Columbia Beats Harvard! And?

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The quick takeaway from James Piereson’s recent WSJ op-ed (excerpted from a longer piece in The New Criterion), “Where Columbia Beats Harvard”: our Core Curriculum is far superior to Harvard’s set of abstruse distribution requirements. So that’s neat! In fact, add to this upset CU’s recent jump up those knuckleheaded US News rankings, and Columbia is well on its way to, um, becoming Harvard! Which is what we all really want, right?

But what does it mean to favor an unchanging syllabus over one that allows its students a good deal more choice? Buckle up, Fourteeners—Piereson’s piece brings with it your first bout of Core-induced self-reflection!

The two curricular models, Piereson notes, are historically at odds. While Harvard only last year installed a new version of their “Core Curriculum” (now the Program in General Education), it’s still largely distributional. Students take courses in a number of areas organized around the idea of “understand[ing] the sources of change in modern life,” including “Aesthetic and Interpretive Understanding,” “Ethical Reasoning,” and “United States in the World.” (Bwog is quoting from the version in The New Criterion, as it’s less reductive, and also not published by Rupert Murdoch.)

Piereson suggests that Harvard’s list of distribution requirements stresses a concern for how you study, rather than what you study, and bemoans the resulting lack of structure. While Harvard presumes the undergrad will have a set of principles to guide course selection, Piereson worries, “What principles will guide the choice of principles?”

The Core, meanwhile, stands for Piereson as a beacon of stability, resistant to the pressures of academia that force Harvard’s curricular revisions. Pragmatically, it provides “a common vocabulary of for all members of an institution and a baseline of knowledge on which academic specialization and non-classroom discussions can build.” Though Literature Humanities may preclude you from taking upper-level courses freshman year, well, maybe it should: you’ll be better prepared for (and will get more out of) those seminars, the argument goes, with a thorough grounding in the classics.

All the same, Piereson’s characterization of Harvard’s curriculum as wishy-washy isn’t quite fair, nor, we must admit, is his Core-hyping. He notes that the Core often suffers in quality—it’s expensive, and Mark Lilla, multi-tasker though he may be, can’t teach every section.

Piereson also dismisses, perhaps too casually, the now-familiar complaint that the Core tilts disproportionately toward Dead White European Males. Let’s snicker at his close-mindedness and leave it at that.

This, along with Piereson’s disdain for recent academic trends and The New Criterion’s decidedly conservative cultural bent, makes it easy to cast the curriculum debate along ideological lines. While one could consider Harvard’s constant curricular reevaluation liberal, and our eternal Core more traditionalist-conservative, it’s not so simple and partisan.

Rest easy, Freshies: Columbia’s not telling you to agree with Plato (though you probably should). Instead, the Core Curriculum exists to give an understanding of where he slots into the long-term human intellectual project. It’s grounded in the idea that a successful liberal arts education will draw upon an appreciation of that project. As quoted by Piereson, former CU president Nicholas Murray Butler (yes, that Butler) is firm on the Core being bigger than ideology:

“For those students enamored of the cruder and more stupid forms of radicalism, early instruction on the origin and development of modern civilization and the part that time plays in building and perfecting human institutions is of the greatest value. For those who are afflicted with the more stubborn forms of conservatism, early appreciation of the face that movement is characteristic of life and that change may be constructive as well as destructive is most desirable.”

The Core, then, fits somewhere in the middle.




  1. BWOG!!!! HELP!!!  


  2. Anonymous  


  3. CULPA is up

    Try restarting your Computer

  4. Hooah  

    No, CULPA is definitely down. It is destroying us all.

  5. ...  

    so whereas harvard features a bullshit buffet, columbia stands true to more of a carved in stone prix fixe bullshit model.

    i wonder if harvard's bullshit buffet is served up out of a kitchen of inexperienced and disinterested graduate students, like columbia's far superior system.

    more importantly, i wonder which of these two systems best prepares kids for living in williamsburg and cashing trust fund checks...

  6. Escapee

    The provenance of each curriculum is somewhat amusing. The short version:

    The early late 19th century saw the rise of the "University movement" - places like Johns Hopkins were founded explicitly to be research institutions and training grounds of future researchers (i.e. graduate students). Colonial and early american colleges needed to figure out how to adapt, because research minded faculty didn't want to teach fixed curricula courses which were only marginally related to their specialties to grubby undergrads (sound familiar?).

    To solve the problem at his school, Harvard's president "invented" the elective system: graduate faculty could teach courses in their specialty to undergrads who would now have a choice in classes instead of a prescribed curriculum. Professors were happy, and alumni who cared about undergraduate alumni were happy.

    At Columbia this wasn't a problem: unlike at Harvard, Columbia had already successfully marginalized all of its alumni, and simply segregated its faculty - the graduate faculty never had to bother teaching undergrads. The College had its own dedicated small faculty. 20 years later, with nothing better to do, they decided to invent the Core.

    In sum: Harvard invented the elective system to make sure students had access to all faculty. Columbia didn't because it couldn't give a shit about undergrads.

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