Beijing Center Stories: Bingxuan Wang CC '21, "Looking Back at the History of the Core"

Bingxuan Wang
June 17, 2019

Columbia has long prided itself on having the Core Curriculum as the centerpiece of its undergraduate education. On the one hand, the Core has usually been marketed as a life-changing experience which introduces students to a perennial set of values and ideas that form the foundation of human civilization. On the other hand, the curriculum itself has been the subject of numerous debates and criticisms for the past forty years that focused on the problematic assumptions behind its formation, especially those regarding which texts and authors to include in the syllabi. Despite being one of the most established traditions at Columbia, the Core Curriculum itself has a dynamic history of transformation. In tracing the history of the Core, therefore, we are perhaps also asking the question of what kind of education Columbia envisions for its students and what kind of global citizen Columbia is able to cultivate.

Curious enough, a curriculum regularly criticized for its impracticality was first taught in the army. In 1917, the U.S. Army commissioned Columbia faculty to create a course on the “Issues of War” for the Student Army Training Corps.[1] In 1919, after the war ended, Columbia College began to offer a course called “An Introduction to Contemporary Civilization,” which met five times a week and was required for all freshmen. The University faculty, as was written in Columbia University Quarterly, “sensed the need for considering the issues of peace and felt that the students should be stimulated to reflection on present-day problems very early in their study.”[2]

Looking at the first CC syllabus from 1919, the course looked nothing like the one that is currently taught. Rather than being a text-oriented course devoted to the study of “great books,” the course was organized based on topics and questions, with learning objectives for each session written out in excruciating detail.[3] Being the result of the joint effort of five departments—that of Economics, Government, History, Philosophy, and Sociology, the syllabus had a more ambitious scope of survey than the current CC, which focuses mostly on philosophy, politics, and religion. In the first semester of the year-long course, the objective is to introduce students to “the insistent problems of today through acquainting them with the materials of their situation: nature’s resources and human nature and its recent history” as well as presenting “those human traits which are of importance because men have to work together and get on with one another in an orderly fashion.”[4] More specifically, these “human traits” include

The view of nature as subject to man’s control through science, and of man as himself perfectible by natural means; the change in production methods from home to factory and the great social changes which have accompanied this economic revolution; the abandonment of monarchical forms fo political control for democratic, nationalistic rule.[5]

The second semester is devoted to a study of the “more recent history of the great nations” and the “social and political forces operating,” so that students are better informed and prepared to approach the final and central part of the course—the “perplexing issues which men face and for which no ready-made remedies exist.”[6] Again listed in detail, these issues include

… how to produce many and cheap goods without sacrificing human nature; how to achieve political and legal forms which are at once flexible and stable; how to eliminate human and material waste of every kind; how to preserve national integrity and still enjoy the benefits of international organization; and finally how to provide an education which will advance personal and social interests, cultural and industrial.[7]

In 1928, CC expanded into a two-year course, with the first year (CC-A) focusing on the history of Western civilization from 1200 to the present, essentially dealing with the same set of questions as the original CC—How do men make a living? How do they live together? How do they understand their world?[8] The second year (CC-B), by contrast, emphasized the question of making a living in the United States, replacing introductory courses in the Economics and Government Departments.[9] Again, the pragmatic and question-oriented nature of the course forms an interesting contrast with the text-orientated design of CC as we have it now.

At the same time, quite separate from CC, the “great books” model was first set up in 1920 by Professor John Erskine’s Honors literature course, the predecessor to LitHum. The basic idea of the course was to have small groups of students who would read one book a week and then spend a few hours discussing it with a pair of instructors.[10] In an essay he wrote in 1928 on how to read great books, Erskine argued that historical and biographical information is irrelevant in the study of literature because “literary or other artistic genius shows itself not in a man’s life but in the work he produces.”[11] He also justified the reading of literary classics in translation by explaining how much one can learn from an author even if they do not know the language the author wrote in. “The method I should advise in reading great books is a simple one,” he wrote, “I should try, first of all, not to be awed by their greatness. Then I should read without any other preparation than life has given me …”[12] Erskine’s view on literary classics as accessible materials that reward all levels of readers might as well be the assumption behind putting a copy of Iliad into the hands of every freshman during the orientation week and asking them to simply start reading. The student does not need to know much about ancient Greek civilization or be able to read Homeric Greek in order to approach Iliad. They need to bring with them whatever preparation “life has given [them]”[13] and nothing else.

In 1937, a “Humanities sequence” was created as the Humanities counterpart to CC, consisting of Humanities A, a mandatory freshman survey of classic texts of Western literature and philosophy, spanning from antiquity through the end of the eighteenth century, and Humanities B, a sophomore elective focused on visual arts and music.[14] The addition completed the main structure of the core as we have it today: one year of humanities, one year of social sciences, and another year of visual arts and music (with the science, writing, global core, foreign language, and physical education requirements to be added later, of course). In 1941, the first year of CC (CC-A) began assigning students more primary sources rather than segments of the textbook,[15] under the assumption that “first-hand acquaintances” with the text would benefit students more than “predigested opinions.”[16] CC thus began to resemble the “great books” model of the Humanities sequence.

