In light of the centennial anniversary of the Core Curriculum, spirited discourse surrounding its content, merit, and practice has emerged. However, we see the Core representing more than just an extensive set of academic requirements. In a campus culture that emphasizes career preparation and financial success after graduation, the Core epitomizes and reinforces the liberal arts model of higher education. Is this liberal arts education actually valuable to us? How does our experience of academia intersect with various personal identities to benefit or detract from our prospective futures? With these factors in mind, what kind of education should Columbia be providing for the modern pre-professional student?
First, let’s take a step back by answering a prerequisite question. How do we define “indulgence,” and to whom does it apply to? Are those who come to Columbia to pursue knowledge for its own sake indulging in the luxury of academia afforded to them by their socioeconomic status? For some reason or another, we presume that first-generation, low-income students are excluded from this group by a matter of practicality. They, “of course,” prioritize a pre-professional education over lofty discussions of metaphysics.
The compartmentalization of student experiences is dismissive of the diverse interests on campus—even more so when it means assuming the decisions of marginalized groups. In turn, asking whether the Core is an indulgence and presupposing who has access to indulgence discounts the legitimacy of scholarly desire from students who historically have been the target of the ethnographer’s binoculars rather than the agents of intellectual inquiry.
My time at Columbia serves as a counterexample. I chose to attend this institution because of the Core, in full acknowledgment of what it represented, and, most importantly, of what it lacked. My interest in participating in Literature Humanities or Contemporary Civilization was not an endorsement of its curriculum, but a matter of curiosity and exploration beyond my comfort zone. Besides the satisfaction of being immersed in a millennia-old canon, there was also a real-world benefit evident to me. I did not simply see tackling the nuances of Aristotelian virtue ethics or the role of travel in the Homeric imagination as a retreat into the world of ideas, but as an opportunity to begin fashioning a key to interpreting the world in front of our noses.
The Core has taught me this: We cannot begin to brainstorm solutions to society’s most pressing issues—discrimination, exploitation, inequality, and systemic violence—without understanding their deep-rooted origins in the works of the authors we read. Likewise, this requires the contemporary reader to withhold value judgments in order to properly contextualize the primary source in its era and track its reception over time as new schools of thought emerged.
Criticism of the Core is, therefore, a delicate balancing act. We should neither approach such texts solely through the lens of today, intent on demolishing their problematic statements line by line, nor should we dismiss the abuse they perpetuated with the excuse that they were “products of their time.” Rather, I am calling on Core lecturers to teach the importance of taking into account a text’s accumulative history, one that is still evolving and whose future influence we decide.
By having students answer the question of how we address the long-term impact of a text today, professors pop the elitist bubble. The conversation, freed from pedantry, is oriented toward taking action now for the sake of the future, where everyone will have something to say, no matter if it’s on the dry syllogisms of Aquinas or the machinations of Machiavelli. Given the Pandora’s box of control that Core lecturers have over conveying material, they also have a responsibility to impart a lasting impression of scholarly engagement that is inclusive of the various identities coming to the proverbial roundtable and their respective concerns.
It is no wonder that many leave Columbia disgruntled by their Core experience. This dissatisfaction is likely due to the failure of their educators to bring together the disparate elements—of historiography, poetics, critical theory, and more—to form the big picture of the Western canon’s impact on our day-to-day lives. Let this be the first step in making amends for the condescending attitudes of Core proponents and detractors alike.
Nathan is a senior at Columbia College studying Latin American studies and history.
Max F. Neuman
The Core Curriculum is a set of tools. Its purpose is to cultivate reading comprehension, writing skills, and oral proficiency, not to immerse students in an imagined Western canon. If that were its purpose, it would have been thrown out long ago. Even in the humanities, few courses consider Core texts to be foundational. In my political science classes, professors do not expect their students to have foundational knowledge about Machiavelli, John Stuart Mill, and Locke. In fact, they also assign these authors, who all appear on the Contemporary Civilization syllabus for their own assignments. Arguments for the texts’ irrelevance are central to many criticisms of the Core Curriculum. In 2018, the authors of the Columbia Disorientation Guide rightly noted that “the Core Curriculum is almost completely white and male—a state of affairs Hitler would have been proud of” and articulating their demand that “the Core Curriculum be decolonized.” To attribute all of the problems or virtues of the Core to its authors, though, misses the point. The Core is a vehicle for skill development that is only logistically feasible when every postdoc in the Core lecturers program knows its texts. The best way to decolonize the Core is not to change the course material but to modernize our expectations of students who study it.
As four members of the Multicultural Affairs Advisory Board wrote in 2015, “Students need to feel safe in the classroom, and that requires a learning environment that recognizes the multiplicity of their identities.” The problem, however, is that they don’t recognize where hostility and complacency come from in the context of the Core. The source of these ills is not in the books themselves, but rather in the students who discuss them. The Microaggressions Project, co-founded by Vivian Lu, CC ’15, documents students’ severe insensitivities and disregard for the comfort of their classmates. The bitter truth of the Core’s shortcomings is that they reflect many Columbia students’ unwillingness and inability to ask the right questions.
