shaped by this tradition, and life is more interesting when you know why things are the way that they are."
Labaton emphasized that "Columbia does not need to apologize for [the Core] being Eurocentric; America was built on European ideas. However, we should recognize that these ideas often developed within an invaluable world dialogue, and those voices also deserve a place in the Core."
To a certain extent, through imperialism, globalization, and warfare, the bedrock of American ideas has worked its way into the bedrock of many non-Western cultures. The 1988 deBary Report notes the challenge in drawing a firm line between the European and the non-European, citing the modern Westernization of the East alongside the influence of Eastern ideas on Western thinkers.
Beyond its Eurocentrism, the principle criticisms of the Core challenge its relevance to contemporary issues and to a multicultural age. For some professors, analyzing ancient texts in the context of contemporary issues injects Core classes with a certain amount of vitality.
Contemporary issues such as human rights and social rebellion "come up in every text we discuss in the Core," Seidel said. "Boccaccio was a social critic; the Iliad may be an anti-war poem. These texts last a thousand years because they are still relevant."
David Johns, CC '04, protests that relating the texts to the contemporary world is not sufficient. "You cannot tell minority students that they need to take something and translate it to make it reflect their experience," he said. "As a black student, my experience is not represented in the Core."
But tailoring the Core to each student would be impossible, according to David Johnston, professor of Political Science and co-chair of Contemporary Civilization on the COC. "[Classic texts] don't directly reflect anybody's experience very much," he said. "Some students will come to the college with a stronger background in the material, but we cannot correlate that type of education to the race or gender of the students."
Some insist that studying the exiled and rebellious ideas of the past teaches the student how to engage in social critique. "We give people the tools to talk about the particular by talking about the general," Zetzel said. To this end, the Core must be taught in a way that brings out current issues.
Johns finds this approach too indirect. "It is not enough to say, I'm giving you the tools," he said. "The Core needs to actively take part in that struggle."
Harrist, who is also chair of Art Humanities, pointed out that the works studied in the Core present some of the most revolutionary ideas in history. "These works are subversive, and when you study this stuff you become subversive yourself," he said. "It teaches doubt."
In general, professors seem to acknowledge that social struggle needs to happen, but outside of the classroom. "We can talk theoretically about how to ride a bike, but ultimately you need to get out there and do it yourself," Johnston explained. Zetzel opposes an explicit focus on contemporary issues: "I don't think we should be teaching anything that any intelligent person can go read about on their own, or see in the newspaper."
So why does this subject keep coming up year after year? One professor suggests that perhaps it is because the Core is working: the students have become rebellious.