Columbia University Archives

Core Curriculum records, 1937-2020, bulk 1937-1995

Summary Information


The Core Curriculum records contain teaching and administrative materials chiefly pertaining to the longstanding Columbia College courses Contemporary Civilization and Humanities A (now called Literature Humanities). Materials include syllabi, exams, quizzes, teaching resources, administrative correspondence and memos, and curricular reviews and reports. The Core Curriculum records contain limited material pertaining to Core classes beyond Contemporary Civilization and Literature Humanities.

At a Glance

Call No.: UA#0132
Bib ID 6953649 View CLIO record
Creator(s) Columbia College (Columbia University)
Title Core Curriculum records, 1937-2020, bulk 1937-1995
Physical Description 13.86 linear feet (33 document boxes)
Language(s) English .
Access You will need to make an appointment in advance to use this collection material in the Rare Book and Manuscript Library reading room. You can schedule an appointment once you've submitted your request through your Special Collections Research Account.

All administrative records of the University are restricted for 25 years from the date of creation.

This collection is located onsite.



This collection is arranged in six series and several subseries.


Scope and Content

The Core Curriculum Records contains a range of materials from various offices, departments, and committees that have administered or been involved with Columbia College's Core Curriculum. Nearly all materials pertain to either Contemporary Civilization or Humanities A (now called Literature Humanities), though a very small portion of the materials have to do with other Core courses. The Records consist of course materials such as syllabi, exams, quizzes, and teaching resources; as well as administrative records, which include correspondence, staffing and enrollment documents, review committee documents, and other materials. Administrative documents discuss the mission of the Core Curriculum, course content, pedagogy and educational goals, as well as organizational issues such as staffing and staff benefits. Teaching resources include bibliographies, study guides, published articles, and teaching aids. The first series contains course materials and program review documents for Contemporary Civilization (CC), the earliest Core course. Materials pertaining to the first 18 years of CC are not included here, as in the course's first years syllabi were published as book-length course outlines by Columbia University Press. Those syllabi, called Introduction to Contemporary Civilization; a Syllabus, and other materials such as early textbooks are available in Butler Library stacks as well as in the University Archives publication collection. The second series contains course materials, including quizzes, and program review documents for Humanities A/Literature Humanities. The series contains no syllabi or materials for Humanities A's predecessor course General Honors, which ran from 1919 to 1928 and again briefly in the 1930s. Series III contains program review documents pertaining either to both Contemporary Civilization and Humanities or to General Education and the Core as a whole. Series IV contains the limited amount of material contained in these Records pertaining to non-CC or Humanities Core courses, such as Art Humanities, Major Cultures, African Civilizations, and Frontiers of Science. Series V contains administrative files for both CC and Humanities, including administrative and external correspondence, staffing and enrollment documents, materials related to the weekly Core lunches and speaker series, student prizes, and Spectator clippings. The final series contains the complete Core Library Catalogue (a wide-ranging bibliography) from circa 2000.

  • Series I: Contemporary Civilization, 1937-2007

    This series includes syllabi, assignments, exams, paper topics, teaching aids and bibliographies, and reports and revisions.

  • Series II: Humanities, 1937-1999

    This series consists of syllabi, exams, quizzes, classroom materials, and teaching resources, and reports and revisions. This series contains no materials for Humanities B, the optional art and music course.

  • Series III: General Education and Core Curriculum Review, 1966-1985

    This series contains proposals to merge Humanities and Contemporary Civilization, reports on the Core Curriculum as a whole, and proposals for the integration of courses focused on "non-Western" literature, culture, philosophy, and history into either the Core or specific majors.

  • Series IV: Art Humanities, Extended Core and Frontiers of Science, 1987-2005

    This series contains the Core Curriculum Records' limited amount of material related to non-C.C. or -Lit Hum Core courses: folders pertain to Art Humanities, Major Cultures, African Civilizations, and Frontiers of Science. Types of materials include syllabi, lists of course offerings, and course packets.

  • Series V: Administrative Files, 1951-2004

    This series contains Core office correspondence, staffing end enrollment documents, and materials related to Core weekly luncheon meetings, student prizes, and Spectator Clippings. The series includes 5 subseries.

  • Series VI: Core Library Catalogue, circa, 2000

    This series contains the complete Core Library Catalogue, an extensive bibliographic resource for instructors and students. The Catalogue is broken down by Author and by Subject, and includes a Reference List.

  • Series VII: Core Centennial, 2019-2020

    This series contains materials, primarily cards filled out by alumni, created for the Core Centennial celebrations held by Columbia College in 2019-2020. Additional material related to the centennial can be found in Historical Subject Files.

Using the Collection

Rare Book and Manuscript Library

Restrictions on Access

You will need to make an appointment in advance to use this collection material in the Rare Book and Manuscript Library reading room. You can schedule an appointment once you've submitted your request through your Special Collections Research Account.

