Columbia Core Curriculum: What Makes It So Great?

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If you are planning on enrolling at Columbia University this fall, you may have heard some chatter about the Columbia Core Curriculum.

No matter what your major might be, the Core Curriculum is designed to expose you to a wide range of significant achievements and ideas in history, literature, music, science, philosophy, and art.

Some people refer to the Core Curriculum as “general education” or “liberal arts” requirements. Yet it’s so much more. Here’s everything you need to know about the Columbia Core Curriculum – and why it should matter to you.

What Is the Columbia Core Curriculum?

The cornerstone of a Columbia education is the Core curriculum.

The mission of the Core curriculum is to provide all students, regardless of major, career goals and degree concentration, with a variety of perspectives on universal topics.

At the center of the Core, all students will be encouraged to explore challenging ideas in small, intensive classes.

One of the most influential courses is the Contemporary Civilization course, a class that has roots all the way back to 1919 and spans two full semesters.

  • In this class, all students will explore the history of political and moral thought, going as far back as Plato and reaching forward into the present time.

Another important class is Masterpieces of European Literature and Philosophy (sometimes referred to as Literature Humanities or simply Lit Hum). Students engaged in the Core Curriculum will also study topics such as:

  • Science
  • Writing
  • Music
  • Art
  • Creative works (outside of the Western collection)

All of these courses support the tradition of the Core as they encourage students to ask – and seek answers to – better academic questions.

Class sizes are small and allow students to bond with their peers and faculty very early on in their studies, all the while working toward a greater spirit of intellectual inquiry.

What Are the Guiding Themes of the CCC?

The Columbia Core Curriculum focuses on three major themes that span historical epochs and national frontiers: philosophical inquiry, scientific investigation, and artistic expression.

There is extensive flexibility within the core so that students are not only exposed to a range of requirements from various disciplines, but they can also fulfill requirements in the social sciences, literature, science, humanities, quantitative reasoning, and foreign languages.

As a result of the Columbia Core Curriculum, students develop strong intellectual interests, explore new areas of inquiry, and position their knowledge within ages-old traditions of Western thought (while at the same time critically reflecting on the tradition’s place in global history).

What Are the Course Offerings?

All students must take the following classes:

  • Literature Humanities
  • Contemporary Civilization
  • University Writing
  • Art Humanities – any of the following can be taken
    • Art in China, Japan, and Korea
    • Masterpieces of Western Art
    • Masterpieces of Indian Art and Architecture
    • Arts of Islam: The First Formative Centuries (circa 700-1000)
  • Music Humanities – any of the following can be taken
    • Masterpieces of Western Music
    • Introduction to the Musics of East Asia and Southeast Asia
    • Introduction to the Musics of India and West Asia
  • Frontiers of Science

Outside of those six classes, students must complete a science requirement, global core requirement, quantitative reasoning requirement, foreign language requirement, and physical education requirement.

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Sample broad course categories (each of which has an approved set of courses within itself) and examples of approved offerings are as follows (a full listing can be found in the Columbia University bulletin). There are hundreds of classes available that can fulfill Columbia Core Curriculum requirements.

Science Requirement:

  • Astronomy
  • Biology
  • Chemistry
  • Computer Science
  • Earth and Environmental Engineering
  • Earth and Environmental Sciences
  • Ecology, Evolution, and Environmental Biology
  • Electrical Engineering
  • Food Studies
  • Mathematics
  • Physics
  • Psychology
  • General Science
  • Statistics

Global Core Requirement:

  • African-American Studies
  • Anthropology
  • Art History and Archaeology
  • Classics
  • East Asian Languages and Cultures
  • Economics
  • Film Studies
  • French
  • Germanic Languages
  • History
  • Latin American and Iberian Cultures
  • Linguistics
  • Middle Eastern, South Asian, and African Studies
  • Music
  • Religion
  • Slavic Languages
  • Sociology

Foreign Language Requirement:

  • Akkadian
  • Arabic
  • Bengali
  • Bosnian-Croatian-Serbian
  • Catalan
  • Chinese
  • Czech
  • Filipino
  • French
  • German
  • Greek, Classical and Modern
  • Hebrew
  • Japanese
  • Korean
  • Latin
  • Persian
  • Pulaar
  • Punjabi
  • Romanian
  • Russian
  • Sanskrit
  • Tibetan
  • Zulu

Physical Education Requirement:

  • Body Sculpting
  • Beginner Golf
  • Judo
  • Beginner Hiking
  • Basketball
  • Floor Hockey
  • Cardio Fitness
  • Badminton
  • Foundations of Functional Fitness
  • Squash
  • Mindful Walking
  • Hatha Yoga
  • Vinyasa Yoga

Students can meet the requirements for the Quantitative Reasoning score in several ways, including:

  • A minimum 600 score on the Math SAT or 27 on the ACT
  • A passing score on the GS Quantitative Reasoning Exam
  • A passing letter grade in a course from the list of approved courses (such as those in Computer Science, Economics, Mathematics, and Statistics)
  • Approved transfer credit on the Entrance Credit Report

What Are the Columbia Core Curriculum Requirements?

All first-year students must take the following classes in the Columbia Core Curriculum:

  • Masterpieces of Western Literature
  • University Writing
  • Frontiers of Science

In the sophomore year, Contemporary Civilization, a year-long course, is required.

After all of these courses are completed, students can choose to take the remainder of the Core Curriculum courses at any time. These requirements include:

  • Art Humanities (one semester)
  • Science (two semesters)
  • Foreign Language (four semesters)
  • Non-Western Major Cultures (any courses, two semesters total)
  • Physical Education (two semesters)

All students must also take and pass a swimming test before they receive their diplomas, which is a feature shared among all Ivy League universities.

