The Core Curriculum, with its power to open our minds and hearts, has a way of confronting us with unpalatable perspectives. If the fields of Literature Humanities, Contemporary Civilization, Music Humanities, and Art Humanities are like quiet pastures of contemplation tucked away above the clouds of our everyday assumptions, sometimes there is a stiff, cold wind blowing in these uplands. And it can slap us in the face, abruptly and unpleasantly.
The dearth of women authors in the Core is one such jarring reality. It is disconcerting that with all the poetry by women in the ancient world, not much survives beyond a few fragments of Sappho. Even in much more familiar and recent contexts, women’s voices have been marginalized. All of Mary Ann Evans’ work was published under a pseudonym, George Eliot.
One common response to this problem is to read the women who did author Core texts—Mary Wollstonecraft, Jane Austen, Virginia Woolf—as speaking only for women. My Contemporary Civilization class spent a great deal of time asking if Wollstonecraft was a proto-feminist, and in Lit Hum we questioned whether Austen was trying to subvert the sexual norms of her time.
What bothers me about this approach is that it can actually be degrading to the authors and their ideas. None of these authors were directly concerned with the political ideologies of our time, and we shouldn’t try to fit them into our categories, or repurpose their work for another meaning. To honor their achievements in providing insight into human nature is to be willing to listen to what they have to say about all of our experiences. Austen is a brilliant satirist who introduces her readers to sparkling depths of subtlety in the most everyday conversations.
We often assume that our age has progressed and that women are better treated now than ever before. In many vital areas, that claim is justified. In 21st-century Western society, fewer women die during childbirth than at any other point in our history. Today, Mary Ann Evans would be encouraged to publish her own work and regarded as an excellent writer in her own right.
But one of the great merits of the Core is its power to let ideas from starkly different times speak for themselves. And just as we should respect and listen to other cultures on their own terms, we should extend the same generosity of spirit to our ancestors.
We sometimes stereotype the entirety of Western thought as a Faust-like figure: the rationalistic male intellectual who seduces, silences, and objectifies Gretchen. But there is much more to the great tradition of the West than that. One of the tenderest moments in the Iliad comes as Hector returns from the bloodshed to his wife Andromache and his baby son Astyanax. Hector recognizes that male-warrior glory, kleos, is only valuable because it protects the domestic realm that his wife governs.
And the rise of Christianity in the ancient world provided further reason to dignify women. The Gospel of Luke tells the story of the Virgin Mary and claims she changed history by choosing to bear and raise the baby Jesus. Mary’s song, the Magnificat, proclaims, “From now on all generations will call me blessed,” and this elevation of motherhood to an office of eternal glory would suffuse later Christian thought. Augustine, in his Confessions, acknowledges the saintliness of his mother Monica, a constant source of stability for him while he does his best to destroy himself.
The Core exposes us to a tradition that ennobled and honored women as mothers, even as it often confined women to the domestic sphere. It’s worth asking ourselves whether our contemporary culture is truly better at valuing women. Yes, we do better at acknowledging the excellence of women, but we tend to measure excellence in quantifiable achievements like earning a paycheck or contributing to the GDP.
The vast sacrifice of health, time, and love that millions of mothers—including my own—give to their children is too often denigrated. Prioritizing motherhood should be an honored choice for women to make. But the dominant narrative is that an excellent education shouldn’t be channeled into raising children. Too many college campuses, including Columbia, fail to do enough to help student mothers.
The final week of Art Humanities last spring made this point tangible for me. My professor juxtaposed Raphael’s Sistine Madonna and Picasso’s Les Demoiselles D’Avignon. The 16th-century painting integrated all its elements, with harmony and grace, around the queenly poise of Mary, the Mother of God. And the 20th-century cubist piece rendered the viewer complicit in the horrifying voyeurism of the female body stripped down to an object. The Core hammered home to me the irony that, even though there are more women in board rooms and in faculty lounges than ever before, the Western world has become complacent with a vast industry dedicated to the objectification of women: pornography.
Clearly, in some vital ways, we are missing wisdom that our ancestors would have taken for granted. We should honor the women of the Core for their excellence, not just for their politics, and we should also allow the Core to challenge us to strive for a more complete vision of women’s dignity.
Luke Foster is a Columbia College junior majoring in English. He is the president of the Veritas Forum, a member of Columbia Faith and Action, and a columnist for Spectator.
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