Insistent Change: Columbia’s Core Curriculum at 100

Late 1980s and 1990s

Late 1980s: The Culture War & the Core

In 1987 University of Chicago philosopher Allan Bloom published The Closing of the American Mind, which accused radical professors of indoctrinating students in historical relativism, robbing them of time-tested conceptions of "the Good Life." The book ignited a national controversy when Reagan Administration Education Secretary William Bennett endorsed it. In response, students and faculty at Stanford successfully pressured their university to eliminate "Western Culture," a required course descended from Contemporary Civilization.

The question of whether Columbia's Core should remain focused on "Western" texts or "go global" came up repeatedly in the late 1980s (as it has several times since 1924). Amid nation-wide controversy over humanities instruction, Columbia College Dean Robert Pollack created a new commission in order to consider how best to adapt the curriculum to the increasing demands for non-Western perspectives and ideas.

1990s: The (Excluded) Core?

By the late 1990s students of color were demanding a curriculum reflecting their interests. At Columbia, advocates of African-American Studies and Ethnic Studies insisted there be more resources and greater academic standing for their new scholarly disciplines. They also protested a required Core that they found ill-suited to an increasingly multi-cultural student body. 

In the end, CC and the Humanities sequence survived yet another tumultuous decade. Both, however, adapted under pressure, adding additional non-white, non-male and non-Western authors. More importantly, the protestors of the 1990s exacted a promise that the Standing Committee on the Core would forge the new Extended Core into a more coherent curriculum with similar critical rigor to CC and Lit Hum but with a global scope. 

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