In their football rivalry that dates back to 1877, Harvard holds a commanding advantage over Columbia, the Crimson having won fifty-three of their joint contests as against just fourteen defeats, including a 34–14 decision over the Lions last season. Among Ivy League institutions, Harvard has long had one of the strongest football programs and Columbia one of the weakest. 

Yet in a head-to-head contest between the undergraduate curricula at these two institutions, Columbia has more than held its own against its Ivy League rival. For nearly a century, the two universities have stood as national models for diametrically opposed approaches to undergraduate education. Harvard, under the leadership of Charles William Eliot from 1869 to 1909, pioneered the elective system under which students were given broad choices in course selections and areas of study. Columbia, guided by luminaries like John Erskine, Mark Van Doren, and Jacques Barzun, established a core curriculum shortly after World War I based upon the classic writings of Western Civilization. Harvard, as Daniel Bell has written, became known for its lectures, Columbia for its small seminars. Over the subsequent decades, other colleges and universities across the country adopted one or the other of these two approaches to undergraduate education.

The established curricula at Harvard and Columbia survived the multicultural battles of the 1980s and 1990s with only minor and marginal concessions to their critics. In recent years, both institutions have undertaken reviews of their educational regimens in response to claims that they are out of date in a world of increasing diversity and globalization. In a nod to tradition, both schools reiterated the curricular commitments they originally made decades ago.

Last fall, after several years of study and debate, Harvard’s faculty implemented a new Program in General Education to replace the core curriculum that had been in place since 1978. The older curriculum, crafted by a committee chaired by Dean Henry Rosovsky, was organized around “approaches to knowledge,” and required students to take a class or two in eleven different fields ranging from the sciences to the arts and humanities in order to expose them to different methods of research and study. This came to be known as the “distributional model” of undergraduate education because it required their students to distribute their coursework over a number of fields.

Harvard’s curriculum was highly controversial when it was adopted because, as critics said, it elevated methods over substance and “approaches” over knowledge. It was based on the assumption that it is less important to know about or to understand Hamlet or the U.S. Constitution than it is to know how these works are understood according to different methods of analysis or disciplinary points of view. Critics claimed that it more often reflected the disciplinary preoccupations of the faculty rather than the educational interests of students. Nevertheless, the curriculum was also highly influential, as things first done at Harvard often turn out to be; many colleges and universities soon abandoned their traditional knowledge-based curricula in favor of Harvard’s “distributional” approach to undergraduate studies.

The latest revision of Harvard’s curriculum has been hailed in some quarters as an improvement over the old one because it discards the focus on methods, aiming instead (according to the course catalog) “to connect a student’s liberal education—that is, an education conducted in a spirit of free inquiry, rewarding in its own right—to life beyond the college.” The new curriculum implicitly acknowledges the principal weakness of the old one—that it was organized around disciplinary controversies that are important to faculty but to no one else. The new curriculum also announces a practical purpose: to prepare students for future lives as citizens and professionals. But by conceiving liberal education in terms of free inquiry rather than knowledge or understanding, this revision advances further down the path initially charted by the 1978 reforms.

According to the report of the faculty committee that approved it, a new curriculum was needed to address the significant changes that have taken place in the world over the past generation. The report alludes not only to changes in science and technology but also to the onward march of globalization. A major purpose of the curriculum, according to the faculty report, will be to help students to understand the sources of change in modern life and how they can keep their bearings in the midst of it. Putting aside the boilerplate language about “change,” the most challenging questions about a curriculum deal with what subjects it will include or exclude. Given the above rationale, one might have expected the new curriculum to contain required courses that would help students to understand the rise of science in connection with the history of the West, why it prospered in some areas and not in others, and, indeed,
how “globalization” developed out of Western thought and institutions. Yet in fact the rhetoric about “change” is dimly reflected in the actual courses students are required to take, which was perhaps to be expected given the hazy nature of the rhetoric.

Thus, despite the new rationale, the new curriculum looks like a warmed-over version of the old one. Instead of eleven different fields of study, the faculty has carved up the course catalogue into eight areas with new names: Aesthetic and Interpretive Understanding; Culture and Belief; Empirical and Mathematical Reasoning; Ethical Reasoning; Science of Living Systems; Science of the Physical Universe; Societies of the World; and United States in the World. As with the old curriculum, the new one requires students to take at least one course in each subject area but does not require a basic level of mastery in any of them. And, consequently, the new curriculum looks like another version of the distributional system it replaced.

