Core Curriculum

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The Core Curriculum is the distinguishing characteristic and hallmark of an undergraduate education at Columbia. Often imitated, rarely credited, and very hyped, the Core is the centerpiece of the undergraduate curriculum at Columbia College[1].

In 2012, Professor Andrew Delbanco warned, "I believe there is today a real threat to the Core. Not sudden abolition so much as slow attrition"[2].


See main article: History of the Core Curriculum


In the late 19th century, American institutes of higher learning were undergoing a period of major change, as each experienced a "university movement", turning colleges into graduate research centers. This move prompted stiff resistance by involved alumni at a number of schools. The resistance proved so strong at Princeton that to this day Princeton has no Business, Law, or Medical school, among other graduate programs. At Harvard, President Charles William Eliot developed a compromise- the elective system. Faculty would be allowed to pursue their own research so long as they taught undergraduates classes in their specialization. This spared senior faculty the onerous task of teaching introductory courses, while satisfying alumni that undergraduate education still received the attention of the university.

At Columbia, there was no such problem of alumni resistance. The relatively small and disenfranchised alumni base proved no obstacle, and Columbia skipped the 'elective system' phase of education. The lack of opposition was in part the reason for Columbia's meteoric rise as a University. The lack of an elective system, and a college faculty somewhat estranged from the graduate faculty led to the development of an innovative new type of curriculum, General Education. Columbia would pioneer this new form of mandatory course education, eventually exporting it to a number of schools around the nation.

The beginning

The idea of a seminar style class devoted to a weekly reading and discussion of the "Great Books" was first floated by english professor John Erskine in 1917. Erskine's request drew skepticism for a number of reasons, not the least because he also made the near-heretical call for reading the greek and roman classics in translation.

In 1919 Columbia began a course titled "War Issues" in response to World War I, addressing contemporary thinking on a wide variety of subjects in the social sciences. Many of the texts were written by Columbia faculty members who also taught the classes. This was the beginning of the course that evolved into Contemporary Civilization. There was no Plato or Aristotle on the War Issues syllabus though.

General Honors

Humanities A and Humanities B

Major Cultures

Established due partly to the efforts of William Theodore de Bary. Known since 2008 as the Global Core.

Frontiers of Science

Formally established as a requirement for all CC students for those freshmen entering in Fall 2004 (the Class of 2008).


The Core consists of two sets of requirements. First are the 6 classes that every CC student must take in order to graduate, a collective, shared, experience, the "core of the core," so to speak. These are the year long courses Literature Humanities (Lit Hum) and Contemporary Civilization (CC), and the semester long courses Art Humanities (Art Hum), Music Humanities (Music Hum), University Writing (UW), and Frontiers of Science.

Additionally, CC students must fulfill a series of requirements for which they are free to choose the classes. These are 2 Global Core classes, 2 semesters of Science/Math, 2 semesters of PE, 4 semesters of a Foreign Language (placement in an advanced course/placing out are options), and of course the Swim Test.

SEAS students, on the other hand, follow a modified version of the Core, in which they take UW, select one from among Lit Hum, CC, and Global Core, one from Art Hum and Music Hum, Econ W1105, and between 9 to 11 elective points from approved classes in the Elective Nontechnical list of courses.

All this adds up to a lot of credits. The required 6 classes alone are a minimum of 29 credits. Major Cultures is a minimum of 7, 2 science courses are 6 more, and PE is at least 2 half credits. That's 43 credits, or more than 1/3 of your degree requirements if you placed out of foreign languages. Add 4 semesters of that and you're well on your way to having half the necessary credits to graduate with narry a mention of electives or major.


Freshmen are assigned a section of Lit Hum and either University Writing (if your last name is in the first half of the class alphabetically) or Frontiers of Science (if your last name is the second half of the class alphabetically) for the Fall. You can change your section if it conflicts with other classes during the pre-semester registration period on Labor Day Weekend, however since all sections are already filled, you won't have much flexibility. In the spring semester freshmen must register for all of their classes, including Lit Hum and UW or Frontiers. Most students will opt to register for the same section of Lit Hum or CC the second semester for continuity, since with rare exception the same instructor teaches a section both the fall and spring.

You will not know the name of your instructor for Core classes until classes start. Columbia does not disclose the names of each sections instructors in order to "level the playing field" in terms of getting a good instructor. It should say something about the uneven quality of instruction in core classes that this policy even needs to exist. There are some workarounds.

After fall of freshmen year, and with all core classes other than Lit Hum and UW/Frontiers, you register on your own. Getting a section of Art Hum or Music Hum as a freshman is difficult, and requires a little luck and a good registration time. Most students advocate registering for art hum and music hum every semester, finding out the instructor on the first day, checking CULPA, and then dropping the course if you're unhappy, and repeating until you land a good section, or find yourself on the verge of graduating.


Despite the hype and praise, the Core has a number of critics. The primary charge leveled against the Core is that it's just a collection of "Dead White Men" with a few token minority and women authors.

In addition, the Core is hardly a uniformly positive experience. Your experience in each class will be contingent on two factors: 1) The quality of your instructor and 2) the quality of your classmates. Don't underestimate the impact that the 20 other people in the room can have on your class experience. A good group of classmates can easily redeem a class with an average teacher.

A common complaint about Core classes is the relatively high percentage of sections that are NOT taught by Columbia faculty, and instead are led by graduate students ("Preceptors" is the official term). Landing a section with a graduate student is not the kiss of death- in fact some of the best core class instructors are grad students, and some of the worst are high profile professors.

Lit Hum

  • In Spring 2007, 9 of 58 sections of Lit Hum are being taught by Senior Faculty, including one taught by a retired professor and another by an assistant dean at the Law School, another taught by a visiting professor from the University of Chicago, and another faculty member teaching only section open to GS students.
  • 17 are being taught by junior faculty, of whom 2 are temporary appointments, 1 is a post-doc fellow, and only 2 hold the more seniors Associate status.
  • 9 sections are taught by graduate students
  • 15 are taught by 10 instructional lecturers, 5 of whom teach 2 sections each.
  • 8 Section leaders are not in the directory.


Art Hum

  • In Spring 2007 only 3 of 30 sections of Art Humanities were taught by Columbia professors, including 1 temporary appointment.
  • The rest were taught by 16 graduate students, 4 post-doctoral fellows, 2 "Lecturers" (including one who's listed as a student at the School of Continuing Education), and 4 unlisted in the directory but not listed on the department faculty page either.

Music Hum

The Core will ultimately be what you make of it. If you don't do the reading, it's your own fault for finding the classes boring. Then again if your instructor sucks, just grin and bear it, or beg the core office to change your section.


Columbia's Core Curriculum has often been imitated. In fact two of the most celebrated Core Curricula in the country, at the University of Chicago and St. John's College, were established by a Columbia graduate, Mortimer J. Adler, who had been hired by each school for the explicit purpose of implementing a "Great Books" curriculum.

Anything else that dares call itself a "Core Curriculum" is either watered-down or basically a distribution requirement.


  • It is an oft-circulated myth that it is extremely difficult, maybe even impossible, for a Core instructor to give a student lower than a B- on a Core class. In order to award the student a lower grade, the myth claims, the instructor must navigate the Columbia bureaucracy and make a petition to the Core office. However, this myth has been recently debunked.[3]

External links