East Coast or No Coast: How UChicago’s Core Stacks up Against Our Own

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In “Significant Other,” Conor Skelding examines the Core at the University of Chicago and how it compares to our own. Look for this and more in the April issue of The Blue & White, on campus this week.

The Core Curriculum is the defining feature of Columbia College’s intellectual identity. Undergraduates who chose Columbia specifically for its curriculum—seeking the “wide- ranging perspectives on classic works of literature, philosophy, history, music, art, and science” touted by Columbia brochures—very probably also considered the University of Chicago.

On the surface, the schools are similar: both undergraduate colleges are situated within a prominent research university in a major metropolis, and both boast a robust general education grounded in the Western canon. In addition, both venerable curricula are undergoing significant changes as they adapt to contemporary sentiments in education.

Still, for all they have in common, these two educations are far from identical. Chicago’s “Common Core” is not organized around cornerstone courses like Columbia’s Lit Hum and CC. Rather, their Common Core requires that students choose two or three “Hume” courses, three Social Science (“Sosc”) classes, two or three under Civilization, and one or two in Art, Music, or Drama. It’s not “Common” at all. Finally, students must take five to seven math and science courses (far more rigorous than Frontiers), in addition to fulfilling language and physical education requirements.

These various tracks provide a self-selective slant to Chicago’s Core: while some are less demanding, others offer a rigorous, traditional sequence in the Great Books. For instance, students on the Classics track engage deeply with the same thinkers taught in Lit Hum and CC. More zealous students major in “Foundations,” a deep and broad sequence in the traditional liberal arts, which spans all four years. Columbia, on the other hand, takes a more centralized approach: one track for all, Global Core and science requirements excepted.

Mark Lilla, a professor of humanities who has taught Core classes at both schools, believes Columbia’s unified curriculum is “far superior” to Chicago’s decentralized equivalent. Literature Humanities and Contemporary Civilization follow a more traditional progression of texts, whereas Chicago’s flexible regimen has, Lilla says, reduced its Common Core to “just one more requirement to get through”—more akin to general education requirements at other colleges. Moreover, brief, quarter-long, courses fail to foster the kind of year-long bond that the right Lit Hum adjunct can form with the right class.

At Columbia, the popular perception is that institutionally, Chicagoans are more serious intellectually. Lilla disagrees: “To my surprise, Columbia students are more enthusiastic.” It would appear, however, that the enthusiasm Lilla identifies in Columbians may be relatively short-lived. He observes, “I find [the two student bodies] equally curious in their first two years, but after that, something happens to Columbia students when they are busy pursuing their majors. They lose the thread and become more professionally oriented.” He contends, “We don’t do a good job of connecting the Core experience to what happens after.” With the advent of junior year and graduation, students become more outwardly focused, looking to secure an internship and a future rather than cultivate a relationship with the Great Books.

Accordingly, the most important difference between the schools may not be curricular, but cultural. Roosevelt Montás, CC ’95, and Director of the Center for the Core Curriculum, believes that the Core at Columbia is strong on the whole. According to Montás, students generally complete the reading, although that varies by section.

Illustration by Chantal McStay, CC ’15

However, a quick look at Bwog comments reveals pervasive cynicism among students regarding Core participation. Chicago, apparently, has well-entrenched undergraduate culture of dedication and curiosity. Nathan Tarcov, Professor of Political Science at Chicago since 1978, has taught Classics of Social and Political Thought, an analogue of CC, for many years. He finds that Chicago succeeds in nourishing and sustaining their students’ intellectual intensity. “My sense—as chair, I read the course evaluations for the whole course—is that most students are enthusiastic about the Core and, for some, it is life-changing.”

Graduate and undergraduate students echo his sentiment. Helen Beilinson, UChicago ’14, a biology major, suggests Chicago’s academic culture is one of positive peer pressure. “If you don’t do the reading,” she muses, “people sort of look at you, like, ‘Oh, you didn’t do the reading?’ because it only takes a few hours.”

Donald Laackman, UChicago ’12, will graduate with a B.A. in math. He, like Beilinson, describes positive academic peer pressure at Chicago. In “one of the more serious Sosc classes, everyone did all the reading. In my easier Hume class, I would say most kids did 60 or 70 percent of the reading, some of us did it all, and one kid did none.” This points to one benefit of UChicago’s decentralized Core: serious students end up together in the more demanding classes. Though this breeds less school unity than Columbia’s curriculum, it fosters more student participation.

But even if, as Lilla, Beilinson, and Laackman have noted, social pressure to do the reading is stronger at Chicago, the Core’s extracurricular social effect is the same. “If you’re at a party and you need to talk to someone, you usually talk about Common Core classes,” says Beilinson. Some things do survive translation.

Giuliano Wrobel, UChicago ’14, does allow that not every student is wholly behind the Core. A double major in math and computer science, Wrobel admits that “for the people who are trying to do more than one major, there is definitely not a super high level of enthusiasm.” Nonetheless, the student body believes itself “more devoted than anybody” with regard to the liberal arts, specifically when compared to Columbia students.

Nick Juravich, UChicago ’06 and a Columbia History PhD candidate, recalls being “aware that Columbia had [a Core], but Columbia is a big east coast Ivy, whereas we were out in the gray Midwestern citadel.” Chicagoans, then, chose the school for neither Ivy League bragging rights nor for the business or pleasure to be found in New York City, but for a more monastic mode of scholarship.

Saskia Sassen, Professor of Sociology first at UChicago and now at Columbia, agrees. Hyde Park is remote; “there is no Manhattan or Brooklyn.” As for the student bodies: “It’s almost a tribal thing abroad, [graduates] have so much pride for saying, ‘I am from Chicago.’ ” She adds: “My experience at Chicago was a real engagement [on the part of the students] with difficult intellectual questions. Some Columbia students are not very interested in those questions.”

Her final verdict on Chicago? “It is a very intense place.”

Moreover, Chicago clearly distinguishes itself from Columbia in terms faculty engagement. “For some reason, in the culture of Chicago, that eminence [of the Core] is broadcasted,” explains Thomas Meaney, UChicago ’04 and Columbia History Ph.D candidate. “If you’re an older professor, you absolutely want to teach the Core, it’s not a burden at all.” This is largely incongruous with Columbia College’s model, in which many first-years’ first seminar experience is led by a graduate instructor only a few years older than them.

John W. Boyer, Dean of the College at UChicago since 1992, innocently denigrates Columbia, musing that, “If you have a Core and it’s taught mostly by adjuncts or grad students, that’s a sign that the faculty don’t really believe in it.”

Senior Columbia faculty have acknowledged this problem. The resignation of Columbia College Dean Michelle Moody-Adams led to a crisis of conscience over the direction of the college and its commitment to maintaining an expensive set of Core seminars. In a feature on the college’s upheaval in Capital New York (by former Bwog Editor Eliza Shapiro), Lit Hum Chair Christia Mercer noted the rapidly declining proportion of faculty teaching the Core. “We have more students [taking the Core] and a lower percentage of faculty teaching them,” she confirmed. Successive class expansions forced Core section sizes to exceed what were hard caps. Chicago’s professor-taught Core classes, on the other hand, appear to be shrinking. Professor Tarcov noted a “significant improvement in lowering the section cap from 22 to 19, which I find makes discussions much better.”

President Bollinger’s avowed goal is for the university to, “over the course of this century, fulfill its aspirations to be a center of research […] unparalleled in the world.” This is the inherent financial tension between the college’s robust (and expensive) core curriculum and the major research university within which it is set. But Bollinger’s strategy of slow, imperceptible change can elude the notice of undergraduates who are only here four years. Andrew Delbanco, Director of American Studies and Professor in the Humanities, in a speech at Columbia’s Casa Italiana, cited the existence of “a real threat to the Core […] not sudden abolition so much as slow attrition.”

