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Oscar Hou / Spectator

“When I teach in a place like Hamilton,” begins Nicole Gervasio, clutching her frail, sweatered terrier to her chest, “I’m honestly so alienated from it that I’m not humbled by it.”

We sit in the small courtyard adjacent to Hamilton Hall’s neoclassical façade. The building is known for housing the Core Curriculum offices and many Literature Humanities and Contemporary Civilization seminars—over half of both these courses’ sections this semester are conducted there. In the shadow of Alexander Hamilton’s likeness, I try to enjoy the unseasonable warmth without reflecting too much on climate change.

Gervasio, a doctorate candidate in English and comparative literature and core preceptor for Literature Humanities, tells me about her classroom on the third floor of Hamilton last year, where the windows only opened to six inches of fresh air and the heat grew so oppressive that some students showed up in shorts even during the winter. When students reconfigured their chairs into a circle for discussions, she says, they would sit elbow-to-elbow, the chalkboard rendered useless behind a wall of students in their wooden tablet arm chairs. Gervasio thinks the room would better fit 14 people, not the 22 to whom she taught Literature Humanities.

Such inconveniences are regular occurrences in the building, which just celebrated its 110th anniversary. Rachel Sherr, a Columbia College sophomore studying architecture and philosophy, who would visit Hamilton weekly during her freshman year for office hours on the seventh floor, can conjure up a list of complaints against Hamilton in seconds.

Three separate doorways lead into the same marble lobby, which has recently undergone renovations with few stylistic changes. Just one of these doorways is accessible via ramp. Ten minutes before each class period, the line for Hamilton’s single rickety elevator extends across the lobby. The staircases on the opposing sides of this lobby echo with the hurried steps of the anxious, perspiring stragglers of class-change rush hour, the ones who didn’t arrive early enough to catch the elevator.

“The way that they’ve tried to incorporate new technology while also retaining wood-paneled classrooms has resulted in a lot of suboptimal appearance and suboptimal functionality,” Sherr tells me, speaking of the DVD players, projectors, and computers installed in many of the Hamilton classrooms. She puts her elbows on the metal table between us in Joe Coffee and it wobbles precariously. She has opened her laptop to a dictionary definition of “aesthetics,” the primary focus of her philosophy studies, to ensure she can offer me the most accurate definition. She thinks of Hamilton as a beautiful building, but one so old—it was built in 1907, one of the earliest McKim, Mead & White buildings constructed on campus—that it is a “miracle” it can support what modern features it has. Maybe, she muses, one of the staircases could be replaced with a second elevator.

She stops, then doubles back. The stairs are definitely still necessary, given all the foot traffic. Slowly, she says, “I think they might have done the best that they could have.”

Seeking the wisdom of a seasoned professional in the subject, I meet Bernard Tschumi, professor and dean emeritus at Columbia’s Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation, as well as the architect behind the notorious Alfred Lerner Hall, in his third-floor studio near Gramercy Park. I arrive 10 minutes early, but spend most of this time trying to find the entrance. I had decided to take the stairs, but what should have been the door to his office had no handle. In the stairwell—an echoing, narrow shaft of stagnant air—I knock and wait for rescue.

Not unexpectedly, Tschumi’s studio has the character of a Silicon Valley startup—long white tables of spectacled yuppies hard at work. My eyes cannot find a point on which to rest, roaming aimlessly across these textureless surfaces. Tschumi and his assistant advise me to sit away from the hot sunlight, but then they direct me to the head of the table we will sit at for the interview, directly in front of a massive window. I begin sweating instantly. The assistant pours water from a carafe into wine glasses for us to ignore.

Can we reasonably draw a connection between an institution’s curriculum and the character of the space in which it is taught? I ask him. Tschumi laughs, entertaining my question the way a politician might a debate question about a past scandal. He compliments me for thinking of it. The clatter of keyboards across the room persists, but I can still hear him perfectly in the precise quiet among casings of building models—tiny pieces meticulously arranged into uninhabited still lives. The Core Curriculum addresses historical and cultural issues “in a very strict way,” he says carefully. “Therefore, we’re going to teach it in this strict, historical space.”

The walls of Hamilton classrooms embody a certain academic mysticism. With their rich tones and aged quality, they seem to have absorbed the weighted legacy of the knowledge that has passed through them like a dye. After renovations in 2000, these walls probably look more as they did on Hamilton’s opening day than ever before. But the practice of restoration, rather than replacement, is not new. A 1906 Spectator article describes the insertion of “interior trimmings,” laying of “oak floors,” and installation of “blackboards,” and in 1952, new portals were added to Hamilton’s outer doors “made of wood and glass.”

