I know what you’re thinking: “Oh God, no, please, not another piece on the Core.” I hear you. What more can be said that hasn’t been said before?
Recently, there’s been a glut of Core pieces. Within the last few years, Luciana Siracusano wrote a three-piece treatise on the enduring value of the Core. Luis Vera lambasted the Core in his provocatively-named piece “I’m smarter than Plato, and so are you.” And Christian Gonzalez even satirized the Core debate in his piece a “Chronicle of the Core Foretold.” And that’s only the tip of the iceberg.
In the face of this deluge of Core op-eds, it can be easy to read new Core pieces as repetitive, or even derivative. It seems there’s no position on the Core that hasn’t already been taken at one time or another. Yet brushing new Core pieces aside can be a way of avoiding a very important question which every Columbia student asks themselves at some point: Why read the Core?
To some, this may seem like a silly question. Well I don’t really have a choice, do I? I mean it’s a requirement and all. I have to do some of the readings if I want to get a good grade. Grades are important—no argument here—but unless you can find reasons beyond your grade for reading the Core, then you are going to be extremely frustrated, or even worse, bored out of your mind, for up to a third of your Columbia experience.
So let us return to the original question: Why read the Core? Gonzalez will tell you it is because the Core is interwoven deeply into the world around us and that Columbia would be “poorer” without it. Vera will tell you that the world is too different from ancient times to take stock in Plato and the “oldies,” but that some of their questions are still important. Siracusano will tell you that engaging with the Core helps you find “who you are and what you believe in.” All of these pieces make compelling arguments, but what really matters is that each author is answering the same question: why they are reading the Core. You don’t have to agree with their reasons, but you do need to find your own.
No one can tell you why to read the Core—only you can make that decision. Yet finding meaningful opinions about the Core involves being optimistic that new ideas are out there and approaching these ideas with open-mindedness and curiosity. Reading one of the many op-eds on the Core is an important part of the process. My piece or any of the ones that have come before might not convince you to take our side, but they might encourage you to find your own ways of understanding and appreciating the Core.
I appreciate the Core for those moments when I can reach back into the past and be moved by something I feel is so human. When Achilles’ rage causes him to lose something much more valuable than gold or glory, I feel his sorrow. Who has not realized the true value of something until it was lost? Who has not felt that in some way they were responsible for that loss? When Augustine cries over stolen pears, I feel his guilt. Who does not remember a time in their childhood when they stole something or hurt someone? Who does not twinge with pain at the memory? And when Solomon learns the story of his ancestors, I feel his wholeness. Who has not felt more complete when learning the stories that have helped shaped who they are? Who has not felt joy when learning of the good deeds that their ancestors did, and pain when learning that their ancestors were not who they hoped they were?
Time and people are constantly changing, but some conditions of life remain same. As novelist E. M. Forster puts it, there are some “facts in human life,” hopefully the least contentious being “birth, food, sleep, love and death.” These themes run a rift throughout the Core—even problems of food and sleep appear to plague characters like Raskolnikov. Yet, as Forster is more than happy to concede, this is far from a comprehensive list. One could add power relations, inequality, gender, faith, marriage, nationality, war, family, community, emotions, and so much more as being parts of the human experiences that are shared by groups of people across time, transcending circumstance.
This is where I find the beauty in the Core. It reminds us that despite all of our differences, there are aspects of human existence that we all share. Exploring cultural differences across generations is important, but in our defense of difference it is important for us to remember that notes of communality exist across all groups of people.
In some ways, recognizing commonalities between people can be as powerful as recognizing differences. After all, if we can find ways of relating with “dead white men”—minus the misogyny and the racism—then perhaps we can become better at relating to those around us. Especially when most of us—I hope—share more in common with each other than we do with the ancient Greeks.
I read the Core because I like finding connections to people who sometimes seem more alien than human. But don’t read the Core for my reasons—find your own. Find as many reasons that speak to you because the more you find, the more interesting the readings will be. And the next time you see an op-ed on the Core, give it a glance; you might find a perspective you haven’t seen before.
Noah Kulick is a sophomore in Columbia College studying English and American history. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org with questions, comments, or concerns. Past the Present runs alternate Monday.
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