Friday, September 03, 2010


At the WSJ, James Piereson argues for the superiority of Columbia's Core Curriculum over Harvard's (via the Spectrum).

I would tend to agree (though there may be a natural bias here in favoring the curriculum I have taught - i.e. Columbia's - over the one foisted upon me - i.e. Harvard's). In my ideal university, there's no set of core requirements, but if you're going to have a core, Columbia's is superior to Harvard's - it's intellectually consistent, there is a true rationale that can be articulated and defended, where Harvard's is an inconsistent hodgepodge....

The thing that irked me most as an undergraduate was that one so often seemed to be getting a watered-down version of the real thing - it was not possible to take a 'real' history department course to fill either one of the "Historical Studies A and B" requirements, for instance, one instead had to take classes specially designated for the core. This is why I prefer a distribution requirement system to a separate "core" - you ended up with huge lecture courses rather than being able to take, say, an upper-level seminar instead (I would like to think I could be trusted to get the basics on my own!).

That said, I suppose it is appropriate that some celebrity profs should teach absolutely huge lectures that anyone can take (I took Stephen Jay Gould's class for instance, I don't enjoy that sort of lecture because I would so much rather take in the information much faster and more efficiently by eye rather than ear, but I had a good discussion section leader for that class and it wasn't altogether a waste of time).

Some of the most boring classes I ever took were core classes (I will not name the professors, but they included classes on linguistics, Bach and World War I - in each case the discussion section leader was also quite poor - indeed, in the case of the WWI TA, she seemed to know virtually nothing about the subject, I felt I would have been better qualified to teach it myself as a college sophomore - I am sure I was a very annoying person for her to have in that class!).

On the other hand, there were some gems in Harvard's core too: I would have been quite unlikely to take the course on Political Obligation taught by Judith Shklar if it hadn't been for the "moral reasoning" requirement, and it was a fantastically good one; also very good was the course on the history of the development of the European state taught by Stanley Hoffman, Peter Hall and Tom Ertman (but in that case I also had Hall for my discussion section leader, and he was spectacularly good - the course must have been an earlier version of this).

I suppose when it comes down to it, I strongly prefer the seminar to the lecture as a format in the humanities and humanistic social sciences, and that was one of the shortcomings for me as a student in Harvard's core - if I want information to be imparted to me, or to get some sense of the basic methodology in a discipline, I would much rather read a book...

In the end, after three years teaching Literature Humanities at Columbia, I felt that I probably wouldn't do it again (and I did those three years due to the carrot-stick incentives that Columbia offers junior faculty); I love the format (the same group of first-year students for two hours twice a week over an entire year - you really get to see high-school students transform into fully-fledged independent college students, intellectually speaking!), but I felt that it was incredibly weird to be spending all my time teaching literature without access to the two things I most often rely upon in my departmental teaching, namely close reading (most texts are read in translation) and historical and cultural contexts (not the point of Lit Hum, and pretty much impossible to conjure up given multi-thousand-year curriculum).

The fall semester curriculum is built pretty tightly around the ancient Greeks, and works fairly well; the spring semester is a somewhat more ideologically loaded survey of "great books" across 2000 years, and seems to me significantly less satisfying to teach.

In short, my own version of a class like that would operate on the principle that I could do much more with a much narrower field of inquiry - give me a whole semester on Shakespeare, say, and I will be able to cultivate the same kinds of thinking that Lit Hum is supposed to encourage, only with a much more satisfying specificity.


  1. At Amherst we had no core or distribution req's and it didn't seem to do much harm. Guess a lot of English majors graduated without setting foot in a lab, but I don't think that was much of a loss, as no one has quite figured out how to construct science courses for non-majors that aren't, at some level, compendia of unjustified facts. (At least in the humanities one has _some_ tools left...) I completely agree about focus vs. breadth. The notion that college is about making people culturally literate seems to me horribly misguided; cultural literacy is easy to acquire on one's own, and one could (and should) be getting so much more out of one's courses.

  2. I think the article raises some good points. I will say that if I had to take classes in an area called "Culture and Belief" or "Aesthetic and Interpretative Understanding" I would have probably have burst out laughing. Such titles seem to me impossibly vague and broad. I understand the desire to avoid things like "Religion and Philosophy" but such terms as signifiers at least conjure up something in the mind of 16 and 17 year old college applicants.

    As a Core veteran... I'm not sure how I feel about it. Jenny, you raise a great point in that it is absolutely crucial in Core classes to have a good instructor. I was saddled with a terrible Theater Ph.D. student for Lit Hum, who did well with the Greeks but pretty badly with everything else, but conversely I had an amazing History grad student for CC, and that was one of the best courses I took at CU.

    I appreciate your point about the largely unified nature of Lit Hum Sem 1 versus Sem 2, but I actually preferred Sem 2 - it had the sort of tasting menu feel wherein if you didn't like a book, something completely different was coming up soon anyway. The Greeks got a little monotonous, especially for an 18 year old, and I also think that Sem 2 has a hidden strength in its magpie curriculum - the fantasy that this is some sort of unified whole is completely destroyed when you jump from Cervantes to Austen to Dostoevsky to Woolf in a 3 week span. The fiction that "this is the corpus you must learn" can't stand up to that kind of jumping, so you get to look at the trees a little more rather than try and define the forest.

    I loved CC, and I think that the social and political philosophy thread makes a great deal of sense and builds upon the prior readings much more coherently - but I think even more than Lit Hum it is dependent so much open your instructor. For me, I didn't mind having a subpar Lit Hum teacher because I knew that I was inherently interested in literature; for philosophy, I am sure that I would have been bored or lost with a bad teacher, and never tempted to return to the materials.

    I think Art and Music Hum are a little facile (luckily I tested out of Music Hum so I didn't have to deal with it) but no one ever was worse off by staring at or listening to works for art for 3 hours a week. We didn't have the Global Core when I was there - it was still Major Cultures - and that was probably the most fun part of the curriculum to complete, for me, other than CC. I had East Asian Humanities (which suffers the same problems as Lit Hum in terms of diffuseness, but has an extraordinary syllabus) and Latin American Hum 1900-present, which is a little more coherent in terms of themes but no less enjoyable.

    And of course there was the Science and Foreign Language reqs, and Logic and Rhetoric (which I loved, probably because my teacher had gone to CC and lived through L&R herself). I don't know, I find the idea of the core still a little silly, but it was a big draw for me 10 years ago when I was looking at CU, and I would have missed a lot of great works if I hadn't done it. I think that if the school were a little less self-important about the Core - and a little more willing to acknowledge its shortcomings - it would probably test a little less sour.

    Jenny, have you ever thought about teaching CC? I think you'd be amazing for it.

  3. Knowing little about the Columbia or Harvard programs, I do think that in general there should be some sort of cultural literacy crash course (maybe one that is 4 years long) for all college students. There should be a packet of stuff you get on day one of freshman year and have to hand in a week before graduation that shows that you know about STUFF. I know that sounds all Allan Bloomish, but with the culture wars being dead and all, and the internet having democratized all info, it's now Allan and Harold Bloom versus Snooki and Lady Gaga. No?

    Umberto Eco has a magnificent defense of fiction in the new P.E.N. journal and I realized that Eco (b. 1932) is probably the last of a certain type of writer who will assume his audience knows something. He uses 3 examples to illustrate his points: The Count of Monte Cristo, The Three Musketeers, The Red and the Black. Once upon a time you could bet that those books, due to both popularity and canonicity, would be known to a linguistically diverse group of readers. I had not read The Three Musketeers and Eco's examples made me feel so guilty about it!

  4. Semi-relatedly, is Allan or Harold "the Bloom / that is rubbed and questioned in the concert room"?