Core Curriculum (Columbia College)

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One section of the Contemporary Civilization Source Book in the early 1940s. There were two parts containing ten sections each. This copy shows it in use at Yale University in addition to Columbia.

The Core Curriculum was originally developed as the main curriculum used by Columbia College of Columbia University in 1919. Created in the wake of World War I, it became the framework for many similar educational models throughout the United States, and has played an influential role in the incorporation of the concept of Western civilization into the American college curriculum.[1][2] Today, customized versions of the Core Curriculum are also completed by students in the School of Engineering and Applied Science and the School of General Studies, the other two undergraduate colleges of Columbia University.

Later in its history, especially in the 1990s, it became a heavily contested form of learning, seen by some as an appropriate foundation of a liberal arts education, and by others as a tool of promoting a Eurocentric or Anglocentric society by solely focusing on the works of "dead white men".[3] In response, the College has added requirements for courses in "major cultures" during the 1980s.[4] Recent controversy over the "Core" has been related to whether visiting artists to Columbia should have their works added to the syllabus, as was the case with a play by Václav Havel in Fall 2006. The most recent major addition to the core was made in the 2000s, when a science literacy course, "Frontiers of Science", was added.[5]


Of the names listed on the Butler Library colonnade, only Demosthenes has not at some point in time been required reading in the core curriculum.[6]

"Contemporary Civilization"[edit]

American universities, including Harvard, had seen a trend towards more elective programs during the late 19th century.[7] Columbia's president Frederick Augustus Porter Barnard supported this trend, and during his tenure he managed to establish a system wherein roughly half of a student's courses would be electives, and the other half required by the faculty; however, his stance would lose ground at the College over the following decades.[7] Previously, a liberal arts education rarely focused directly on a major, but would focus on both Ancient Greek, Latin, and the study of the classics. However, this began to change starting in the 1880 with the introduction of the modern language requirement; Columbia dropped Ancient Greek as an entrance examination requirement in 1897, and Latin in 1916.[8][9] This change, along with a latter change in campus location preceding World War I, set the stage for a major change in curricular focus in the early 20th century. In 1917, the United States Army commissioned the university to create a "war issues" course in order to educate the Student Army Training Corps, and to explain the causes of WWI and the reasons for US involvement in the conflict.[10] Following the war, in 1919, this course was transformed into "Contemporary Civilization," the oldest course of the core curriculum, which faculty presented as a "peace issues" course intended to confront the realities of the post-war era.[2] Writing about "Contemporary Civilization", Dean Herbert Hawkes stated that "its significance rested on the fundamental principle that in the long run man's accomplishment can rise no higher than his ideals, and that an understanding of the worth of the cause for which one is fighting is a powerful weapon in the hands of an intelligent man."[2]

In 1928, "Contemporary Civilization" was enlarged and split into two courses: "Introduction to Contemporary Civilization in the West" or "CC-A", focusing on Western history from 1200 to the present, and "Contemporary Problems in the United States" or "CC-B", which emphasized questions of modern politics and economics. In 1932, "CC-B" was revised in the face of the Great Depression to center the questions of economic security, institutions, and policies.[2] The course was dropped altogether in 1968, while the "CC-A" syllabus was overhauled to focus on politics and revolution in response to the 1968 student protests, and evolved into the course it is today.[8]

The Iliad, traditionally attributed to the Greek poet Homer, is one of the few works that has never left the core curriculum.[2]

The humanities sequence[edit]

The "General Honors" course was instituted in 1920, formed around a list of "Great Books" created by professor John Erskine, who would go on to create the core curriculum at the University of Chicago.[2] The course was discontinued in 1929, but was resurrected three years later as the "Colloquium in Important Books".[11] The Great Books curriculum was officially incorporated into the Columbia Core in 1937, with the 1937 inauguration of the humanities sequence, which consisted of "Humanities A", a first-year survey of Western literature and philosophy from classical antiquity to the end of the 18th century, and "Humanities B", a sophomore elective that covered the visual arts and music.[8] Structured after "Contemporary Civilization", "Humanities A" expected students to read one book per week, a workload that placed unique burdens on freshmen.[2] "Humanities A" would eventually morph into the modern "Masterpieces of Western Literature" course, while "Humanities B" split into "Music Humanities" and "Art Humanities" in 1941. The list of books read in "Literature Humanities" would constantly shift over time; the first female author to be included in the curriculum was Jane Austen, with the addition of Pride and Prejudice to the syllabus in 1985, two years after Columbia College became coeducational,[8] while the first Black author to be incorporated into "Literature Humanities" was Toni Morrison, whose Song of Solomon was added in 2015.[12]

Changes to the Core[edit]