All administrative records of the University are restricted for 25 years from the date of creation.

This collection is located onsite.

Terms Governing Use and Reproduction

Single photocopies may be made for research purposes. The RBML maintains ownership of the physical material only. Copyright remains with the creator and his/her heirs. The responsibility to secure copyright permission rests with the patron.

Preferred Citation

a Identification of specific item; Date (if known); Core Curriculum records; Box and Folder; University Archives, Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Columbia University in the City of New York.


Additions are expected

Materials have been added to the collection since this finding aid was prepared. Contact for more information.

Immediate Source of Acquisition

1992.001: Source of acquisition--5.5 linear feet of the Core Curriculum records were accessioned from the Humanities Program and Contemporary Civilization Office, Hamilton Hall, in 1992. Additional records from that office were transferred between 1992 and 1995. In 2017, additional records were accessioned from Columbia College and the Department of English and Comparative Literature.

About the Finding Aid / Processing Information

Columbia University Libraries, Rare Book and Manuscript Library

Processing Information

The records were first processed prior to 1995 by Rhea Pliakas and her staff. Dr. Marilyn Pettit revised the finding aid and notes in 2001. In 2018, newly accrued records were integrated into the the collection, tripling them in size, and a finding aid was written by Will Glovinsky (GSAS 2020).

Revision Description

2018-05-24 File created.

2019-05-20 EAD was imported spring 2019 as part of the ArchivesSpace Phase II migration.

2020-01-06 Removed expired restrictions.

2021-01-11 Removed expired restrictions. (JR)

Subject Headings

The subject headings listed below are found in this collection. Links below allow searches at Columbia University through the Archival Collections Portal and through CLIO, the catalog for Columbia University Libraries, as well as ArchiveGRID, a catalog that allows users to search the holdings of multiple research libraries and archives.

All links open new windows.


Heading "CUL Archives:"
"CUL Collections:"
"Nat'l / Int'l Archives:"
Administrative reports Portal CLIO ArchiveGRID
Curricula Portal CLIO ArchiveGRID
Examination study guides Portal CLIO ArchiveGRID
Examinations (documents) Portal CLIO ArchiveGRID
Memorandums Portal CLIO ArchiveGRID
Notes (documents) Portal CLIO ArchiveGRID
Syllabi Portal CLIO ArchiveGRID


Heading "CUL Archives:"
"CUL Collections:"
"Nat'l / Int'l Archives:"
Barzun, Jacques, 1907-2012 Portal CLIO ArchiveGRID
Curriculum planning Portal CLIO ArchiveGRID
De Bary, Wm. Theodore, 1919-2017 Portal CLIO ArchiveGRID
Education Portal CLIO ArchiveGRID
Education -- Curricula Portal CLIO ArchiveGRID
Stern, Fritz, 1926-2016 Portal CLIO ArchiveGRID
Trilling, Lionel, 1905-1975 Portal CLIO ArchiveGRID
Universities and colleges Portal CLIO ArchiveGRID
Van Doren, Mark, 1894-1972 Portal CLIO ArchiveGRID

History / Biographical Note

History of the Core Curriculum

Contemporary Civilization and General Honors

Columbia's Core Curriculum began with the 1919 introduction of Contemporary Civilization, the peacetime successor to a "War Issues" course developed during World War I at the request of the United States government's Student Army Training Corps. As the war came to a close and the "War Issues" class began losing its relevance, a group of deans and professors in History and Philosophy called for a "Peace Issues" class. In the fall of 1919, Contemporary Civilization met five days a week in three sections. For the first twenty years of the course's existence, extremely detailed syllabi – really book-length outlines of the course – were published by Columbia University Press. The course originally covered, in sequential order, geography and natural resources, concepts of human behavior and instinct, a brief historical survey of Western modernity, and finally examined what were considered the pressing problems of the day, including questions of nationalism, internationalism, and imperialism; industrialism and economics; politics; and education. Despite initial concerns that the course would be "superficial," "impossible to administer," and "a threat to scholarship" due to the breadth of material covered, Contemporary Civilization became a permanent feature of the Columbia College curriculum.

In 1920, Columbia English professor John Erskine initiated the "General Honors" program. Together with Contemporary Civilization, the new program demonstrated Columbia College's budding commitment to interdepartmental cooperation, seminar-style teaching, and an emphasis on liberal rather than pre-professional education. While the Contemporary Civilization requirement introduced students to scholarly methodologies, conceptual tools, and the classics of Western knowledge, all of which functioned as a foundation for further study, the General Honors program offered advanced students complete original readings (in English translations), small class discussions, and opportunities for individual undergraduate research. Among the inaugural instructors of General Honors were Mortimer J. Adler, who later founded the University of Chicago's Core curriculum, Rexford Tugwell, later a prominent New Dealer, and the longtime Columbia professor and poet Mark Van Doren.

