Core Curricula Conference Keynote: Denby, again

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sdfIf you’ve read selections from David Denby’s journey back to his college days in Lit Hum or U Writing, you’d have some idea of what he was going to talk about at his keynote address this evening in the faculty room of Low, speaking underneath the peaceful gaze of a Buddha head mounted on a tall plinth. The talk spanned the ages: he applied books written almost 3,000 years ago to wars that may happen in the future, in front of an audience that probably averaged 50 years in age.

But first—he is a film critic—Denby talked about 300, a “porno-military fantasia,” an Orientalist text, even, that’s been used to illustrate a misunderstanding of history having to do with heroism and barbarism. Denby, a rotund little man with New Yorker-esque glasses and neatly trimmed beard, used it as a jumping off point to talk about the relevance of the Core in our warlike era. The way he told it, we’re in pretty bad shape: both politicians and the public blithely ignore reality, we see culture as a national competition, and the Bush administration writ large has turned morality into moralization.

“The notion of civil society feels a little wan; one regards it with a sigh,” Denby lamented.

The Core Curriculum, then, exists to help the younger generation deal with their consciousness and interrogate their culture, which may avert such blunders in the future.  And as much as he inveighed against the current conservative regime, Denby is very much a conservative when it comes to the Core. While writing Great Books, he tired of the “extravagant critiques of the left,” regarding such terms as “dead white men” and “hegemonic discourse” as polemical and stale. He opposes the inclusion of, for example, religious texts from Babylonia and India, arguing for the preservation of  the cohesive conversation between authors responding to each other in a linear progression.

This places him (politely) in opposition to Core Chairman Philip Kitcher, who asked in the Q&A session about designing the coursework thematically, rather than chronologically, which would allow for a broadening of the syllabus to include works outside the Western canon. Denby, however, maintained that texts should be taught in order to fill the gaps in our perforated brains—unlike Europeans, he explained, American students don’t know how to place events in their historical context.

Denby doesn’t seem to think much of Columbia undergrads (the preceptor’s job is to “batter down their narcissism and parochialism and complacency”), and he wasn’t really speaking to students at all. He addressed instead the teachers and designers of the Core, telling them how best to mold us into responsible, understanding New Yorker-reading citizens. At least, though, he understands that we do take this stuff seriously.

“I live in this neighborhood. I’ve heard.”

– Lydia DePillis



  1. all over the place

    The writing in this post is bad. I know bwog is supposed to be informal, but please try to make more sense.

  2. having been there  

    i think this was a pretty fair report on the talk itself. it was a rather rambly work, and if 300 hadn't have just come out, would have lost the most interesting part. denby's speech could be summed up as as such "the core, now more than ever."

  3. Hirony  

    The ineptitude of Bwog editors strikes again!

  4. oh fuck you.

    that is all.

    people at cu are such haters.

  5. yeah  

    good post! is someone covering that student discussion tomorrow?

  6. fuck y'all  

    ifi knew who y'all were i would find your damn pimply faces commenting shit all the time and pee onthem then send a polaroid to your moms.

  7. parochial cc student  

    Fuck David Denby. I'm so tired meaningless critiques from OLD WHITE MEN who don't care if we're mad over the Dead White men on the syllabus...Denby will one day not too far from now be a dead white man, and he probably wants his book in some Columbia canon.

    Read it. It sucks. Move on.

    PS. At least Professor Kitcher tries to respond to the needs of his students...oh right, Denby doesn't have any students, he critiques maybe he should stop talking about how Columbia professors should teach.

  8. ugh  

    poorly written indeed. I hope the rest of the core conference is covered with more insight...not to mention editorial oversight.

  9. haha

    "unlike Europeans, he explained, American students don't know how to place events in their historical context."

    Actually, it's unlike most people of the world. Americans have a peculiar lack of any sense of historical context. Maybe because most of their history is incredibly shameful- exploited slave labor working on the land of expelled natives dominates a good century of american history.

    • uncle sam  

      wrong you are my friend: those can all so easily be swept under the carpet of capitalist efficiency, manifest destiny, and, my favorite label of all, the century of progress!

  10. Anonymous  

    Well written! "Rotund little man," "perforated brains:" great stuff. As to the substance, I thought the last paragraph was particularly interesting. Indeed, in his book Denby, as I recall, refers almost not at all to the comments of his putative classmates. His focus is almost entirely on the teacher, and the texts.

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