What Are the Benefits of the Columbia Core Curriculum?

At first glance, the requirements of the Columbia Core Curriculum may seem like a burden – especially to students who are majoring in STEM-disciplines that, at other universities, would require very few courses in the humanities.

However, the Columbia Core Curriculum exposes students in a clear, coherent, and rigorous way to the most influential minds of the world.

  • It has no restrictions on time or place, instead providing students with insight into a wide continuum of thinkers.
  • It offers the perfect excuse for students outside of the humanities to learn about topics that otherwise would not cross their minds and to develop their skills in analysis and interpretation.

Unlike the general education or distribution requirements put in place by other institutions, the Columbia Core Curriculum does not take a hodge-podge or a “spray and pray” approach.

Since all students are required (more or less) to take the same core courses, students are guaranteed to complete the Core with solid intellectual development.

Through the Columbia Core Curriculum, students will be forced to study many different subjects. Students can fill in their schedule easily because they won’t have much room left when their major required courses are filled in.

  • For students who have yet to declare a major, the Columbia Core Curriculum can help provide insight into their personal skills, interest, and potential career paths.

The Columbia Core Curriculum is often described as the “essence” of a liberal arts education. Although many students regard the sole purpose of college to prepare them for a particular vocation, there are some tangible intellectual and economic benefits for all students enrolled in this kind of program.

Even if you are not majoring in a subject within the humanities, you will benefit from intellectually stimulating and culturally enriching courses.

What Are the Drawbacks of the Columbia Core Curriculum?

There are some criticisms of the Core Curriculum. Critics argue that the Core Curriculum is a tool to promote an Anglocentric society that focuses solely on the works of “dead white men.”

However, in recent years, Columbia has added courses that focus on major cultures outside of the Western world, allowing students to study the works of thinkers all over the world.

There has also been some recent controversy over whether visiting artists and scholars to Columbia should have the privilege of having their works added to the syllabus.

  • This issue was brought to the forefront with a play by Vaclav Havel in the fall of 2006.

Some people also feel that the Core Curriculum requirements at Columbia make it more difficult for students to explore other electives.

  • However, with a broad range of classes required as part of the core, it’s unlikely that there are other courses students would want to explore.

Another criticism of the core is that only courses of three points or more can fulfill the requirements of the Columbia Core Curriculum, and that independent study also cannot be used for these requirements.

  • AP course credit, which is often used at comparable universities to fulfill general education requirements, also cannot be used for the Columbia Core Curriculum (with the occasional exception of foreign languages).

Only advisors can determine whether transfer courses can satisfy core requirements, which can turn the process of transferring into Columbia into somewhat of a game of waiting.

You may have to wait until the last minute to find out whether you are going to get credit for coursework you have already completed.

In addition, a single course can only satisfy one core requirement at a time. You can’t double up and use a single course to meet multiple requirements, although this is a trait shared by many universities that have core course requirements.

There are some exceptions to this, too. Foundations of Science, Frontiers of Science, and Symbolic Logic may be used for multiple requirements. So, too, can courses in mathematics, statistics, and computer science, which can meet both quantitative reasoning and science requirements.

What Are the Class Sizes at Columbia?

Columbia University prides itself on small class sizes. In fact, more than 80% of undergraduate classes here have fewer than 20 students.

Columbia’s Core Curriculum classes are even smaller, existing as seminar classes to allow direct connection with faculty. Very few classes here are larger than 20 students.

With more than 120 sections offered each semester, Core seminars are capped – usually at 16 to 22 students. Larger class sizes limit student speaking opportunities as well as close interaction between students and instructors.

How Has the Core Changed Over Time?

The Core Curriculum was developed in the 1880s, inspired by trends at other prestigious American universities, such as Harvard University.

At the time, President Frederick Augustus Porter recognized the need to move toward more elective programs and pushed adamantly toward this shift as other schools began to broaden their liberal arts education requirements.

Although Porter’s initial pushes toward a generalized curriculum lost steam at first, they eventually grew in popularity as more schools decided to focus on Latin and Greek classics at the core of their education system.

  • In the later part of the decade and moving forward into the early 20th century, the university developed courses in modern languages that were required of all students.

World War I served as a major driving force in cementing the Core Curriculum in place, requiring all students to take the Contemporary Civilization course. Partially an act of propaganda, this course encouraged US involvement in the war by stressing the importance of Western Civilization.

Despite these politically-addled origins, the Core Curriculum pressed on, joining a movement with other US universities in the later decades of the 1900s toward a more elective educational system.

Although many historians see the shift as a broad response to social activism, others recognize that it served to prepare students for post-graduate professional and scientific studies. The Core Curriculum has evolved since its founding to include greater depth of study in art, music, and science.

It has endured despite the fact that many universities have now moved away from similar “core curriculum” programs to “distribution requirements” that ensure academic breadth.

Should I Take the Columbia Core Curriculum?

Truthfully, there is no way to attend Columbia University as an undergraduate without taking the Core Curriculum.

It is required of all students. However, there are very few good reasons not to want to take the Core Curriculum to begin with.

Not only will the Core Curriculum turn you into a more well-rounded thinker and intellectual, but it can open your eyes to a wealth of potential career opportunities.

The hallmark of a Columbia education is that it leads to a deeper, more informed process of thinking – and that’s something that can only be achieved by taking a variety of classes in areas outside your normal scope of interest.

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