Similarly, my Core teachers would always say things like, "Eternal questions are the cognitive engines of human life; they are the ever-winding strands of thought through which we attempt to understand ourselves." Fair enough, but it was still pretty cool to get all the answers to those specific questions upon completion of the Core. As I left class for the last time, they appeared in front of me like God before Job and his four friends. A booming Gregorian chant from the sky showered the very meaning of life upon me in a wave of heavenly polyphony. Don't worry though; this article is spoiler-free with regard to the meaning of life. Besides, as Dante's Inferno intimates, it's about the journey, not the destination. It's about how these masterworks of the Western canon (which, again, I have read) help us develop as people.
I'm not afraid to admit that I was, at one point, a mere carp guppie in the koi pond of knowledge. But Core texts taught me to embrace my limitations, as Faust himself did. We all must start somewhere in life. Take Virginia Woolf, who began her career with nothing but three pet guinea pigs, to whom she would one day dedicate an entire book. One can hardly expect to process the vast complexities of existence instantly; as the Core Curriculum shows, it takes about four years. Just like the great Oedipus, I once was blind, and now I see.
The Core instills in us a deep appreciation for truth and the search for it. Aristophanes believed that all humans were long ago separated from a spiritual lower half and spend their entire lives trying to reunite with their legs and genitals (today we know this is not true). Don Quixote and his cunning sidekick Sanza Pancho demonstrate the usefulness of voracious reading, which is something I've especially taken to heart. Compared to the average person, I have probably achieved more than twice the literary and philosophical awareness—what W.E.B. DuBois terms "double consciousness."
Columbia students come from a broad range of backgrounds and have a variety of perspectives, which is why the Core texts are so valuable as common reference points. We certainly have our share of conflicts and disagreements on this campus, but shared intellectual experiences prevent things from escalating like the violent wedding scene in Ovid's Metamorphoses between the Lapiths and the Starks. And sometimes the value of the Core is as simple as appreciating all that is beautiful in the world. The awe-inspiring statue of Athena that stands inside the Parthenon to this day. The luscious sonority of Stravinsky's Rite of Spring. The peaceful serenity of Hobbes' writings on Nature.
Of course, the Core pays off in spades even outside of the library. We graduates are now ready to go out into the world and drop gems of wisdom on the general public, dazzling them with our sophistication, even when they may not be ready for it. For example, I was recently trying to explain the infinite possible reasons why Picasso's early oeuvre is called his "Blue Period," and the docent looked at me like I was crazy. Clearly, she was not a Core scholar.
If there is any single work that captures the ultimate meaning of the Core Curriculum, it has to be Plato's seminal book, The Allegory of the Cave. It recounts the powerful true story of people imprisoned inside a dark, smelly cave. They are bound in place, forced to look at a wall straight ahead of them, on which a series of dancing shadows are cast from behind (by what Adam Smith would later call an "invisible hand"). The shadows represent education and scholarship. At first, the cave people are restless, yearning ignorantly for the light that shines outside. But as they observe the shadows, they eventually learn the patterns that guide their movement. They come to appreciate and even treasure the shadows. The discomfort melts away as they cease their own pointless struggle to move. And though they remain in the cave for the rest of their lives, they sure understand the shit out of those shadows.
Ziyad Abdelfattah is a Columbia College senior majoring in political science and music. He is a former poet laureate of the CUMB. Ziyad's Cry for Attention runs alternate Fridays. He can be found on Twitter @Ziyadisme.
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