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.
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