Columbia’s Crumbling Core

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.

[Related: “Those Little Bard Torquemadas”]

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.

[Related: “The Greatness the Professors Denied”]

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.


Image: Ajay Suresh, Wikimedia CommonsCreative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license, cropped.

David Acevedo

David Acevedo is Managing Editor of Minding the Campus and Communications & Research Associate at the National Association of Scholars.

15 thoughts on “Columbia’s Crumbling Core

  1. In 1919, the Civil War was as familiar to that era as Vietnam is to ours. The GAR was still politically active with veterans still around.

    And then “Civilized” Europe has it’s own civil war, every bit as bloody. And remember that we had adopted the German model of higher education.

    I can see a great deal of angst — and an attempt to salvage Western Civilization from the Fields of Flanders.

    1. I’m sorry, but this is a smug reply. The culture brought together under the rubric of The Western Tradition is not erased by a civil war nor was its importance obviated by the 20th century’s horrors. Please show me what civilization has done better that we can adopt instead. I hadn’t realized that you were here to give a failing grade to the West, especially when the US brought more people out of poverty in the past seventy years than any other force in human history. Does that in any way balance the fact that wars were fought?

  2. College enrollment dropped because of the outbreak of the Wuhan virus and the subsequent remote only “learning” many colleges instituted. What these colleges don’t realize is the good old days are gone. The enrollments will rise, but never to the level there were at five or so years ago. Colleges only have themselves to blame and the demise of the Columbia core provides a perfect example. Great works are being replaced by mediocre drivel, selected solely because of the author’s skin color, just so the college can claim they have a “diverse and inclusive” reading list. Businesses are already realizing a college degree, unless it’s in a STEM field, is pretty much a joke. Within ten years the colleges will be only a shell of what they once were. And they have only themselves to blame.

    1. It wasn’t just Zoom Skool.

      Gen Z are the children of Gen X, them the children of those born during the Depression & WW-II.

      The number of 18 year olds was already declining — and collapses in 2026.

    2. Maybe going to Columbia as a grad student in the sciences or as a professional, eg, medicine, finance, engineering, architecture makes sense, maybe. Law? Oh no. Undergrad there or other “elites”? For what? Lot of fixed costs stuck on quicksand.

  3. “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).”

    So David Avecedo applied to get into Columbia, was lucky enough to get accepted, and benefited greatly from the Great Books program there. Now three years later he’s apparently making a career of criticizing said institution and program. Has it really deteriorated that much in that time? If Columbia’s program is not to one’s liking, why not try St. John’s or some other, and support that?

    Personally, I would lament the loss of most of the Former Readings. But the three additions, while I have no idea whether they are “Great Books” or ever will be considered as such, do sound interesting. It seems to me that inevitably, the “Western canon” is going to expand to include “great works” from other cultures. I’ll happily include the Bhagavad Gita in an instant. (No idea whether it is part of the Columbia program). Any program that includes both the Greek works and the Hebrew scriptures has already been “expanded.” For better or worse, the United States is becoming a “world culture,” at least in part.

    The National Association of Scholars has been crying out, to little effect, for a third of a century. It obviously hasn’t worked. Try something else?

    1. Hi Jonathan,

      Thanks for your comment. My point is that, despite the Core’s flaws, I’m grateful to have been exposed to many of the great works of Western civilization during my time as an undergrad. The vast majority of American college students don’t enjoy this privilege. So I’ve been able to “chew the meat and spit out the bones,” so to speak, in that I have read these works (and continue to revisit them after graduating) while leaving the woke nonsense behind. I wrote this article because I care deeply about Columbia and its Core, not to “make a career” out of criticizing it. It had problems when I was there, and yes, these have only gotten worse in the last three years. But as I say, the Great Books will live on regardless.

    2. David Avecedo has written one article about Columbia’s core. How does that equal “making a career of criticizing said institution and program.” Ad hominem much?

      Given your contempt for NAS, what are you doing here? You contribute nothing to the discussions.

    3. You have no idea if Ms. Kim’s works will become part of the Canon?! You fiend. Here’s her own reflection on her writing: “Language acquisition […] has put on alert for me the way practices of language may contribute to producing hegemonic, normative cultural practices. As a poet I am constantly thinking about this intrinsic problem and exploring modes of relating to and generating language that pluralize sense-making.”

      Get it now? She’s obviously a very deep thinker for the ages.

  4. Perhaps this report will find new readers?
    https://www.nas.org/reports/the-lost-history-of-western-civilization/full-report

    From:
    Stanley Kurtz, The Lost History of Western Civilization (January 11, 2020)

    “… We begin in Part One by critiquing a landmark of modern historical deconstructionism: the claim that the very idea of Western civilization is a modern invention devised during World War I as a way of hoodwinking young American soldiers into fighting and dying in the trenches of Europe. This thesis, propounded in 1982 by the historian Gilbert Allardyce, was cited by key players during the original Stanford controversy. Those scholars used Allardyce to show that elimination of Stanford’s required course on the history and literature of the West was not a major break with the past.”

    1. I read the Kurtz piece when it came out. I think there was some truth to the Allardyce claim. “Western Civilization” is an invention that brings together very disparate elements. When the notion came into being, I don’t know. But I doubt that it was a term that Galileo ever heard. Please inform me if I am wrong. And “Western civ” programs almost undoubtedly were part of the World War I effort.

      1. I don’t think it was just WW-I.

        The carnage of the Civil War was only 54 years earlier — professors of that era would have had a personal memory of that, and WW-I essentially was yet another bloody civil war.

      2. Of all the silly gibberish.
        “I doubt that it was a term that Galileo ever heard.” So what? What point are you trying (but failing) to make? Sophomoric.

        “‘Western civ’ programs almost undoubtedly were part of the World War I effort.”
        “Almost undoubtedly,” makes sense.
        Who has denied that Western Civilization curricula was not part of WWI effort? That Western Civilization curricula were part of the WWI effort is a far cry from Allardyce’s claim that they were created by warmongers to dupe and indoctrinate people to support the war.
        Do you really believe that Western Civilization curricula did not exist before WWI?

      3. Well, Johan, if Galileo would not have been familiar with the term “Western civilization,” then when and how did the notion originate? When did such “curricula” gain currency, and where did the idea for such a curriculum come from? I know that by World War I, the idea was popular in the United States. I would be surprised though if Jefferson or Lincoln had ever encountered this. Spengler’s “Decline of the West” came out in 1926 — in the shadow of World War I. Toynbee’s history, for whatever it is worth, came quite a bit later.

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