Core Curricula and the Modern World

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Bwog was impressed with this weekend’s Core conference, which got a lot of important professors to put their convictions and opinions on the line. No panel was more emotionally invested than the last, however, where sly references could be ego-bruising digs. For instance, Philip Kitcher called a panelist a “Platonic form” after the panelist had railed against his perceived stodginess. SNAP! Correspondent John Shekitka breaks it down:

This last session of the day-long symposium reexamining the Core Curriculum was moderated by Comparative Literature professor Andreas Huyssen, who set the tone for much of the discussion when he asked: “why can’t there be courses bringing together material from Major Cultures and Lit Hum?” In some ways, the debate is binary (traditionalists vs. globalists), and Huyssen falls into the latter camp. In his opinion, there’s no need to pit Europe against the world, and cultural combinations would expand, not diminish, our imagination. A panoply of opinions followed from a range of well-known and influential professors, who delivered their speeches with unusually heightened emotion.

First History Professor Janaki Bakhle, with characteristic frankness, asked what we’re trying to accomplish with the Core. “Teaching the fundamentals of your culture”? “General Education”? “Finding oneself, if you are black or brown or gay”? No, she argued; the Core– and liberal education in general– is about pushing students to think in non-insular ways. Bakhle lamented that she’ll never teach Lit Hum, because the entire first semester is Greek texts—no Scandinavian epics, no Gilgamesh, no selections from the Vedas. CC has done a better job in this regard, she said, as it represents a relatively diverse array of sources. Finally, she noted that evaluating the history of how and why one set of texts become canonical and others don’t should be an important part of the conversation.

Former CC chair and Classics professor James Zetzel began by giving a concise definition of the courses in the Core: “Art Hum teaches one to see, Music Hum to hear, Lit Hum to read and CC to think.” Those missions don’t require a specific set of texts: internal coherence is the important part of the exercise, not the content. This seemed odd, considering how strongly he argued for the traditional syllabus. Professor Zetzel argued against a comparative approach, suggesting that comparing Socrates with Confucius was a patronizing exercise, and rejecting recent inclusions of Rawls, MacKinnon and Foucault, whom he deemed “unreadable.” We need to teach Western Civilization, but we must do more than to just celebrate it, he said.

Howard Professor Eleanor Traylor, the only non-Columbian on the panel, standing out in her sparkly sunglasses and fur-trimmed shawl, quoted DuBois in suggesting that the point of a Core Curriculum was to create men of intelligence, broad sympathy, and knowledge of the world and his relation to it. Unfortunately, she spoke only briefly of Howard’s Core, a two-semester course that includes a diverse set of texts, including selections from the Republic, the Tale of Genji, and the writings of Frederick Douglass, all placed together in one volume (as was done for many years with CC). “My colleagues and I teach the soul of black folks, while my fellow panelists teach the soul of white folks,” she said to some chuckles. Is there a difference in what should be taught, I wonder? Judging by her quick discussion of the Howard syllabus, as well as the suggestions of the panelists, there seems to be more common ground than difference.

Then for Professor Mahmood Mamdani, who noted that when he came to Columbia in 1990, he realized that this was a very different kind of university: while many schools are regional institutions, Columbia is like ancient Rome, in that it envisions itself as a global entity and that is stands in the center of the modern American imperium. He raised two particular problems with CC. The first was in its name. CC should be recognized for what it is – A History of the West, not capital C Civilization. Second, he cast a vote on the side of broadening the syllabus beyond the Western canon, proclaiming, stoutly, that the world was coming to “the end of 500 years of Western domination,” and that changes in education would have to accompany this shift.

In the limited Q&A session, Professor Wm. Theodore de Bary reminded us that this conversation is hardly new, and it’s based on perennial themes. When he took Contemporary Civilization in 1937, his professor Dean Carman (yes, that Carman) remarked that CC only represented one part of the globe, and that there were many other parts to study. In part as a response to this point, the program in Asian Humanities was designed to run as a parallel to the courses in Lit Hum and CC.

CC Chair Philip Kitcher gave the concluding remarks for the session, explaining that one way we can justify the Core—advocated by David Denby in Friday’s Keynote—is as a way to teach students about ‘Our Culture.’ This is problematic, not only because students are far more diverse than the authors in the Core, but also because no one can claim this history as their own. The Core Curriculum is about themes and problems, not about paying homage to spiritual and intellectual ancestors. Perhaps it isn’t such a bad idea of putting Confucius alongside Plato, he ended. And where Kitcher goes, so may the Core.

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  1. Yeah well  

    The conference also resulted in a lot of self-important professors unable to figure out which lines to stand in at Cafe 212.

  2. awesome  

    awesome post. well done bwog.

  3. tell me  

    "My colleagues and I teach the soul of black folks, while my fellow panelists teach the soul of white folks"

    I laughed when I read this because of course the stereotype is that we read Dead White Males, but "The Souls of Black Folk" is actually on the 2nd semester CC Syllabus, so was she being ironic or just poking fun at our majority Dead-White-Male syllabus?

  4. WAIT

    "Bakhle lamented that she'll never teach Lit Hum, because the entire first semester is Greek texts."

    What is being implied? That the core office won't let her teach the course because she has no specialization? (Can't be the case. My Lit Hum grad student was in the french and romance philology department.) If so, then the Core office is doing a tremendous disservice to columbia students and should be taken to task.

    Or that she refuses to teach material she doesn't specialize in? If this is the case, shame on Bakhle for missing the point- the core is about breaking down the barriers between specializations. Thinking like hers is why only 9 of 58 lit hum sections this semester are being taugt by senior faculty members. And that's a pathetic travesty.

    BWOG, or RUDY, please provide clarification. Thanks.

  5. isn't

    The Souls of White Folk an essay by Du Bois when he's angry and bitter later in life? Because that's in the CC reader too...

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