But UChicago may be running a parallel course to Columbia’s. Juravich bemoans “a general and unfortunate trend away from a broad liberal education towards a very professionalized approach”— not unlike Columbia’s recent addition of an openly preprofessional undergraduate special concentration in Business Management.

Juravich attributes Chicago’s slide towards professionalism in part to Robert Zimmer, president of the university since 2006. “Zimmer is more in a Lee Bollinger mode, running the university [in a way that] McKinsey might like, more like a business. I know he’s reduced the Core,” he said. Beilinson, too, hinted at Chicagoan crisis of conscience. Hesitating to believe in any real threat to the Core, she allows that decisions including Chicago’s migration to the Common App suggest that “Zimmer is definitely more of a businessman” than his predecessor Michael Randel, whom Noel Moore, UChicago ’81 and involved alumnus, called a “devotee to a dying breed of liberal arts.”

For all its virtue, could Chicago be shifting away from the gray, Midwestern citadel? Beilinson muses, “A lot of people are upset, feeling that UChicago is becoming more Ivy League, trying to accept less people.”

Will the admissions literature of Columbia and UChicago continue to boast of the rigor and uniqueness of their core curricula while simultaneously and hypocritically allowing them to move toward Delbanco’s death of “slow attrition”? That’s not clear.

Utterly apparent, however, is Chicago students’ earnest dedication to their Core. Chicagoans all throughout the university stress the student body’s intense, reciprocal pressure to truly engage with one another and the Core’s difficult questions. To implement cultural change is a nearly impossible task, but it’s one Columbia must undertake

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  1. Anonymous  

    There are no required courses at UChicago, only certain categories of courses that students must take. Elsewhere, these are called distribution requirements. (See: https://collegeadmissions.uchicago.edu/pdfs/thecore.pdf)

    This surely accounts for some of the difference in faculty enthusiasm, as professors there can teach core classes in their own specializations.

    • Anonymous

      Chicago's Core is very different from distribution requirements, except perhaps in math and science. Core humanities, social sciences, and civilizations sequences are designed specifically as such. There are a few options for the sequences you choose-for example, one with a more of a philosophy approach or a literature approach-but there is huge overlap in the texts covered in the different sequences, and all of the courses are designed with the same goals in mind. Nearly every student graduates having read Marx, Smith, Durkheim, Plato, and others even if they chose different sequences.

  2. Anonymous  

    Being located in NYC does not detract from our intellectual pursuits or overall engagement with the Core. Rather, in many ways, it does the opposite. The resources available in the city bring the Core to life by allowing us to engage with the various intellectual issues raised by the Core through various venues in the city that raise the same issues.

  3. glad i came to  

    columbia but at the same time, it sounds like u of chicago could have been a better fit for me.

    kiddos out there: think about class sizes & engagement of professors seriously before going to a college or university. i thought about those things.... i thought i knew what i wanted but i didn't.

  4. Reed  

    i transferred from Reed to Barnard, and i was surprised to hear how similar the Core is at Columbia to "olde Reed" Hum 110. (so pre-Fall 2010.) the difference is you guys actually leave antiquity and focus on other shit and Reed never does. this unfortunately means that you guys miss out on ancient fart jokes by Aristophanes.

  5. Reed  

    i transferred from Reed to Barnard, and i was surprised to hear how similar the Core is at Columbia to "olde Reed" Hum 110. (so pre-Fall 2010.) the difference is you guys actually leave antiquity and focus on other shit and Reed never does. definitely a point in favor of Columbia's Core, but you do miss out on most excellent ancient fart jokes by Aristophanes, and useful life advice from Hesiod (don't piss facing the sun, it is bad form to cut your nails at religious festivals, etc.).

  6. Really?  

    There was no mention of how UChicago's "core" is more like Barnard's "core"?

  7. Anonymous

    Columbia's is better. Small seminar classes that everyone takes. Chicago's are basically just large lecture distribution requirements.

