At the end of my first year, I finally got a taste of the famed Core Curriculum, described on the University’s website as “academically rigorous” and “personally transformative.” Has the Core, the hallmark of Columbia’s liberal arts foundation, lived up to this promise?
I do not deny that the Core has been “personally transformative.” Throughout my first year, I was exposed to the works of great authors like Aristophanes and Cervantes (neither of whom I had read before). I learned about the strange world of quantum mechanics (from the one and only Brian Greene!). And this piece, my first-ever op-ed, is a product of University Writing.
But as far as “academically rigorous” goes, I feel that the Core has not quite lived up to its name. Its name suggests that it delves deep into the core of the material presented in its classes. Instead, these classes merely skim the surface of many different topics, thereby compromising the critical and profound thought that it promised.
This struggle between depth and breadth is a perennial pedagogical debate. Recently, the tide has turned toward depth. The College Board has adopted depth by reducing the number of topics covered in AP Biology. The recently revamped SAT abandons a variety of “SAT words” for fewer and more practical words. Similarly, I ask the Committee on the Core Curriculum to re-evaluate the content of the Core to focus more on “depth.”
Consider Literature Humanities. Even though the website claims that the course is “much more than a survey of great books,” Lit Hum seems to be only that. Each 14-week semester covers roughly 10 different texts. Accounting for holidays and breaks, that’s roughly one week for one text!
This time constraint limits class discussions so that books receive only a cursory treatment (through no fault of the instructors). Students may not finish their assigned readings due to a lack of time outside of the classroom. While it’s nice to let students help one another fill in the blanks on elements of plot, class time could be better spent on deeper analysis.
Frontiers of Science is also an example of misguided breadth over depth. While it is necessary to teach “scientific habits of mind” as they relate to modern scientific disciplines, the course material and homework become so simplified that it’s almost insulting. (Paraphrased from last semester’s homework: “Given F=ma, if the force is constant and the mass of the object increases, what happens to acceleration?”)
In a study involving depth versus breadth, professor Marc Schwartz and his colleagues at the University of Texas, Arlington concluded that in-depth investigation of one scientific topic improved scientific mastery much more than covering multiple topics. Frontiers of Science, although well-intentioned, fails to foster intensive scientific literacy because of its shallow coverage of many scientific disciplines that individually deserve more thorough investigation.
The case for fixing Lit Hum is different than that for Frontiers, especially since Schwartz's study only addresses science courses and not those in the humanities—courses that might require much more extensive reading for fuller understanding of philosophical concepts. Nevertheless, a focus on depth would emphasize the quality, and not the quantity, of information. Instead of mandating coverage of all the books, the committee might give instructors more leeway to decide which and how many books from the Lit Hum syllabus to cover in their discussion. This will in turn provide more discussion time for books that individual instructors are more familiar with.
If breadth is truly still an overarching concern, the committee might consider offering themed or general sections of Lit Hum (similar to those in University Writing), thereby offering a potential middle road between depth and breadth. Themed sections could even address more in-depth, often neglected issues of misogyny and underrepresented writers who are minorities.
Similarly, for Frontiers of Science, the committee should offer students the opportunity to choose one scientific discipline they might be interested in (out of the four currently included in Frontiers) and then assign them an appropriate lecturer and discussion leader. An in-depth treatment of one topic would make greater connections between the scientific habits of mind while communicating in greater detail the beauty and challenges of that discipline.
Of course, perhaps the Core was simply meant to be an overview of topics rather than a deep dive into certain subjects. As William Deresiewicz cautions in one of his many articles about the problems with “elite education,” classes at elite universities are in danger of becoming overly specialized. For Deresiewicz, the idea of breadth is “implicit in the very idea of a liberal arts education.” However, as Schwartz argues, in-depth courses do much more than cursory courses do in developing the analytical skills of students and helping them to ask the big questions (something that elite universities fail to do, Deresiewicz bemoans in his article).
This focus on depth would help students reach the essence of the Core. Only through this depth can we give these masterpieces of Western literature the proper attention and respect they deserve.
The author is a Columbia College sophomore majoring in statistics and educational studies.
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