In the later half of the 20th century US universities moved towards a more elective system. Some historians see the change as a response to social activism—the civil rights, feminist, and various other social movements saw the core curriculum as an inflexible way to promote the canon of "dead white males" and as a failure to acknowledge the essential contributions of other global cultures. Others interpret it as a concession to increasing calls for earlier specialization to prepare students for post-graduate scientific and professional studies.[1]

The Core Curriculum at Columbia has been extended to consider "Major Cultures" as well as greater depth of study in art and music. While Columbia has maintained its core curriculum, other undergraduate institutions have either abandoned or modified similar approaches, turning from a prescribed set of courses to "distribution" requirements that aim to ensure educational breadth. The latter are sometimes described as a "core curriculum"; Harvard's review of its requirements illustrates this approach.[13]

The most recent addition to the Core is Frontiers of Science, which includes a set of analytical approaches that apply to all disciplines of science. Frontiers is taught as four three-week units: two from the physical sciences and two from the life sciences.[14]



The Core Curriculum is an example of what was adopted by many educational institutions in the years following its introduction. All first-year students in the college must take the year-long "Masterpieces of Western Literature" course (known as "Literature Humanities" or Lit Hum), the semester-long "University Writing", and the semester-long "Frontiers of Science". All sophomores are required to take a year of "Contemporary Civilization" (known as CC). The other requirements, which can be completed any year, include a semester of "Music Humanities"; a semester of "Art Humanities"; two semesters of science, four semesters of a foreign language, two semester-long courses about non-Western major cultures, and two semesters of physical education. Students are also required to pass a swimming test before receiving their diplomas, a common feature among Ivy League colleges.


  1. ^ a b Thomas J. Lasley, II; Thomas C. Hunt; C. Daniel Raisch (2010). Encyclopedia of Educational Reform and Dissent. SAGE Publications. p. 401. ISBN 978-1-4129-5664-2.
  2. ^ a b c d e f g Cross, Timothy P. (1995). An Oasis of Order: The Core Curriculum at Columbia College. Columbia University, Columbia College. ISBN 978-0-9649084-0-6.
  3. ^ William Theodore De Bary (2007). Confucian tradition and global education. Columbia University Press. p. 28. ISBN 978-0-231-14120-8.
  4. ^ Denby, David (1997). Great Books: My Adventures with Homer, Rousseau, Woolf, and Other Indestructible Writers of the Western World. Simon & Schuster. p. 62. ISBN 978-0-684-83533-4.
  5. ^ Frédéric Darbellay; Moira Cockell; Jerome Billotte (2008). A Vision of Transdisciplinarity: Laying Foundations for a World Knowledge Dialogue. CRC Press. pp. 152, 153. ISBN 978-1-4200-9228-8.
  6. ^ Lan, Lin (January 20, 2016). "8 Things You May Not Know About Butler Library". The Low Down. Retrieved 2022-03-16.
  7. ^ a b Robert A. McCaughey (2003). Stand, Columbia: A History of Columbia University in the City of New York, 1754-2004. Columbia University Press. p. 287. ISBN 978-0-231-13008-0.
  8. ^ a b c d "History of the Core". Retrieved 2022-03-16.
  9. ^ Adler, Eric (2020-09-04). The Battle of the Classics: How a Nineteenth-Century Debate Can Save the Humanities Today. Oxford University Press. ISBN 978-0-19-751880-9.
  10. ^ Henry James; Pierre A. Walker (1999). Henry James on culture: collected essays on politics and the American social scene. University of Nebraska Press. p. xxii. ISBN 978-0-8032-2589-3. Columbia college core world war james.
  11. ^ Brown, Alan Willard (July 1948). "The Columbia College Colloquium on Important Books". Journal of General Education (4 ed.). 2 (4): 278–286. JSTOR 27795222 – via JSTOR.
  12. ^ "Toni Morrison Joins Ranks of Lit Hum Authors". Columbia College Today. Fall 2015. Retrieved 2022-03-16.
  13. ^ "Archived copy". Archived from the original on 2007-08-09. Retrieved 2009-08-17.{{cite web}}: CS1 maint: archived copy as title (link) curriculum review
  14. ^ "Frontiers of Science receives highest student course evaluation score since its founding - Columbia Spectator". Columbia Daily Spectator. Retrieved 2021-09-05.

Further reading[edit]

  • Timothy P Cross. An Oasis of Order: The Core Curriculum at Columbia College, Columbia College, 1995, ISBN 978-0-9649084-0-6
  • Roosevelt Montás. Rescuing Socrates: How the Great Books Changed My Life and Why They Matter for a New Generation, Princeton University Press, 2021, ISBN 978-0-691-20039-2

External links[edit]