History of the Core Curriculum

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The Core Curriculum of Columbia College did not emerge from some ideal Platonic form - took some time to emerge, and is, indeed, still evolving today. Frontiers of Science only became a mandatory course in 2004, and students continue to demand changes—to syllabi and course requirements—for various reasons.

There was some talk in 2011-2012 of a $100 milion "Endowment for the Core," or "Core Endowment,"—notable by Deantini—but it's died out.

Prologue: Erosion of the Liberal Arts

The idea of studying the Greek and Roman "classics" was not a new one when the Core Curriculum evolved into its current "Great Books" format - it had been the bedrock of a liberal arts education at Columbia and many other American and European places of higher learning for centuries. From the foundation of King's College in 1754 to the 1880s, a Columbia student had little choice within his curriculum, which was almost solely devoted to studying works in Greek and Latin.

Under the tenure of University President Frederick A. P. Barnard, however, this began to change: junior and senior years became mostly elective. When the college moved to Morningside Heights, became Columbia University, and began to deemphasize undergraduate education in favor of research-oriented graduate and vocationally-preoccupied professional schools, onerous requirements involving dead languages made even less sense. Some, such as graduate education pioneer John W. Burgess, saw the college's educational traditions as an obstruction to serious study; they were "kept in being only by inertia and the piety of its alumni," he claimed. The Greek requirement was eliminated and the Latin pared from two years to one. The Latin requirement was eliminated completely over the course of the 1916-1917 school year.

The college's first dean, John Howard Van Amringe, was not willing to see the college's liberal arts traditions go softly, however, postulating that the college was for "making men" rather than making professionals. This move may have had an unintentionally classist overtone; while many of the new immigrant children in New York City could thrive in an atmosphere of cognitive competition and upward social mobility such as the Burgessian model provided, few of these were acquainted with the tools for success in the liberal arts: a preparatory education such as those in New York's Knickerbocker aristocracy (including Van Amringe himself) would have received.

The Sudden Birth of Contemporary Civilization

War (Issues) and Peace (Issues)

Ironically, it was the very same utilitarian, pragmatist impulse that necessitated the return of general education to the Columbia College curriculum. When the United States entered World War I in 1917, University President Nicholas Murray Butler proclaimed that the university would operate as an "apparatus" of the US government. To that end, it responded wholeheartedly when the military asked Columbia to create a "war issues" course to educate student soldiers. The new course, designed by Frederick J. E. Woodbridge, was meant to instill awareness of the war's ideological aims.

The faculty were intrigued by the course's possibilities, however, and noted that students returning from the war would need an equally broad-based course in order to understand and manage the "issues of peace". In December 1918, discussion concerning the proposed new course began. The first issue was clearly the most significant: the course's title (among the proposals were "The World We Live In" and the seemingly oxymoronic "Contemporary History"). Eventually, "Introduction to Contemporary Civilization" was decided upon. The focus would be on very recent problems and the short history behind them, allowing students to become informed participants in society.

Early CC

The first CC courses, meeting in September 1919, were in many ways similar and distinct from the modern course. Like today's class, they were small, with no more than thirty students each. They were also discussion-based. Unlike the modern course, however, these sections met five times a week, and were each scheduled for the 9-10AM timeslot. The material was also quite distinct. The first week or two was consumed with the study of geography and natural resources followed by a focus on human behavior, and then a very broadly conceived history curriculum, which included not only the history of Western politics but also of science and industry. By far the most time was spent on the back end of the syllabus, with the "problems of the present". According to Harry Carman, these included "imperialism and backward peoples, nationalism and internationalism, industrialism and raising standards of living, political control, and education."

The reading for CC during this period was not in primary philosophical texts. Instead, students read essays on various contemporary topics, a format more analogous to today's University Writing or Frontiers of Science work. Many of these texts were even by Columbia instructors, such as Carman and Irwin Edman. Not even the syllabus itself had assumed its modern form; it was so detailed that John Dewey remarked that it could substitute for the books it referred to themselves.

Despite the pragmatic concerns that had given it birth, early CC instructors came to believe that the new course's interdisciplinary nature alone represented a sea change against specialization and back toward general education, or that the issues created by the war's aftermath had demonstrated just how pragmatic general education truly was.

The Evolution of Literature Humanities

The Implementation of the Arts

The Mounting Challenge of Major Cultures

The Ascendancy of Science