Contemporary Civilization met five hours a week for two semesters; from 1928 until the 1960s the course was a two year sequence comprised of CC A and CC B, the latter dealing with "Contemporary Problems in the United States." Discussion dominated the format of the classes, with students actively participating and instructors facilitating the day's inquiry. Class size was limited to 25. The structure of General Honors took shape as a more advanced arena for scholarly investigation. This class met once a week in the evening for an unlimited amount of time and with a maximum enrollment of 15. Two instructors led the class and on occasion invited independent scholars to contribute their expertise.

Though founded on the premise of reading canonical works, the Contemporary Civilization program was also committed to ongoing reevaluation of its historical perspectives, scholarly approaches, and teaching methods. From the program's inception, Contemporary Civilization staff met weekly over lunch to discuss course administration, regulate the pace of readings, and debate the latest relevant scholarship. In 1922, the General Honors program instituted similar discussions among its faculty. Concerns differed among these scholars. Honors instructors worried about issues of standardization and developed strategies focused on maintaining the informal atmosphere necessary for high level and effective discussion.

Science Requirements

Contemporary Civilization and General Honors together formed the cornerstone of the Columbia College curriculum. A course in the history of science was added in 1923, but this was replaced in 1934 with Science A and B, an optional requirement for students who chose to pursue non-scientific studies. This course continued until 1941, when World War II diverted the scientific resources of the University to the war effort. In 1948, the faculty voted to accept revisions of the science requirement, instituting a two year course of physics and astronomy for two respective semesters, and chemistry and biology for semesters three and four.

Masterworks of Western Literature (Humanities A/Literature Humanities)

By 1928, it was apparent that General Honors course required significant restructuring to make it an introductory level class that could form a part of the Lower College curriculum (during the first two years of undergraduate study). In 1937, therefore, Columbia College instituted a new Lower College four-semester sequence called "Humanities." The new course brought Erskine's "great authors" into the introductory portion of the Columbia College curriculum, where the focus on primary texts and class discussions provided students with a solid foundation for further study in the humanities. The Humanities class completed the Lower College tripod of fundamental knowledge which educators believed every student needed: Social Science, Pure Science, and Humanities. The first two semesters of Humanities ("A") covered literature and philosophy (now called Literature Humanities), while the second two semesters ("B", originally optional) focused on music and art (now Art Humanities and Music Humanities). Humanities met for four hours a week (which demanded a reduction in Contemporary Civilizations allotted time from five to four hours a week) and class size was limited to 25.

Postwar Developments

The Core Curriculum continued to evolve in the postwar years. In 1946, after a decade of experiments with primary sources, Contemporary Civilization A staff published the two-volume Introduction to Contemporary Civilization in the West: A Source Book, which went through several subsequent editions and was adopted by many other universities. Yet because some sources, especially among ancient authors, duplicated readings from Humanities A, the change gave rise to concerns over redundancy in the courses. These concerns would continue among some elements of the staff throughout the 1960s.

The shift toward primary sources in CC A also altered the course's relationship with CC B. Before this time, the CC A and B sections of the course shared only their name. Instructors who taught one rarely if ever continued on for the second year, and although the instructors clamored for unity, there was little connection between the two. Consensus eventually developed among staff members that the B section should examine contemporary society, taking for granted and in some cases consciously using intellectual foundations which derived from section A. A primer containing source materials for CC B, Man in Contemporary Society, was also published in 1955. In this way Contemporary Civilization A became the prerequisite and basis for B. Yet CC B continued to be unpopular with students, and more faculty members became convinced that introductory courses in specific disciplines would be more valuable than CC B's attempt at synthesis. In the 1960s, CC B was phased out and replaced with distribution requirements in the social sciences.

These years also saw developments in other Core classes. In 1947, both Humanities B sequences in art and music became required courses. The College also changed their structures, doing away with weekly lectures and instead adopting Humanities A's emphases on the students' encounter with original works and class discussion. And, in the same year, the first "Oriental Humanities" course was offered, allowing students to read masterpieces of literature and philosophy from Asian cultures in translation. In the 1950s, a companion course called "Oriental Civilizations" was developed.

The early 1960s also saw changes in staffing. While advanced graduate students had formerly taught some Core sections as "instructors" – a long-term position that could lead to a full-time appointment – in the fall semester of 1962, the position of "preceptor" was introduced. Preceptors were advanced graduate students who could only teach in the Core for two years, meaning they had less time to master the material of their class before receiving their PhDs and moving elsewhere. The personnel shift reflected both the College's financial stresses and the difficulty of finding enough faculty to staff Core positions, especially after the 1959 requirement that Engineering students take Core courses. During the '60s, '70s, and '80s, maintaining a balance of senior faculty, junior faculty, and preceptors became a persistent challenge for Core administrators.