A Spectator article written in 1968 claims that Charles Follen McKim, a partner of architectural firm McKim, Mead & White, could safely be called “America’s first”—something—“architect.” A scar on the page has replaced the word, as if a piece of tape over this line had been carelessly removed, taking a layer of ink with it. I suspect the wear and tear of the last half-century has erased the word “imperial”; indeed, by the 1880s, McKim, Mead & White had secured a place as the best-established architectural firm on the East Coast, making a name for itself by transforming Washington, D.C., through design, into “the Imperial Capital of the U.S. Empire.”

Championing the architecture of Imperial Rome and its Baroque imitations, McKim created a master plan for Columbia University in 1893 that would become, according to the 1968 article, the “first permanent monument of Imperial planning the United States.” It made the University the only one in the United States presenting such strict symmetry, as well as material and stylistic uniformity. The plan called for buildings in the Italian Renaissance style, featuring brick with stone trim and copper roofing. The architectural firm is also known for its buildings in the Beaux Arts style, also visible on the Morningside Heights campus.

The author of the article, Michael Klare, puts it eloquently: “McKim’s intent is clear: to create a monument to the philanthropists and Trustees who endowed the University and guide its policies.”

This campus, then, commemorates the white, the male, and the wealthy. We can see this in the names like Aristotle, Plato, and Socrates gracing the façades of Butler Library, in buildings like Earl Hall and Dodge christened for the wealthy merchants who profited from slavery and donated these funds to build them, and in lecture halls like the famous Havemeyer 309, which seems to have combined the solemn motifs of state courtrooms and the practical structure of ancient Grecian amphitheaters. These elements have been present in Hamilton Hall since renovations early on.

Core preceptors like Gervasio, a first-generation student from a working-class background, must negotiate their origins with their responsibility to enrich the minds of future leaders, and they must do it in buildings that honor hegemonic, imperialist legacies. “Bodies like mine were not here historically,” she tells me, referring to her identity as a queer woman.

Hamilton Hall is a shrine to academia fashioned to protect and seal within, defined in its very neoclassical structure by a cold unwillingness to change, to evolve to meet the needs and expectations of the modern world. Instead, it would prefer to remind the 21st century student what has come before her, to solicit her gratitude. “That resistance,” says Gervasio, “is reflected in the static nature of the Core syllabus.”

The Core Curriculum obliges all Columbia undergraduates to engage in “communal learning” and debate the “most difficult questions about the human experience.” The critical and communicative skills that it intends to develop will supposedly last entire lifetimes, regardless of field of study. To that end, the Core mandates that Columbia College students study the masterpieces of Western literature in Literature Humanities, and in Contemporary Civilization they debate Western texts of “historical influence,” many of which have provided the ethical arguments for governments today.

These goals, and the courses’ syllabi, comprise the basic framework of the Core—but the interpretive labor of delivering these texts for classrooms of millennial readers falls to each instructor.

For Gervasio, this has provided the “grounds for innovation” in her framing of works by Homer, Virgil, and the like. She encourages her students to grapple with the Core, with all “its cruelties and its oppression,” by becoming “voices of dissent,” even if Columbia’s curriculum doesn’t explicitly call for that. However, the lack of an explicit mandate to teach the required texts in such a way, she feels, gives the impression that her lens is “not meant to be there.”

“I’m just waiting to see how long I can get away with it,” she tells me, the mischief diluted in measured laughter.

Steve Baker, another core preceptor for Literature Humanities and a doctor of philosophy in Italian and comparative literature, believes in the inherent ability of the Literature Humanities syllabus to provide the breadth of perspectives that critics of the Core demand. “Could we achieve the same goals by doing just contemporary authors?” he asks me. We sit in the conference room in the back of the Italian department on the fifth floor of Hamilton. Through the window I can see that the early darkness of late October has fallen, and Baker explains to me that the chill that has set in is a side effect of occupying these back rooms. Then, he tells me what he sees as the strengths of Literature Humanities.

“The beauty of Lit Hum is something different,” he tells me, leaning forward in his chair. He is constantly in motion, leaning one way or the other, rarely blinking. “It’s this sweep of ideas that kind of put race and gender and political class aside, because if you really scratch the surface … most of these authors are actually fringe people to some extent.”

He describes Herodotus as an “outsider,” and cites Cervantes’ Jewish descent. “Human universalities,” he emphasizes, is the strange and powerful force at work in Literature Humanities, and its true essence.

“Political correctness,” he argues, “pushed” the syllabus to oversaturation in the years before the its current iteration. He sees this pressure to manufacture inclusivity as a disservice to the students, who should be expected to “de-familiarize” themselves from their personal identifications and enter a higher space of learning, where they are free to examine a “different culture each week” through the texts. Mirroring the personal growth that comes with being in college, students transcend what Baker calls “a new conservatism” of “essentialist thinking” bogged down by identity politics. Just as spaces like Hamilton weren’t constructed with the needs of every student in mind, students must step into the realm of Literature Humanities willing to adapt to its expectations. He mentions educere, one of the Latin roots of “education.” It means, “to lead up.”

