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   Core Curriculum records, 1937-2007 [Bulk Dates: 1937-1995]

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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.

COinS Metadata available (e.g., for Zotero).

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, 1937-2007 [Bulk Dates: 1937-1995]
Physical description:13.44 linear ft. (32 document boxes)
Language(s): Materials are in English.
Access: All administrative records of the University are restricted for 25 years from the date of creation. This collection is located onsite.  More information »



This collection is arranged in six series and several subseries:

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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.

Subseries I.1: Syllabi, 1937-2007

This subseries contains Contemporary Civilization syllabi for nearly all years from 1937 to 1999, as well as from spring 2007. It also contains some proposed syllabi from the 1960s and 1970s, and pilot syllabi sections from 1993-1994. From 1937 to 1950, C.C. syllabi folders also contain rosters, exams, and staff files and memos, separated with tabs. N.b.: until the 1960s, C.C. was a four-semester sequence.

Subseries I.2: Assignments, Exams, Paper Topics, 1967-1997

This subseries contains C.C. exams and assignments. Materials are arranged by exam type (mid-term, final, conflict final, etc.) and alphabetically by the surname of the professor. Instructors wrote their own exams, though the subseries also contains memos to staff on guidelines and suggested questions for some exams. N.b.: for reasons having to do with provenance, C.C. exams for 1937-1950 are included with syllabi and other materials in Subseries I.1.

Subseries I.3: Teaching Aids and Bibliographies, undated

This subseries contains teaching aids, bibliographies, and published papers. First in the arrangement are the general teaching aids addressing the entire course (Box 9 Folder 9). The next group's arrangement follows the course outline, beginning with bibliographies and teaching aids of the Greek period and continuing to the twentieth century (Box 9 Folder 10 to Box 10 Folders 5). The last record group is associated with women, politics of sexuality and family, and racism (Box 10 Folders 6-20). The women's issues documents begin with the research material and reports of the "Committee on the Women's Question" for Contemporary Civilization and is followed by materials arranged according to the course syllabi. The last folder in the subseries contains a 1990 document by Nancy Leys Stepan on integrating lessons and readings on race and racism into C.C.

Subseries I.4: Reports and Revisions, 1948-1994

This subseries contains materials from the Contemporary Civilization Revision and Advisory committees and faculty and administrators' reports on the state and direction of the course. It also contains materials from the 1968 Arden House Conference, where faculty members were asked to make suggestions about the nature of the class. Box 28 Folder 1 contains more than 20 responses regarding the reading list, pedagogy, and suggested changes in the structure of the classes.

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.

Subseries II.1: Syllabi, 1937-1999

This subseries contains syllabi for Humanities A (Literature Humanities) classes in chronological order, as well as some documents showing the three-year cycles of readings and composite readings lists indicating when each work was taught from 1937 to the date of writing. Nearly all Humanities syllabi are standardized (i.e. there are no instructor-specific syllabi), though there are syllabi showing the respective schedules of different sections, and in the 1970s there was a 'free period' when the instructor might choose a final work to read. Humanities A is a two-semester sequence (A1 and A2), with some sections taught Spring to Fall and therefore designated 'reverse,' yielding course names RA1 or RA2. The subseries contains one folder for syllabi for Methods of Critical Analysis, a short-lived related course from the 1990s.

Subseries II.2: Exams, 1938-1996

This subseries contains Humanities A exams in chronological order, as well as one folder containing Methods of Critical Analysis exams.

Subseries II.3: Hum A Quizzes, 1937-1969

This subseries contains quizzes from Humanities A, organized alphabetically by author, and then by work. Most folders are also dated, though some for some authors years of folders overlap slightly; a few are undated. Other materials include charts of aggregated results for individual quizzes across the entire Humanities program, broken down by instructor.

Subseries II.4: Teaching Aids, Bibliographies, and Paper Topics, 1960-1995 undated

This subseries contains resources such as teaching aids, bibliographies, and published papers. The first three folders (Box 26 Folders 1-3) consist of general Humanities teaching aids and bibliographies. The second group (Box 26 Folder 4 to Box 27 Folder 15) is arranged in alphabetical order by author, title, or theme. The final folder contains study guides and discussion questions for Methods of Critical Analysis.

Subseries II.5: Reports and Revisions, 1938-1989

This subseries contains documents from various curricular reviews of Humanities A, such as the Stern Committee, experimental sections to merge English A and Humanities A, student questionnaires, and materials related to the 50th anniversary of Humanities A. Folders are mostly chronological, though Stern Committee folders are at the end of the subseries.

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.

Subseries V.1: Correspondence (CC and Hum), 1965-1988

This subseries contains administrative correspondence related to Core funding and resources, staffing deliberations (especially related to retaining senior faculty's participating in the Core and the allocation of graduate preceptorships), communications with department chairs, and responses to student inquiries and complaints. It also contains applications from Barnard students interested in taking Core courses and a folder of external correspondence with other universities offering their own Great Books curriculum or interested in adopting one.

Subseries V.2: Staffing, 1966-1997

This subseries consists of Core staff directories and memos, room assignments, and schedules.

Subseries V.3: Enrollment, 1976-1998

This subseries contains documents on Core course enrollments, sometimes broken down by non-Columbia College student populations (Engineering, Barnard, etc.).

Subseries V.4: Core Luncheon and Lecture Series, 1966-2004

This subseries consists of materials related to the long-running lunch staff meetings for both Humanities and Contemporary Civilization. It also contains records of lectures by both Columbia and visiting scholars on weekly readings. (Subseries I.1 contains some memos on the lunch meetings for C.C. from 1937 to 1950.)

Subseries V.5: Miscellaneous, 1951-1965

This subseries contains documents related to several prizes given during this period for excellence in the Core. It also contains a folder of Spectator Clippings on the Core.

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.

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Using the Collection

Access Restrictions

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

This collection is located onsite.

Restrictions on Use

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.

Accrual Information

Additions are expected.

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.

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About the Finding Aid / Processing Information

Columbia University Archives; machine readable finding aid created by Columbia University Libraries Digital Library Program Division

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).

Machine readable finding aid generated from MARC-AMC source via XSLT conversion May 24, 2018 Finding aid written in English.
    2018-05-24 File created.

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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.


HeadingCUL Archives:
CUL Collections:
Nat'l / Int'l Archives:
Administrative reports.PortalCLIOArchiveGRID
Examination study guides.PortalCLIOArchiveGRID
Examinations (documents).PortalCLIOArchiveGRID
Notes (documents).PortalCLIOArchiveGRID


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

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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

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