While the skills the Core teaches are relevant to the modern and ancient worlds, the texts themselves are ancient. Students are responsible for making the Core relevant to modern issues, just as they are responsible for building a safe and welcoming campus for their peers. Students who analyze texts in a vacuum are not only unambitious, but they also neglect a responsibility to change the world for the better. Spectator columnists like Adil Mughal have expressed concern that “the answer is not to place all of them through the lens of any one political narrative, but to understand the thinking in each work and engage with it on an individual basis.” The alternative to bias and politicization does not need to be apathy and isolation. Instead, students should be expected to explore multiple paths to justice.
Almost every week of my fall semester of Contemporary Civilization, one of my classmates asked, “How is this text useful to us?” This question is powerful in two ways. First, it makes every student an active participant in the text’s legacy. Instead of learning about something and stopping there, this question makes us learn for a reason and a purpose. Second, this question forces the Core texts to justify their importance instead of asserting it without question. Even though nearly every text had some justifiable use (Aristotle’s Politics, with its basis in slavery and dominance, is the only truly useless text), conceiving of the texts’ usefulness and debating their canonical status enables a class to approach the Core from a critical perspective. Instructors should take the lead in encouraging and rewarding these practical conversations. Emphasis on the present is nothing new; from 1928 to 1968, the second semester of Contemporary Civilization focused entirely on the present’s problems instead of working to canonize any texts.
The Core’s texts are a powerful tool in your hands. They are globally recognizable, even if they will gather dust in your closet for years after you finish Lit Hum. The stories they tell must be reinvented by modern readers to remain relevant. So sit in Art Humanities and compare the Sistine Chapel to the New York City subway. Read Antigone and think about what family means to you and your classmates. Write about Hannah Arendt and complicate her understanding of totalitarianism. The Core is in your hands. Use the privilege of being at Columbia to make the Core an engine of a better world.
Max is a senior in Columbia College studying political science and history. He can’t imagine life without debate, so please disagree with him @MaxFNeuman.
Columbia’s Core, now 100 years old, helped to popularize the liberal arts curriculum which characterizes American colleges. Our structured program of study epitomizes the principles of teaching foundational, shared knowledge and developing a broad intellectual ability among undergraduates.
However, the enthusiastic celebrations of the Core centennial anniversary over the last few weeks occur at a moment when the credibility of the liberal arts education is under attack nationwide on multiple fronts. From Kamala Harris to the Trump administration, critics across the ideological spectrum disparagingly compare liberal arts degrees to technical qualifications. They suggest that in a world of artificial intelligence and computer programming languages, the liberal arts are outdated and fail to effectively prepare students for the post-college world. Indeed, with regular reports of grade inflation and ideological echo chambers, who can blame parents and students for their angst about employability after obtaining an absurdly expensive liberal arts degree?
Should these criticisms of the liberal arts model that Columbia pioneered lead to a scaling back or a revamp of the Core?
No. If anything, Columbia students must lean into the Core. When students choose easy classes to fulfill their Core requirements, they are missing the mark. The watering down of liberal arts degrees is what strips away their merit. The Core’s highest value lies in its difficulty because it is as much about gaining skills as about learning content. Its rigor is what distinguishes the Core and makes it credible.
The Core’s male, pale, and stale content is the subject of frequent and sensitive debate. However, in the age of Google, knowledge of the content we study is less important than the skills we develop by wrestling with that content—the ability to read for meaning, think both critically and creatively, and write clearly.
The Core develops our thinking by forcing students out of the familiarity and comfort of their intellectual cubbyholes. It pushes us to engage with fields other than our own, encouraging mental agility and confidence in our ability to master unfamiliar and difficult subjects. That hard-won accomplishment rewards and stimulates our work ethic. We learn not only from reading and discussing textual meaning, but also from critiquing and questioning the canon, cultivating our ability to communicate complex ideas clearly.
How can the Core be irrelevant to our professional lives when it hones three of the key skills employers demand—critical thinking, clear communication, and a strong work ethic?
One size does not fit all. Although a liberal arts education is not everyone's choice, it is ours, and Columbians should not lose faith in its value. Columbia is uniquely well-suited to offer this type of curriculum, in a way that many other institutions are not.
Technical knowledge is at risk of becoming obsolete every time a new platform replaces the old. What use is my grandfather's mastery of Morse code or my mother’s of WordPerfect? In contrast, the skills we are putting in our intellectual tool kit by studying the Core will be permanent. But we only gain a strong work ethic and analytical abilities by stretching ourselves. If the Core were not arduous, it would only be a curated selection of knowledge, a set of interesting, but ultimately forgettable, classes, which while uniting Columbians with a shared culture, would not prepare us for the world outside of this ivory tower.
Blythe Edwards is a junior in the dual B.A. program between Sciences Po and the School of General Studies, majoring in political science.
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