core curriculum

Core Curriculum (Columbia College)

The Core Curriculum was originally developed as the main curriculum used by Columbia University's Columbia College. It began in 1919 with "Contemporary Civilization," about the origins of western civilization. It became the framework for many similar educational models throughout the United States. 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. 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 Vaclav Havel in Fall 2006.



The Core Curriculum is an example of what was adopted by many educational institutions in the years following its introduction. It requires students to take the year-long "Masterpieces of Western Literature" course (known as "Literature Humanities" or Lit Hum); another year of "Contemporary Civilization" (known as CC); a semester of "Music Humanities"; a semester of "Art Humanities"; three semesters of science including the semester-long Frontiers of Science course; the semester-long "University Writing" course; 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 diploma, a common feature among Ivy League colleges.

The current Chair of the Core Committee (2006-7), and of Literature Humanities, is Patricia Grieve (A professor of Spanish literature). The Chair of Contemporary Civilization is Philip Kitcher, a philosopher.


The Literature Humanities course includes the following required texts for the Fall 2006 semester: Homer's Iliad and Odyssey, The Histories of Herodotus by Herodotus, The Oresteia by Aeschylus, Oedipus the King by Sophocles, The Clouds by Aristophanes, The Apology and Symposium of Plato, History of the Peloponnesian War by Thucydides, Medea by Euripides and the Bible (Genesis, Book of Job, Gospel of Luke, and Gospel of John). The Garden Party by Vaclav Havel was exceptionally added to the syllabus on the occasion of the ex-Czech President's residence at Columbia in 2006.

In the Spring Semester (2007), texts include: The Aeneid by Virgil, The Confessions of Augustine, selections from Dante's Divine Comedy, Boccaccio's Decameron, Montaigne's Essays, Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes, Shakespeare's Hamlet, Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen, Fyodor Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment and Virginia Woolf's To the Lighthouse . Instructors are allowed a number of choice texts per semester.

The Contemporary Civilization course features the great books that have framed Western thought and philosophy, by authors like Plato, Aristotle, Cicero, Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, Ibn Rushd also known as Averroes, de las Casas, Martin Luther, John Calvin, Machiavelli, Descartes, Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, Rousseau, Burke, Immanuel Kant, David Hume, Adam Smith, Hegel, Marx and Engels, Nietzsche, Freud, Fanon, and Foucault, as well as religious texts like The Hebrew Bible, The Bible, and al-Qur'an. Additionally, thinkers such as DuBois, Woolf, and MacKinnon are read and discussed.

Table of Core Curriculum Requirements

Course Semesters Required
Literature Humanities A seminar surveying the great works of Western literature 2
Contemporary Civilization A seminar surveying the great works of Western philosophy and social theory 2
Art Humanities A seminar surveying the great works of Western art 1
Music Humanities A seminar surveying the great works of Western music. An exemption exam is offered for qualified students. 1
University Writing A seminar designed to inculcate university-level writing skills 1
Foreign Language A distribution requirement intended to instill at least an intermediate level of a foreign language 4
Frontiers of Science A lecture and seminar course designed to instill "scientific habits of mind" 1
Other Science A distribution requirement over any scientific disciplines 2
Major Non-Western Cultures A distribution requirement meant to complement the perceived Eurocentric biases of the other Core classes 2
Physical Education 2 (only one unit each)


Original Intentions

Ironically, the requirement-heavy core was seen at a time as a change towards flexibility in many American institutions of learning. Previously, a liberal arts education rarely focused directly on a major, but would focus on both Greek and Latin classics. The changes were first initiated in the 1880s with the inclusion of courses in study of a modern language. This change, along with a latter change in campus location preceding World War I set the stage for a major change in curricula focus after the war.


With the later half of the 20th century came many concerns about the nature of college curricula. The civil rights movement, feminist movement, and various other socially concerned movements saw the core curriculum as inflexible to the needs of the day. It was worried that a curriculum solely based on what was considered by many as western figures would not allow for ethnic diversity and would promote a lack of knowledge and a level of ignorance about other cultures. In response to this, many universities created a curriculum that maintained categorical requirements, but in few ways constrained the classes needed to fulfill these requirements.

More recently, 2004 saw the advent of Frontiers of Science, a course ostensibly designed to impart the principles of the Core in a scientific setting, while also edifying students about recent advances - the Frontiers - of modern science. However, Frontiers has proven to be very unpopular amongst the student body; common reasons cited for this include the lack of academic rigor and actual scientific thought, and the fact that the class's two objectives are irreconcilable - one cannot arrive at Einstein's theory of general relativity by simple Socratic thought.

Response of Columbia

The response by Columbia College is still quite controversial. Rather than reduce the requirements, the University chose to expand the number of required courses after some criticism. This was in contrast with many other schools who had adopted similar curricula earlier in the 20th century. Those schools have instead opted for a broad based curriculum in the opening years, with much fewer specific requirements required of all freshmen and sophomore year students. Columbia College has added courses to create an expanded core, a move that is controversial. Columbia College Alumni are perhaps the staunchest defenders of this move, as they see the Core as the primary link between different classes as well as providing Columbia a distinctive selling point compared with the other Ivy Leagues.

Common defenses of the curriculum

  • The Core is really about learning how to think, not about accepting the ideas presented.
  • Western culture is still heavily influenced by the philosophy and literature included in the Core.
  • Many of the movements that object to the content are largely reactions to the Western canon, or heavily criticize the canon, so knowing what is being rejected can help in the understanding of the texts.
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