Professors may have alternative ideas for conducting their classes that aren’t well-suited for classrooms like the ones in Hamilton. Socrates preferred to teach his pupils under the shade of a tree, Tschumi proffers. So did the Buddha, in fact, and a study published in the journal Landscape and Urban Planning points to evidence that students with a view of trees were more attentive in class. No wonder Columbia faculty members can be seen wading onto the dewy lawns on late spring days with their seminar classes trailing behind, squinting at the sun.

Still, students feel estranged by the architecture, whether it’s imperial or just outdated. Gervasio recalls teaching a summer literacy program to low-income high school students of color who questioned the design of Hamilton’s heavy wooden tablet arm chairs, which are inconvenient for laptop use and do not feature the storage trays the students were accustomed to. “Welcome to the things that just don’t make sense about higher education,” Gervasio says, “where we’re maintaining this reputation for a kind of belligerently counterintuitive impracticality.”

The logic of exclusion underlies that fraught intersection of function and aesthetic. In rooms featuring the classic wooden seminar table, Baker says, only a third to half of his students could sit around its polished wooden edge. The rest would sit around the corners of the room, creating a “strange hierarchy” that students like Isaac Jean-Francois, a Columbia College sophomore who took Literature Humanities in Hamilton last year, notice.

“Those who are participating in the ‘inner circle,’ the larger table, have some sort of steady place to rest their materials,” Jean-Francois notes, emphasizing “inner” as though to evoke the word’s totalitarian connotations. Therefore, these students are “freer to engage in class discussion,” while those on the outside are denied a “spot at the table.” Even the positioning of blackboards around the walls in these rooms, while students must face into the center, seems to wryly pose the question of who gets to participate in the conversation when it involves something written on a blackboard out of view.

Tschumi, too, seems convinced that there is some correlation between the arrangement of learning spaces and the extent to which the transmission of knowledge takes place. The New York State Department of Health seems to agree with this claim on a technical level: In 2010, it published a 28-page document titled “Classroom Design Standards,” a counsel on the technology, organization, and structure of a functional and inclusive classroom. Whether that correlation is significant enough to outweigh some of the University’s attachment to the aesthetic planning of its campus, however, is another question entirely.

“Imagine,” Tschumi begins, “the psychology of spending an hour, or two hours, in a classroom without any sunshine.” I can imagine this with relative ease, because I’ve lived it—at my small but exceptionally privileged private middle school in New Jersey, I learned pre-algebra in a glorified closet. One of my classmates cheekily drew a picture of a window and taped it to the wall.

According to Tschumi, such classrooms are legally permitted in New York City, which is surprising, considering the exhaustive list of guidelines found in “Classroom Design Standards” for classrooms of varying functions and class sizes. “Natural lighting is desired in all rooms” is among the criteria to assure that classrooms have the necessary features to be considered “educationally sound.” Other recommendations include the concentration of learning environments on the lower floors of buildings so that students with physical disabilities may have “easy access.” Hamilton, with eight floors and one small, slow elevator, may not have escaped scrutiny altogether, if there exist critics like Sherr, or first-years engulfed by the crowd as they climb to their first Core seminars—but it seems soundly preserved in its own ineffectuality.

The value of the Core Curriculum—and whether it should be taught at all—has been the center of debate for decades. Renovating the Core as it exists in the present may offer an ideological solution to updating what this physical campus represents—whiteness, imperialism, a disregard for classroom design standards—without knocking down its walls. Tschumi believes in the power of technology and the ingenuity of contemporary architects to find a way to integrate the historical and the contemporary within the current master plan of the campus. To instead irreparably undermine it would mean losing something essential. When Tschumi designed Lerner for student use, he combined such ingenuity with the suspended glass system, considered the height of modernity in the late ’90s, to make the negative space in McKim, Mead & White’s master plan functional. Students, for the first time, walked in midair; a beautiful miracle, like an elevator in a building as old and as densely packed as Hamilton—but at what cost? The fruit of one man’s attempt to cram the new into the confines of the old, Lerner has suffered much criticism for its misuse of precious space.

Is the only way to pay homage to the past, then, to be restrained by it?

I recall a moment from my Literature Humanities class year: the cry of an ambulance on a Thursday afternoon as it barrels down Amsterdam Avenue, surging through the window we barely managed to prop open. The sirens of today meet Homer’s at the center of an ill-formed discussion circle and sink into the darkened carpet.

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Hamilton Hall Core Curriculum Literature Humanities Contemporary Civilizations