Editor’s Note: This article was originally published by First Things on February 8, 2022 and is crossposted here with permission.
In 1919, Columbia University added a new class: “Introduction to Contemporary Civilization in the West.” Partly a response to World War I, it was designed as a “peace issues” course to correspond with a “war issues” course launched two years prior. As John J. Coss, professor of philosophy, wrote at the time, “With the end of the war the faculty 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.”
Thus Columbia’s famed Core Curriculum was born. Over the next several decades, my alma mater would add many classes to the Core, tweaking the content and format along the way. Now, a century later, the Core has six main courses, a hodgepodge of electives, two physical education classes, and a swim test (yes, really). It’s laudable that the Core has lasted this long, and the curriculum has provided thousands of students with a liberal arts education. But Columbia is not exactly the Great Books haven that it was 100 years ago.
Now don’t get me wrong. I’m grateful to have experienced one of the last Great Books programs in America (I graduated in 2019). A 2011 National Association of Scholars study examined gen ed requirements at 50 of the nation’s leading colleges and universities and found that 32 of 50 schools did not even include a single Western Civilization survey course. I am sure that today’s numbers are more abysmal.
But in truth, the Columbia Core is crumbling—and quickly. Students who flock to Columbia today to experience the Core will be sorely disappointed.
The Core course Literature Humanities (LitHum), marketed as the most important course any Columbia student takes, serves as a good case study for the issues plaguing the Core at large. Before an incoming freshman steps on campus, he’s given his first reading assignment: Books I–VI of The Iliad. So far, so good. But look at the rest of the reading list. Some recent additions—and deletions—are alarming.
Here are a few works currently relegated to the “Former Readings” section of the official LitHum reading list: The Epic of Gilgamesh, the Book of Isaiah, Antigone, The Medea, The Histories, Paradise Lost, and Macbeth. And here are three of the works that have displaced Sophocles, Herodotus, and Milton, with descriptions from publishers:
Citizen: An American Lyric by Claudia Rankine (2014): “Citizen is a powerful testament to the individual and collective effects of racism in our contemporary, often named ‘post-race’ society.” In the Washington Post, Michael Lindgren adds, “[P]art protest lyric, part art book, Citizen is a dazzling expression of the painful double consciousness of black life in America.”
Notebook of a Return to the Native Land by Aimé Césaire (2001): “Notebook of a Return to the Native Land is recommended for readers in comparative literature, post-colonial literature, African American studies, poetry, modernism, and French.” Critic Alexandra Yurkovsky adds that Césaire’s “protean lyric, filled with historical allusions, serves to exorcise individual and collective self-hatreds engendered by the psychological trauma of slavery and its aftermath.”
Commons by Myung Mi Kim (2002): “Commons’s fragmented lyric pushes the reader to question the construction of the poem. Identity surfaces, sinks back, then rises again.” One reviewer writes that Kim “[e]xtracts the sparest of reactions and reflections to global politics, colonization, immigration and other issues in fragmented form that takes the blank page as a kind of force field for splinters of language and images.”
Unfortunately, I could go on. The emphasis is identity, identity, and more identity. Are the books completely without literary merit? Likely not. Even the most radical ideologues write artfully from time to time. But are they in the same league as Antigone and Paradise Lost? Of course not.
I don’t believe that most Columbia administrators think they are. Rather, these substitutions are obvious attempts to appease DEI-obsessed students and faculty. Another example was the university-endorsed Butler Banner Project of 2019, which saw the names of several female writers (as well as one trans writer) hung above the original names engraved on Columbia’s famous Butler Library. The Project also hosted an open mic event called “Put My Name on Butler,” in which all “female-identifying women” were invited to “question what a canon is”: “Come share your work! Listen to other people’s work! Canonize yourself! Ask ‘what the f*ck’ is a canon anyways’?!”
One event attendee summed up the prevailing perspective on the Western canon well: “I think that there’s this very authoritative association with the idea of a Western canon, so the fact that you’re included implies that you’re smarter or have more to say. . . . So, when we don’t include marginalized groups in that it implies that they have less valuable contributions to society.” While no doubt this student meant well, her dismissal of the Western canon speaks volumes about the state of modern American academia.
The truth is that the campus activists Columbia administrators are trying to pacify don’t care all that much about diversity, equity, or inclusion—in no small part because these three concepts have come to mean the opposite of what their names would imply. “Diversity” means a complete rejection of intellectual diversity for the sake of immutable and unearned census categories; “equity” means unfairly handicapping the so-called privileged in favor of the so-called oppressed; “inclusion” means excluding all perspectives that do not fit neatly within a far-left worldview.
Indeed, the DEI charade is about nothing more than accruing power and crushing resistance. The movement’s more astute leaders realize this, while true DEI believers play the role of useful idiot. While I was at Columbia, many of my undergraduate peers were all too happy to serve as foot soldiers for the DEI militia, driving countless class discussions into the identity-politics ditch without batting an eye.
All this to say, campus radicals will not stop. It’s not enough that Aimé Césaire and Myung Mi Kim have made it onto the LitHum syllabus, and it is never going to be enough. So I’m not optimistic about the future of Columbia’s Core Curriculum. The Great Books will live on one way or another, but if recent trends are any indication, there will be no Core Bicentennial to celebrate.