Core Curriculum

Core Curriculum

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The Core Curriculum was originally developed as the main curriculum used by Columbia University
Columbia University
Columbia University in the City of New York is a private, Ivy League university in Manhattan, New York City. Columbia is the oldest institution of higher learning in the state of New York, the fifth oldest in the United States, and one of the country's nine Colonial Colleges founded before the...

's Columbia College
Columbia College of Columbia University
Columbia College is the oldest undergraduate college at Columbia University, situated on the university's main campus in Morningside Heights in the borough of Manhattan in New York City. It was founded in 1754 by the Church of England as King's College, receiving a Royal Charter from King George II...

. It began in 1919 with "Contemporary Civilization," about the origins of western civilization
Western culture
Western culture, sometimes equated with Western civilization or European civilization, refers to cultures of European origin and is used very broadly to refer to a heritage of social norms, ethical values, traditional customs, religious beliefs, political systems, and specific artifacts and...

. It became the framework for many similar educational models throughout the United States
United States
The United States of America is a federal constitutional republic comprising fifty states and a federal district...

. 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
Liberal arts
The term liberal arts refers to those subjects which in classical antiquity were considered essential for a free citizen to study. Grammar, Rhetoric and Logic were the core liberal arts. In medieval times these subjects were extended to include mathematics, geometry, music and astronomy...

 education, and by others as a tool of promoting a Eurocentric or Anglocentric society by solely focusing on the works of dead white men
Dead white males
Dead white males or Dead White European Males is a derogatory term that refers to a purportedly disproportionate academic focus on contributions to historical and contemporary Western civilization made by European males....

. In response, the College added requirements for courses in "major cultures" during the 1980s. 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
Václav Havel
Václav Havel is a Czech playwright, essayist, poet, dissident and politician. He was the tenth and last President of Czechoslovakia and the first President of the Czech Republic . He has written over twenty plays and numerous non-fiction works, translated internationally...

 in Fall 2006. A major addition to the core was made in the 2000s, when a science literacy course was added.

Original Intentions

US universities, including Harvard, had seen a trend towards more elective programs during the late 19th century. Columbia's president Frederick Augustus Porter Barnard supported this trend, but his stance lost ground at the College over the following decades. Previously, a liberal arts education rarely focused directly on a major, but would focus on both Greek
Greek language
Greek is an independent branch of the Indo-European family of languages. Native to the southern Balkans, it has the longest documented history of any Indo-European language, spanning 34 centuries of written records. Its writing system has been the Greek alphabet for the majority of its history;...

 and Latin
Latin is an Italic language originally spoken in Latium and Ancient Rome. It, along with most European languages, is a descendant of the ancient Proto-Indo-European language. Although it is considered a dead language, a number of scholars and members of the Christian clergy speak it fluently, and...

 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
World War I
World War I , which was predominantly called the World War or the Great War from its occurrence until 1939, and the First World War or World War I thereafter, was a major war centred in Europe that began on 28 July 1914 and lasted until 11 November 1918...

 set the stage for a major change in curricula focus after the war. The "Contemporary Civilization" course of the time has also been described as a direct response to the US entry into the war, seeking to encourage US involvement by stressing the importance of Western civilization. Its persistence has been attributed to the College's wish to retain authority and autonomy with regard to the university's more specialized graduate programs.

Changes to the Core

In the later half of the 20th century US universities moved towards a more elective system. Some historians see the change as a response to social activism - 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" and as a failure to acknowledge the essential contributions of other global cultures. Others interpret it as a concession to increasing calls for earlier specialization to prepare students for post-graduate scientific and professional studies.

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
Columbia College of Columbia University
Columbia College is the oldest undergraduate college at Columbia University, situated on the university's main campus in Morningside Heights in the borough of Manhattan in New York City. It was founded in 1754 by the Church of England as King's College, receiving a Royal Charter from King George II...

 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 many fewer specific requirements required of all freshmen and sophomore year students. Columbia College added courses to create an expanded core, a move that is controversial. 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 League schools.


The Core Curriculum is an example of what was adopted by many educational institutions in the years following its introduction. All first-year students in the college must take the year-long "Masterpieces of Western Literature" course (known as "Literature Humanities" or Lit Hum), the semester-long "University Writing", and the semester-long Frontiers of Science". All sophomores are required to take a year of "Contemporary Civilization" (known as CC). The other requirements, which can be completed any year, include a semester of "Music Humanities"; a semester of "Art Humanities"; two semesters of science, 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 diplomas, a common feature among Ivy League
Ivy League
The Ivy League is an athletic conference comprising eight private institutions of higher education in the Northeastern United States. The conference name is also commonly used to refer to those eight schools as a group...


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.

Table of Core Curriculum Requirements

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

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.