Harvey Mansfield, the William R. Kenan, Jr. Professor of Government at Harvard, has called the new curriculum “insipid” and “vacuous” because it lacks substance, does not force difficult choices about what students should learn during their college years, and defers all such questions to student choice. According to the faculty report endorsing the curriculum, an important objective of a college education is to put students “in a position from which they can choose for themselves what principles will guide them.” But as Mansfield points out, this formulation puts the cart before the proverbial horse, since we usually understand principles or philosophy to guide important choices rather than the other way around. What principles will guide the choice of principles? Are some ways of life superior to others? On these fundamental questions, the faculty report is silent, and so, essentially, is the curriculum.

Thus it is that the curriculum enshrines choice in courses but supplies no structure that might guide it. In most of the fields of study, students can meet their requirements by choosing one from as many as forty different courses from disparate departments. The requirement in aesthetics, for example, can be satisfied by choosing one course from a list that includes “Gender and Performance,” “The 19th Century Novel,” “Virgil,” and “Buddhism and Japanese Culture.” The requirement in Culture and Belief can be met by choosing one course from among some thirty or forty courses in fields ranging from Classics to Economics to Slavic Studies. So it goes with the other fields as well. In “United States and the World,” students choose from an extensive list of courses that includes “Sex and the Citizen,” “American Food: A Global History,” and “American Health Care Policy.” Students can meet this requirement without once coming into contact with the writings of Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, or Abraham Lincoln or learning anything about the Revolution, the Constitution, or the Civil War. In regard to America, such writings and events were the mainsprings of “change,” but students are not required to learn anything about them.

Many of these courses, judged individually, are doubtless valuable and full of substance. At the same time, a course catalogue should not be confused with a curriculum. The committee that designed it made no effort to stipulate what kinds of knowledge students should acquire in different areas of study but instead passed the buck to students to decide for themselves what courses they will take from the vast array of choices presented to them. There is not even a guarantee that Harvard’s students will learn anything substantive about “change,” vacuous as that concept may be as a guide to a curriculum in the first place.Though the new program is sometimes described as a core curriculum, it does not present students with a common intellectual experience nor is it based on any assumptions about what an educated person should know after four years of college. Given this curriculum, one can make few assumptions about what a Harvard graduate will know after four expensive years of study.

This is not true at Columbia, where students are required to pass through a structured curriculum in which they encounter the great books and artistic creations of Western civilization. Much in contrast to Harvard’s new curriculum, Columbia’s has substance and structure and is guided by a coherent rationale. While Harvard’s periodic curricular revisions are highly publicized, Columbia’s stable and long-lived Core receives far less publicity and recognition.

Columbia’s Core has been in place continuously since 1919 when a handful of faculty members envisioned an education in the classics to replace the then-disintegrating curriculum in Greek, Latin, and religion. The Core arose even more directly, however, out of the urgent questions raised about democracy and civilization by the world war that had just concluded. Contemporary Civilization, one of the courses that would later become a mainstay of the Core, developed out of a “war issues” seminar that Columbia’s faculty offered to army officers in training for the purpose of codifying the great issues at stake in the war. When the war was over, the professors who were engaged in that enterprise crafted a new course for undergraduates on the foundations of Western civilization. At roughly the same time, Columbia’s English Department, led by John Erskine, devised an honors course arranged around the reading and discussion of various classic works of literature (in translation) in small seminar settings; one of its purposes was to counteract the increasing specialization of departmental studies. This course gradually evolved into what is now called Literature Humanities, the second major pillar of Columbia’s Core.

From Erskine’s point of view, a course in the classics was pathbreaking and liberating because it focused on the important ideas contained in those books and their influence on later authors, rather than emphasizing mental discipline and memorization. In mounting his course, Erskine had to overcome the resistance of colleagues who felt that the reading of these works in translation was dilettantish and unserious. That objection, however, missed the main point, which was not to master some aspect of Homer, Plato, or Aristotle in the manner of a doctoral student but rather to expose students to their works as a means of introducing them to the fundamental ideas that shaped our world.

So, in that sense at least, Columbia’s curriculum developed out of concerns about the changing world that were not so different from those that more recently guided Harvard’s revisions. The major difference is that Columbia’s faculty addressed this challenge far more seriously. When Columbia’s president Nicholas Murray Butler announced the new Contemporary Civilization course in 1920, he noted that its purpose would be “to give first year students an outlook on the modern world as well as a point of view to help them understand their subsequent studies.” In reference to the more directly political aims of the curriculum, Butler went on to say that

for those students enamored of the cruder and more stupid forms of radicalism, early instruction on the origin and development of modern civilization and the part that time plays in building and perfecting human institutions is of the greatest value. For those who are afflicted with the more stubborn forms of conservatism, early appreciation of the fact that movement is characteristic of life and that change may be constructive as well as destructive is most desirable.

Since Butler’s statement contained no snide references to political liberals, one may assume that he thought the new course to be more sympathetic to that point of view than to conservatism or radicalism—a judgment that, in relation to the great books, held up for many decades thereafter. It was only very recently that some began to claim, bizarrely, that a curriculum in the classics was part of a conservative plot to impose upon students a “white” or a Western point of view.

Columbia’s core curriculum today is a set of common courses required of all undergraduates and taught in small seminars of twenty or so students. Students must pass year-long seminars in Contemporary Civilization and Literature Humanities in which they read and discuss one important book per week. The reading list for Contemporary Civilization includes selections from the Old and New Testaments and the Koran, along with works by Aristotle, Plato, Machiavelli, Locke, Adam Smith, Marx, Darwin, and The Federalist (among others). In Literature Humanities students take up Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, Virgil’s Aeneid, the plays of Sophocles, Euripides, and Shakespeare, Dante’s Inferno, and the novels of Dostoevsky and Jane Austen (among other readings). Students are also required to take single-semester courses in art, music, and science, all of which are similarly organized around the great works in their respective areas. Core requirements add up to seven semesters of coursework, or about 20 percent of the typical student’s four-year workload.

Faculty leaders at Columbia have resisted calling Contemporary Civilization and Literature Humanities “great books” courses, in part because of the commercial and middle-brow association the term acquired during the mass-market campaign launched by the Encyclopedia Britannica in the 1950s, in which the illusion was circulated that all the knowledge an educated person needs to acquire is contained in a set of books that can be purchased and displayed on a modest book shelf. This was the kind of superficiality against which some early critics of the Core had warned and that faculty supporters of the program always sought to prevent by emphasizing the difficulty of these works and the importance of reading and discussing them under the guidance of trained teachers. Despite the best efforts of the faculty, Columbia’s Core is frequently referred to by those off campus as a “great books” program.

Though the curriculum has undergone revisions over the decades, its original focus on the classics has survived intact, and so also has the dual emphasis on civilization and literature. When women, for example, were first admitted to the College in the 1970s, Mary Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Women was added to the required readings in Contemporary Civilization and one of Virginia Woolf’s novels was added to the humanities syllabus. Later, in response to criticisms that the reading list contained no works by black or Third World authors, The Souls of Black Folk by W. E. B. Dubois was added to the syllabus in Contemporary Civilization. While some viewed these steps as concessions made under pressure, others saw them as a way of making a great books curriculum more compelling to critics and to new groups arriving on campus.

Roosevelt Montás, the director of Columbia’s Core and who also teaches in the American Studies program, argues that a structured curriculum is preferable to loosely tailored alternatives because few students at the beginning of their college careers are well equipped to choose the best educational program from the array of choices available at most universities. Thus, he argues, a well-designed system of courses embodying the great works of the past and expressing the traditions of the institution can be of great value to students as they proceed through their college years. In addition, a structured curriculum, particularly one organized around the great books, provides a common vocabulary for all members of an institution and a baseline of knowledge on which academic specialization and non-classroom discussions can build. In advanced courses, professors can make realistic assumptions about what books students have read and what they can be expected to know.

In some respects, Montás is an unusual figure to be heading up a program in the great books. Born in the Dominican Republic and emigrating to the United States only as a teenager, Montás entered Columbia as an undergraduate in 1991, ill-prepared for the intellectual challenges posed by the core curriculum. By conventional campus logic, he was precisely the kind of student who should have rebelled against a course of study filled with the works of dead white Europeans. Yet he soon found that, instead of stifling his curiosity, Columbia’s academic requirements gave him a sense of intellectual order that laid a foundation for further study and discovery. With that foundation, Montás proceeded to earn his B.A. from Columbia and, later, a Ph.D. in English and Comparative Literature. Now, as the director of the Core, he serves as a thoughtful ambassador for a structured curriculum in the classics.