Looking at the list of texts designated for LitHum over the years, we find unfamiliar names of works which are no longer taught, such as Beowulf, Sophocles’s Antigone, Lucretius’s On the Nature of the Universe, Gottfried’s Parzifal, Shakespeare’s The Tempest, Rabelais’s Gargantua and Pantagruel, and Stendhal’s The Red and the Black.[17] These books, which seem to come from a more narrow definition of Western civilization, were gradually replaced by books that represent a wider array of voices, such as To the Lighthouse and Song of Solomon.[18]

Nowadays one would hardly qualify as a Columbia undergraduate if they cannot expend a few words of criticism at the “Eurocentrism” of the Core, the monopoly of the syllabi by “Dead White Men”;[19] but where exactly did such criticism begin? Issues of representation and inclusion came to the center of debates about the Core in the 80’s.[20] An essay from 1988 written by a Columbia professor mentioned that the “inclusion of works by women, blacks and other minority or marginalized or excluded voices” has been the “most hotly debated issue in the past five years” both in staff meetings and outside.[21] Another essay by a Columbia alum quotes the chair of the English and Comparative Literature Department saying that an increasing number of faculty in her department did not want to teach the Core because of they had “canon problems”—“It’s too colonialist for some, too patriarchal for others.”[22] Criticism of this kind went almost hand-in-hand with the creation of programs in race and gender studies at Columbia.[23][24]

In 1983, Columbia College began to admit women, and the male-dominated list of authors in the Core became the subject of increasing examination. Jane Austen was admitted into the designated list of texts in LitHum in 1985 and so did Sappho in 1986 and Woolf in 1990. Perhaps the most memorable distillation of this historical period was provided by Columbia GS student Laura Hotchkiss Brown ’89, who attempted, at the commencement of 1989, to hang a banner above Butler library that contained names of females authors. Printed in the same typeface to resemble those of the male authors and orators engraved on the façade of Butler, the female authors’ names could be seen as a powerful visual representation of the struggle for inclusivity in the Core at the time. Brown and her four friends were arrested by Columbia Security when they tried to unfurl the banner, but Brown worked subsequently with the University to make possible the display of the banner the next fall. The first banner that was hung in the fall of 1989 included the names of Sappho, Marie de France, Christine de Pizan, Juana Ines de la Cruz, Emily Bronte, Emily Dickinson, and Virginia Woolf. Another banner was dropped in 1994 to include female authors of greater cultural and racial diversity.[25]

In 1988, Theodore de Bary chaired a committee charged with reevaluating the Core. In what became known as the “De Bary Report,” the committee found that the Core failed to address more contemporary issues that were having social, economic, and political impacts, such as the encounter of the West with non-Western cultures and the growing ethnic, racial, and gender consciousness.[26] Considering it important to maintain the integrity of the existing Core, the committee proposed an “Extended Core” requirement—in later revisions named “Major Cultures”—which asks students to take courses in “cultures not covered in CC and Humanities.”[27] The requirement evolved into the Global Core we now have, which asks students to take two courses from a list of approved courses that cover the cultures of Africa, Asia, the Americas, and the Middle East.[28]

We celebrate 2019 as the one-hundredth anniversary of the Core, yet 1919 might only be one of the possible origins among many that the current curriculum can trace itself back to. Throughout the years, the Core has been reimagined and redesigned so many times that it is impossible to situate an official origin of the Core that excludes other options. One thing, however, remains certain: the Core will keep being changed, whether it is through administrative adjustments or grassroots protests.


[1] “Colleges Outline New War Courses,” The New York Times,

[2] John J. Cross, “The New Freshman Course in Columbia College,” Columbia University Quarterly,

[3] “Introduction to Contemporary Civilization: A Syllabus,” HathiTrust Digital Library,;view=1up;seq=1.

[4] Cross. 

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

[8] “History of the Core,” Columbia College,

[9] “History of the Core.”

[10] “History of the Core.”

[11] John Erskine, “On Reading Great Books” in The Delight of Great Books,

[12] Erskine.

[13] Ibid.

[14] “History of the Core.”

[15] Ibid.

[16] “Columbia Tests New Approach to Humanities,” New York Herald Tribune,

[17] “Literature Humanities: Texts 1937-2018,” Columbia College,

[18] “Literature Humanities: Texts 1937-2018.” 

[19] Julie Carson, “Why Is the Core Curriculum so Eurocentric?”, Columbia Spectator,

[20] James C Katz, “Rethinking the core curriculum,” Columbia College Today,

[21] James V. Mirollo, “A Parnassus in the real world,” Columbia College Today,

[22] Mirollo.

[23] Melissa Michelson, “CU is last to get Afro-American program,” Columbia Spectator,

[24] Jonathan Earle, “CC's new Women's Studies major relies on BC courses,” Columbia Spectator,

[25] Lauren M. Rosenblum. “Banner lauds great women authors,” Columbia Spectator,

[26] “Other Voices, Other Cultures,”

[27] “History of the Core.” 

[28] “Global Core Requirement,” Columbia College,