At a 1987 lecture in Low Memorial Library, English professor Carolyn Heilbrun took on Columbia’s greatest institution: the Core Curriculum. Heilbrun said, “In recent years the educational establishment in the United States, and those in charge of teaching the humanities in the universities, have insisted upon the importance of our ‘legacy’ and of the connection of that ‘legacy’ to the ‘life of the mind’ and to certain unchanging truths. The entrance of women students into almost every male college and university raises the question of how political the protection of that ‘legacy’ is and what effect the changing lives of women in our society should have upon university policy.”
She continued, “The academic community must face the necessity of moving women from the margins of universities to their center. Not to do so will indicate the degree to which the male tradition has dictated what questions we may ask of our universities, our ‘legacy,’ and of our ‘old fashioned values.’”
Nearly 30 years after Heilbrun’s speech, this is still a central problem created by the Core Curriculum. Our administration protects the Core tooth and nail, yet we rarely question whether it’s teaching us all the right lessons or exposing us to the well-rounded legacy we deserve from our education.
I’m a Columbia College woman who has completed the Core. And, by and large, I’m a fan of the Core Curriculum. At a school like Columbia, where athletics do not shape University life, the Core fills that void. It’s what you bring up when you’re feeling awkward at a networking event or if you happen to be seated next to an alum on a plane. Put bluntly, you can’t find a living Columbia alum who hasn’t suffered through Homer and Plato. The Core is nearly 100 years old and not going anywhere.
Women, by contrast, have been at Columbia College for only 30 years. This disparity demonstrates an inevitable truth of the “legacy” of the Core: It was not designed for or by women. Indeed, the father of the Core Curriculum, professor John Erskine, CC 1900, saw the Core as a means to prevent the incursion of women.
In 1936, he wrote an essay called “The Influence of Women and Its Cure.” In Erskine’s words, “Let the boys be taught by men and encouraged to be masculine—not to imitate the manners of the cave dweller but to cultivate initiative, persistence, backbone.”
He wrote, “If the older American stocks won’t pass on their tradition ... the path of our ideas will be rapidly changed. Or, if the men won’t teach and the women will, the balance of the sexes will be upset and ours will be a feminine civilization.”
Those sentiments may be kept out of his shrine in Hamilton Hall, but they demonstrate the central bias of the “unchanging truths” in the Core Curriculum: a desire to preserve tradition—specifically, a male-dominated tradition—in the minds of youths.
Looking at our Core today, you’ll see efforts toward inclusivity: the addition of authors like Virginia Woolf and Mary Wollstonecraft or texts like Lysistrata and Medea. Despite popular opinion, there certainly were women writing and theorizing before modern times—one such example would be 17th-century author Madame de Lafayette, who enjoyed a brief stint on the Literature Humanities course list. Devoting one class session to suffragette Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s The Woman’s Bible, a 19th-century bible revision meant to challenge patriarchy in religion, would certainly spice up the notoriously dull religious portion of Contemporary Civilization. But it wouldn’t be productive to argue for total equality in gender distribution in the Core. Adding a book entails removing another, and most of the Core’s old white dudes are here to stay.
However, it’s important that we all recognize that, in a college where over 50 percent of the student body is female, women are relatively absent from the courses and reading lists considered most necessary to our education. We cannot continue to dismiss this problem in defense of “legacy.”
If the Global Core requirement is meant to account for bias toward Western thought—as flawed as that requirement might be—it’s high time to consider an addition to adjust for the masculine bias. Anyone who has taken a course in women and gender studies can tell you the classes are generally overwhelmingly female. The same, of course, can be said for classes on race and ethnicity and students of color. Identifying with a topic makes you more likely to want to engage with it intellectually.
Among its many other virtues, the Core creates a captive audience: A student who has no intention of studying philosophy or classics is forced to do so in a class that demands participation and effort. You can’t avoid the Core or its seminar setting. Yet this compulsory aspect of the Core creates a unique opportunity for Columbia to challenge students in the very topic it now so staunchly ignores. If the University were to add a course devoted to questions of identity, gender, and bias, the College would not only engage an untapped branch of historical and philosophical thinking, but in doing so, Columbia College would also challenge its own history. I can only imagine all of the possibilities that such a course could hold and all of the amazing women who could form its backbone.
We need a Core Curriculum in which women are not relegated to the margins or thrown in haphazardly in the name of equality. If the goal of the Core is to better prepare us for life and expand our way of thinking, then perhaps it should start with an expansion of its own limited perspective.
Abby Mitchell is a Columbia College senior majoring in comparative literature and society. She is a former arts and entertainment editor and current columnist for Spectator.
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