It's a cold, blustery morning in February, a few weeks into Columbia College's Spring term. The classroom on an upper floor of Hamilton Hall is warm, and one of the first students to arrive cracks a window before easing into a seat. During the next few minutes, more people arrive, find their places around the big wooden table and talk quietly among themselves. The mood is subdued; clearly this would have been a great morning to sleep in.
The twenty-two students in this section of Literature Humanities know each other well. They've already been through a great deal together, grappling as a group with some of history's weightiest ideas and issues. By the end of this term -- this is a two-semester core curriculum course -- they will have confronted major works by more than twenty authors, ranging in time, theme and genre from Homer to Virginia Woolf. Today's topic: Dante's Inferno.
The professor arrives -- a lively person with a no-nonsense air and a sizable stack of books, each festooned with bookmarks. Conversations wind down, and after one or two routine announcements and a quick check to make sure everyone has today's handout (a diagram that depicts Dante's nine levels of hell), the professor gets down to business: "What did you think of the Inferno? And what is the significance of Dante's design for hell?"
Those questions trigger furious discussion, as students exchange views emblematic of their backgrounds. Often several people speak at once. A sense of intellectual energy, shared curiosity and mutual respect permeated the classroom as the professor guides the students through the debates and controversies of the day.
"Look, I just can't accept the notion of heaven and hell as real, physical places of eternal bliss or torment," one student says. "Say you go to heaven. No matter how wonderful it is, how can you be happy and contented while other beings -- maybe people you knew -- are living in unending pain and misery? What, you're supposed to forget about them, now that you've made it into paradise?"
Across the table, another student speaks, "Is it blasphemous for Dante to color hell in his own image? I think that for him even to assume that hell exists is morally imperialistic. But if there is a hell, am I more likely to see Odysseus or Schwartzkopf in mine?"
The discussion continues. Propelled by the professor's skillful use of the Socratic method, students deal with various topics. As a group, they seek a clearer perspective by relating the work at hand to the texts they've read and discussed earlier in the year -- Homer's Iliad, for example, and Vergil's Aeneid. They analyze Dante's literary devices, and they relate his ideas to what they've learned in their homes, schools and places of worship. Frequently there's disagreement, but the two hours pass quickly. And on Monday, it'll be on to another text.
What's happening here. If you can appreciate the rationale of our core curriculum -- the courses that we expect you to complete during your first two years or so -- you'll understand a great deal about the singular educational experience that's available to you in Columbia College.
As an introduction to the in-depth study of the humanities and social sciences, the core curriculum is intended to help you explore what it means to be human. Before you turn your attention to your academic major or concentration -- and as preparation for advanced work in the field of your choice -- we want you to take time to immerse yourself in literature, philosophy, history, music and art. Aggressively. Hungrily. Passionately. Yes, it's a heady experience. But it's also an experience of the heart. As you progress through the core, your understanding of yourself, the world, and your place in it will deepen significantly. And along the way you'll also acquire and hone the very practical skills of observation, analysis, exegesis, argument, imaginative comparison and respect for the nuances of the intellect.
What that foundation -- which we adamantly affirm is the finest foundation in the liberal arts available anywhere -- you'll be well prepared to make the most of Columbia College's other offerings and to benefit from a lifetime of continued intellectual inquiry and discovery.
Almost all of your courses in Columbia College will meet in small section. With about thirty-six hundred students, we have the advantage of being the smallest liberal arts college in the Ivy League, and we go to great lengths to make that advantage work for you in every possible way.
How will everything come together into a coherent, meaningful four-year program? Let's look at some of the particulars.
Required courses in Columbia College. Requirements differ somewhat for students in Columbia College and for students in the School of Engineering and Applied Science. In Columbia College, the full complement looks like this: