Opinion | Op-eds

Tackle Core questions with experience, not just texts

The Core Curriculum was conceived to facilitate student exploration of identity, community, political economy, and other topics of the human condition. Through the Core’s texts, we can examine our existence and discern guiding morals and philosophical truths that have emerged through the ages. Organizing the texts into a canon of Western thought, however, results in a framework that in many ways hinders the original intent of the Core: to approach the fundamental questions, “What does it mean, and what has it meant to be an individual? … to be part of a community?”

The works in the Literature Humanities and Contemporary Civilization syllabi are selected based on their perceived influence on Western thought, with the assumption that the differences among these texts and among those of contemporary society encourage introspection. While this may be true, these viewpoints arise from a relatively homogeneous source—men in the Western world. No combination of these writers can capture a full spectrum of voices and experiences. The limited diversity of the voices represented in the Core detracts from its mission to comprehensively consider what it means to be human. This is particularly dangerous given that the perspectives we develop in Core classes are meant to be the basis for understanding our personal and civic responsibilities.

For example, how are we to consider the role of women in society given that the total number of female writers present in Lit Hum and CC can be counted on one hand? In his piece in last week’s Canon on female authors in the Core (“Exploring female perspective within male-authored works,” April 8), Anirban Poddar advocates examining the role of women through the lens of male-centric texts. He rationalizes female writers’ exclusion from the Core syllabi as a result of there being no extended history of influential female writing, and writes that we would be “trivializing” women by including more of their works solely due to their sex. However, if we are to understand what it means to be “part of a community” at any time in history, the female perspective cannot be disregarded—and it must come from a female author to adequately represent the embodied experiences of women. More to the point, there already exists a wealth of texts by influential female writers from more contemporary times. Failure to include these texts contradicts the broader mandate of the Core—how can we explore “human” questions if there is only a particular type of “human” life being examined? Accepting this lack of representation and simply analyzing secondary accounts of entire bodies of people is not an acceptable solution.

Rather than interpreting “identity” and “community” through texts, what if we were to project our own experiences toward these questions directly? Imagine a seminar in which there are simply central themes to explore: race, gender, political structure, and consciousness. If discussion is supported (but not defined) by critical texts exploring these issues, the class may better expose students’ ideas toward these issues rather than comparative evaluations of others’ perspectives, however influential those may be. Such a discussion would allow students’ experiences to become the primary resource for addressing these questions, resulting in a more natural route to introspection. In doing so, we may finally be able to integrate the female perspective, and those of other identities marginalized by the Core—people of color, those who do not identify as part of the gender binary, and all permutations of these and other configurations of self.

Certainly this does not fully resolve the disadvantages of a Western-dominated Core, but a discussion-based auxiliary course might help foster a broader awareness of human perspectives. Splitting up such a class into modules might be helpful, with units taught by a series of cycling professors, each working on one of these central issues. There are many structural considerations (i.e., should it replace an existing course or add to the already numerous Core requirements?), but, conceptually, I think a seminar of this type complements the existing courses in the Core and could help bridge the gap we experience by connecting our personal narratives to these questions of identity and community.

If the Core is to promote our understanding of what it means to be human, it must first reflect the broad spectrum of experiences that underlie our constructed selves. We are often pushed to speak broadly and loudly, sometimes with little regard to the boundaries of others’ identities. How better to situate oneself within society than by listening and reflecting on the myriad primary, non-interpretive experiences readily available from the diverse student population at Columbia? We have long been told our peers are our most valuable resource. It is high time we institutionalize that sentiment within the Core itself.

The author is a Columbia College senior majoring in biology.

To respond to this op-ed, or to submit an op-ed, contact opinion@columbiaspectator.com.

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Anonymous posted on

Great points! That other piece was awful, and I'm glad you called him out on it. There are no real (good) reasons NOT to expand the kinds of texts we read to include women and people of color, and focusing on how experiences relate to those texts is key.

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Joe Brown posted on

This is another article of an increasing frequency that laments the poor education offered by the core. Unfortunately, the author merely wants to make the core more of what it already is, which is a collection of folklore, mythology and intellectual laziness that avoids factual material at all costs. Who cares if the fairy tales are written by white men, black women or romulans? They are just opinions and idle speculation that have been elevated and placed on a pedestal. You are subsequently made to feel uneducated or unintelligent if you call the syllabus what it is - a safe haven for those who do not want to seek the truth as offered by science.

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Darpan posted on

I appreciate your thoughts Joe! I wholeheartedly agree that an emphasis on science, in particular a course in logic or rational deconstruction of problems (which isn't afforded by Frontiers), is a necessary addition to the Core. It wasn't a subject that I wanted to broach here, though, as that's too broad a topic to address sufficiently within one op-ed. That being said, I'm not sure I agree with the prior statements, as what you've put down, quite frankly, amounts to a nose wipe of any type of postulation by non-scientific disciplines. They may have been elevated to a pedestal that they should not be (and indeed, I believe I mention much the same as the theme of this article), but that certainly doesn't discredit the role that works of literature, political economy, or philosophy have as inroads towards understanding ourselves, and the greater fabric of society with which we interact. This is also a point for another time, but I'm not sure the binary between science and 'opinions and idle speculation' necessarily exists -- creativity and logic abound in discourses of all fields, if only one looks closely enough.

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Joe Brown posted on

Hi, Darpan I am happy that you didn't get too upset by my comments (which I have been making for years - I am CC 1966.) Yes, philosophy, political economic theory and philosophy are great subjects. It's just that there are 100 variations on all of it. Therefore those subjects cannot avoid degeneration into "I think this and you think that." It is just pop culture for $66,000 a year and it's not worth it unless you intend to got into the world of who you know rather than what you know.

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