  8. PrezBo meet  


  9. Anonymous  

    UChicago can go suck it. But at the same time, this article made me rethink my blind love of PrezBo and his hair... DELBANCO FOR DEAN PLEASE

  10. Mike K

    What was the author's point? He started out comparing the two core curricula, then talked a bit about the admissions policy, and ended on a weird rant about Zimmer (although he does indeed suck). Did you never have to write papers?

  11. Anonymous

    The poor quality of writing this article displays indicates far more about the quality of Columbia's core than I could ever assert. There's no clear point to the argument (really, there isn't even a clear argument!).

    As a current UChicago student who has taken the Classics of Social and Political Thought sequence, I could not disagree more with what Helen Beilinson stated. We do the reading because we are invested in the intellectual exploration inherent in discussion and participation. There's a reason why we can choose among several options to fulfill a certain requirement-- we end up in a class that interests us far beyond the mere graduation requirement. Columbia is making a mistake by decreasing choice in the core. It discourages interest and intellectual excitement and increases the prevalence of the only-for-the-grad-requirement attitude.

    • Anonymous

      As a U of C grad, I am appalled and embarrassed by association that you, a current U of C student, would idiotically conclude from the less-than-stellar writing of one Columbia student that you know anything at all about the merits of his or her school's entire curriculum.

      You make me worry far less about either school's Core, but deeply terrified about what the admissions office has been doing to my alma mater.

  12. Anonymous

    As another UChicago student I say, "Dude, don't be a dick."

  13. Random Columbia student  

    UChicago, do you have nothing else to do than to travel to Columbia's Bwog and smugly remark about how you think you are better than us? Don't you have your own student run newspaper to terrorize?

  14. Anonymous

    In high school, I once wrote an article comparing my school to a similar school in Illinois. So, Conor Skelding, I am officially your kindred spirit.

  15. Anonymous

    Someone linked me, so I read this, and I might as well offer my spoonful of perspective.

    It is silly to try and compare the two Cores, especially after you are fortunate enough to have already committed to an undergraduate experience at either one of these excellent institutions. What, are you going to transfer if you become convinced that the Core at the other school is superior? I didn't think so. Often, the only data that is useful is the kind that helps you make a decision.

    As a U of C alum living in NY with many friends from both schools, I will say that a few years out, no one discusses either Core. The graduates of both schools are usually far too interesting and immersed in their current pursuits to bicker about whose undergraduate academic experience was superior. Everyone is too busy changing the world and having a great time. It may be hard to believe.. but we all even have friends who *gasp*, say, went to Brown (no Core at all). In fact, very few people ever even mention where they went to for undergrad. Everyone simply talks about what they want to do next.. which is the healthy thing.

    Your time would be better spent playing some ultimate frisbee with, making out with, or writing songs for (whatever floats your boat) the nearest attractive person than writing or reading these kids of articles.. although I see how much work Chantal put into getting all of these quotes.

  16. U of C Student

    As a U of C student, I think that this article propagates a few (intentionally) misleading points about our core: first, that we can choose a minimum number of courses in each of the Humanities, Sosc, Civ, etc. sequences. In reality, if a student chooses, for example, to do 2 Hum classes, they must do 3 Civ. The core sequence comprises about half our UG coursework. Also, regarding the disjunctive nature of our core: although each course is technically a separate class with a separate grade, they operate in year-long sequences that are completed in a particular order.

    Re the "intensity of students" thing, I think the intellectual reputation of UChicago stems from the fact that until recently the U of C, unlike Columbia, has had very little name recognition. (People still think I go to a state school...) Very few people go to U of C because of its name recognition or anything like that. We go because we enjoy studying and learning and doing our reading. Columbia students probably enjoy these things too, but at UChicago, the intellectual community is the main reason we chose the school. Although there is peer pressure to work and read, we all CHOSE to attend a school with a community that would foster these intellectual ventures.

    Lastly, writing an article about "why my school's core is better" is just stupid and exhibits the un-nuanced, problematic thinking that the U of C core teaches us to reject. L8r h8rz.

  17. Anonymous

    I have to give it to U of C for deciding to emulate Columbia instead of that other school


  18. Anonymous

    1) Mark Lilla as usual is right about everything. Suddenly in this first semester of this (junior) year, I became really really into making sure I get a job, and not as much into thinking great thoughts and reading great books. I don't know what happened. (Also I think it's connected to the broader problem of a complete lack of humanities positions in academia, and the even broader problem of the job market, which makes pre-professional coursework and internships virtually indispensable if you want a job right out of college).

    2) I don't know where that Montas guy got the absurd idea that most students finish the reading in the core. Among all of my friends, people are greeted with amazed lauding when they claim to have actually read every book cover to cover. And I suppose that people are greeted with disappointed headshakes and\or silent judgment when they say they didn't read anything. I'd say the average is for people to read 50-75% of LitHum reading, and 40-60% of CC reading. Maybe a little higher than that, but not much.

  19. just this guy, you know?  

    I'm all for David Hume, but 2 or 3 required classes?

  20. CC'14  

    Comparing University of Chicago and Columbia is like comparing a Ford and a Mercedes. Both will get you from Point A to Point B using pretty much the same underlying ideas, but a Mercedes gets you laid.

    • Anonymous

      I'm a U of C alumn, but I'm actually fine with that Ford/Mercedes analogy. We Chicagoans buy the car for the love of the drive, not because we're trying to impress some chick. In fact, if you're buying that Mercedes, in all likelihood its because you are compensating for something smaller.

      Pick up a f*cking book, Plato, Marx, Durkheim, Nietzsche, whatever, and read it for its own sake, not because you want to brag to some hottie about "estrangement of labor." Trust me, that won't do anything for you in the real world...it won't get you a job and it won't get you laid. If you are looking for that, take an econ class. (By the way, we do that better too.)

      But I'm not going to lecture you on which school is superior. UChicago gave me the single greatest intellectual experience of my life, and I'm sure you feel the same way about Columbia. More schools in general should have a core, and we should be proud that ours do. However, I will say that no one at UChicago pretends that the core is a means to an end...we treat liberal education it as an end in and of itself. That's what we at UChicago call the "Life of the Mind." Some students won't shut up in class until they let you know just how much they think they know about Kant, but that's a different problem. And at least they sure as hell don't pretend that it will get them laid.

      Speaking of which, contrary to popular belief, we do get laid at UChicago. It's not always pretty, but we make do with what we have.

    • Anonymous

      If we're supposed to be so high class, why not act like it?

  21. Anonymous  

    This has brought to my attention that the UChicago emblem is the same as an ADTR album cover.

  22. Anonymous

    Surprising number of Chicago commenters here. Weird.

  23. Twitch

    ...are we located in New York city? I haven't been below 108th street in so long, it's hard to tell.

  24. the mckinsey

    way is totally bewitching--Hammurabi you might say. they're coming after our university the way they came after our undergrads. did you know some years ago, McK was a big recruiter? then one year the class collectively rebelled: few, if any took their offer. McK was burned, and now they want to burn us.

  25. Anonymous

    hahaha this article barely took a stance on one or the other. truth be told it doesn't matter at all which one is more rigorous or has more options. at the end of the day both universities want to be seen as having highly intellectual student bodies (even if they really are not). There are only so many ways you can spin the word "philosophy" around before it becomes apparent that no matter what sequences you choose for Hum and Sosc, you will be reading almost all the same authors. There should be a core but it should consist less of inapplicable studies of philosophical theories and have a broader range of interests in mind. There are people who truly want to study certain things very in depth but are unable to until maybe the end of second year because the core forces them to read and reread Marx for no applicable reason besides intellectual curiosity. This is just my opinion but if the core were less theoretical and more diverse/applicable in its topics then less people would be arguing between schools of who has things worse. This type of complaining is a grand example of a first world problem. All I know is that everyone would be complaining regardless of whether or not they were at U of C or Columbia. Both are superfluously rigorous for the sake of image.

  26. Anonymous

    "Foundations" does not exist. I believe you mean "Fundamentals: Issues and Texts."

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