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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 Statesmarker. 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 Václav 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 Václav 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, Edmund 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 Du Bois, Woolf, and MacKinnon are read and discussed.

Table of Core Curriculum Requirements

Course Semesters Required
Literature HumanitiesA seminar surveying the great works of Western literature 2
Contemporary CivilizationA seminar surveying the great works of Western philosophy and social theory 2
Art HumanitiesA seminar surveying the great works of Western art 1
Music HumanitiesA seminar surveying the great works of Western music. An exemption exam is offered for qualified students. 1
University WritingA seminar designed to inculcate university-level writing skills 1
Foreign LanguageA distribution requirement intended to instill at least an intermediate level of a foreign language 4
Frontiers of ScienceA lecture and seminar course designed to instill "scientific habits of mind" 1
Other ScienceA distribution requirement over any scientific disciplines 2
Major Non-Western CulturesA distribution requirement meant to lessen 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.

Changes to the Core

In the later half of the 20th century the nature of college curricula came under attack. 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". In addition, a curriculum based solely on Western Civilizations neither acknowledges nor celebrates the essential contributions of other global cultures. In response to these concerns, 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 insure educational breadth. The latter are sometimes described as a "core curriculum"; Harvard's review of its requirements illustrates this approach (

The most recent addition to the Core (2004) is Frontiers of Science. Frontiers attempts to break the "pyramid" of science education: years of chemistry, math and physics as prerequisites to courses on current scientific research. One aim of Frontiers is to teach "Scientific Habits of Mind", a set of analytical approaches that apply to all disciplines of science. Frontiers is taught as four, 3 week units: two from the physical sciences (for example, Astronomy and Geology) and two from the life sciences (for example, Neuroscience and Biodiversity). Within Columbia, Frontiers is controversial. Many high school science courses do not emphasize the development of analytical skills, the skills used by practicing scientists. Some students have found these difficult to master and they are also difficult to teach. While the multi-disciplinarity of Frontiers reflects the way science operates currently, it doesn't answer to the expectations of students determined on immediate immersion in a particular scientific discipline. Outside of Columbia, Frontiers has evoked widespread interest from Colleges and Universities seeking to initiate or modify a general education science course. Material developed for Frontiers of Science are available online (

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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