Montás is thus in a strong position to reply to critics on the campus and elsewhere who assert that the Core reflects the thought of a single culture and is too narrow for students preparing to enter a global economy. The Western tradition at the heart of the curriculum, he points out, is neither monolithic nor homogenous but rather one of debate, dissent, and surprisingly frequent upheavals in inherited doctrines and assumptions. The great books that students encounter in the Core encapsulate fundamental arguments over religion, morality, war, economics, and political organization that have shaped the history of the West and, indeed, of the entire world. Even the multicultural critique of the great books is built—albeit unreflectively—upon the theories of Nietzsche, Marx, and Freud, whose writings appear on the syllabus. There is no single line of thought inherent to the Core that bolsters the interests or outlook of any particular group. Far from being conservative, the works taken as a whole challenge and undermine contemporary habits of thought. The critic David Denby, in his chronicle of a year spent at Columbia studying in the Core, went so far as to conclude that the “core-curriculum courses jar so many student habits, violate so many contemporary pieties, and challenge so many forms of laziness that so far from serving a reactionary function, they are actually the most radical courses in the undergraduate curriculum.”

The challenges to such a curriculum are not only ideological but also financial and pedagogical. It is expensive and administratively difficult to staff the large number of sections required by the small-class format. In any given semester, Montás must identify enough able teachers to schedule as many as sixty-five sections each of Contemporary Civilization and Literature Humanities. Many senior professors at Columbia are not interested in teaching in the Core because it does not contribute to their research interests, leaving many sections to be taught by junior faculty, graduate students, post-doctoral fellows, and adjunct teachers. The growing specialization of academia makes it ever more difficult to nourish and recruit the kinds of generalists who can effectively teach sections of the Core. By contrast, Harvard’s curriculum, which involves no special courses, is far less expensive and cumbersome to maintain.

How, then, has a traditional curriculum survived over decades of change and upheaval on the university campus? Columbia, one of the most liberal universities in the nation, has managed to keep in place one of the most traditional of curricula—and one, moreover, which originated close to a century ago.

Columbia’s curriculum has always received strong support from a few members of the senior faculty, many of them with prominent public profiles. These include distinguished professors such as Jacques Barzun, Lionel Trilling, Moses Hadas, and Richard Hofstadter in decades gone by and Gareth Williams, Andrew Delbanco, and even the former sds leader Todd Gitlin today. Influential alumni have also turned out to be ferocious supporters of the Core, which they appreciate more and more as the years go by. Many undergraduates matriculate to Columbia precisely because they wish to study under a great books curriculum. After nearly a century with a common Core, Columbia’s identity is now firmly associated with it. Nevertheless, even at Columbia, such a curriculum would be difficult to introduce today in view of the evolving departmentalization of the University. Delbanco, a professor of English and the head of the Program in American Studies, likes to quote a colleague who said, “The core curriculum is like the inter-state highway system. It would be impossible to build today, but we are very glad to have it.”

Today, among the 4,000 or so colleges and universities across the country, Columbia is among the very few (less than 10 percent) that offer a core curriculum in which students are required to pass through a structured course of study in the liberal arts. Most institutions, perhaps as many as 90 percent of them, have adopted the distribution system pioneered at Harvard. In the competition between the two approaches to undergraduate study, Harvard’s model appears to be winning out.

Yet that would be a short-sighted conclusion. An easy-going curriculum that asks little of students will often be more popular than a demanding one in which serious books must be read and discussed. Even so, the Core is surprisingly popular among students and junior faculty on Columbia’s campus, probably more so today than it was a decade or so ago. In fending off a series of attacks, the curriculum seems to have revealed its deeper strengths and the advantages it holds over alternatives. As a College report concluded some years ago, “In contrast to the largely distributional curricula of other institutions, the Core is an oasis of order and purpose.” And it is for these reasons that Columbia now finds itself in the company of an expanding list of colleges and universities offering courses of study in the great books, whether as core curricula or as elective options for students interested in such an education. Columbia’s program may be unique for its longevity, but it is ever less so for its substance.

In contrast to Harvard’s curriculum, which will require constant revision and new justifications because it must keep pace with changing conditions, Columbia’s curriculum (and others like it) has a stable foundation because it is organized around timeless themes expressed in works that are unlikely to go out of style. If the objective of a liberal education is to identify the permanent and perennial issues in the midst of flux and change, then Columbia’s Core serves that purpose more directly than most alternatives. In judging the two curricula, one does not face a close call. Columbia and Harvard are playing in different leagues. If it were a football game, Columbia would beat Harvard by several touchdowns.