1968 to the Present

Humanities and Contemporary Civilization dominated the agenda at the University's 1968 Arden House conference, an annual meeting of a select administrative staff, professors, and students to discuss the future of the University. The conference gave staff, students, and the Columbia community an opportunity to reflect on the structure of the Core Curriculum and its function. Students particularly addressed the issue of relevance, suggesting that courses be devoted to studying historic ideologies with relationships to the protests over civil rights and the Vietnam War. Some professors who advocated the merger of Humanities and Contemporary Civilization into a single course focused discussion on the duplication critique, a long standing criticism of the Core Curriculum. Other professors argued that staff placed too much emphasis on the development of analytic skills to the detriment of historical context, which, they argued, would provide a better understanding of the basic ideas presented in the courses. This last group wanted to enhance the historical readings, placing more emphasis on context and the development of concepts.

As a result of the Arden House conference, CC dropped its source book and instead moved to full-length readings, thereby reducing the number of authors read but deepening students' engagement with authors. Instructors also now had the opportunity to choose their own texts at the close of the course.

The admission of women to the student body in the fall of 1984 brought new scrutiny to the all-male Core reading lists. Humanities added its first text by a woman – Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice – in 1985, followed in the 1990s by Woolf's To the Lighthouse, fragments by Sappho, and Mme. de Lafayette's Princesse de Clèves. In 1985, the Contemporary Civilization staff convened a committee to investigate the incorporation of women and women's issues into the Contemporary Civilization class. Members of the committee included Ava Chamberlain, Alan Divack, Malachi Hacohen, Geoffrey Haywood, and Felice Lifshitz. The committee found that there were ample opportunities afforded by the current texts for discussions of women in Western culture. The Committee to Incorporate "the Women's Question," as it was known, concluded that major textual alterations were not necessarily required, although they suggested that female authors such as Mary Wollstonecraft, Virginia Woolf and Simone de Beauvoir should be added to the reading list.

In the 1980s, in response to junior faculty resistance and student activism, a commission led by Professor Theodore de Bary discussed possible restructuring of the Core to make it more reflective of the works and ideas of traditions beyond Europe. The de Bary Commission 1988 report, "Reaffirming and Renewing the Core Curriculum," concluded that non-Western traditions should studied in a new 'Extended Core' as opposed to in Contemporary Civilization or Humanities. When readings in these courses addressed issues of race and racism, Eurocentrism, and colonialism, the Commission encouraged instructors to address them, but they rejected changing the nature of CC and Humanities to make it more culturally pluralistic. Students would now take two distribution requirements from a range of introductory courses in cultures not represented in CC or Humanities, or addressing several cultures in a comparative context. The de Bary Commission also recommended that benefits, including special leave for faculty teaching the Contemporary Civilization and Humanities classes be extended to graduate students. Among other incentives, they also proposed financial benefits for departments tying the number of faculty members teaching Core courses to the amount of departmental remuneration.

In 1990, the Contemporary Civilization staff asked Nancy Leys Stepan to address issues of race and racism in the Contemporary Civilization class. In her report, Stepan argued that Contemporary Civilization had neglected race and racism in the past. She speculated that the small number of students and faculty of color might explain the paucity of work regarding these themes, and suggested a variety of ways race could be addressed without changing the basic reading list. As the Committee to Incorporate the 'Women Question' had, she stressed the use of traditional works rather than adding to the already strenuous reading load of Contemporary Civilization. In 1993, several sections of CC experimented with the incorporation of non-Western authors, though this experiment did not lead to general changes in CC.

Faculty review and student feedback, activism, and protest continue to shape the Core. In the fall of 2007, students held a week-long hunger strike calling for the diversification of the Core and increased offerings in Ethnic Studies (itself established after a hunger strike in 1996). The following spring, the College announced a $50 million dollar initiative to expand multicultural offerings.

As of 2018, the Core includes Literature Humanities, Contemporary Civilization, Art Humanities, Music Humanities, University Writing, the Global Core requirement, the Science Requirement, and Foreign Language and Physical Education requirements. Staff continue to revise the readings for both Lit Hum and CC.

This historical note was first composed for the original pre-1995 finding aid. It was updated in 2001 and revised in 2018. It draws heavily on information from "Reconstruction in the Liberal Arts," by Justus Buchler, in A History of Columbia College on Morningside (New York: Columbia University Press, 1954); "Reaffirming and Renewing the Core Curriculum," from the Report of the Commission on the Core Curriculum, 1988, pp. 48-135; and from Timothy P. Cross' An Oasis of Order: The Core Curriculum at Columbia College (New York, NY: Columbia University, 1995). For a timeline and other information on the Core Curriculum, visit History of the Core