In The Winter 2001 Issue:

The Beginnings of the Great Books Movement at Columbia

What Columbia College is Known For

Maurice Ewing and Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory

Mark Van Doren was already a living legend when I arrived on campus in 1937. He was not only the talk of literary-minded folks on the fourth floor of John Jay Hall—he was even the toast of the drinking crowd at the Gold Rail and the West End. Close friends of mine managed to squeeze into his overcrowded classes, and although my own luck as a Chinese history major was not that good, under the influence of my upperclass betters (among them Thomas Merton and Robert Gerdy, later an editor at The New Yorker) I made an extracurricular point of reading Van Doren’s Shakespeare and subsequently his Noble Voices. Later I also caught up with his Liberal Education, which became a landmark on the subject. It is full of perennial wisdom, some of it even—believe it or not—on the Asian humanities.

John Rosenberg ‘50C was a student of Van Doren, and he re-creates for readers of our Living Legacies series something of the magic woven by Van Doren during his inspirational classes. Rosenberg himself has been a veteran teacher of the Humanities course (of which Van Doren was a founding father) and of nineteenth-century English literature. A recipient of the Mark Van Doren Great Teacher Award as well as of the Heyman Center Award for Distinguished Service to the Core Curriculum, John is very much a part of the living legacy that comes down from Van Doren.

Van Doren probably thought of himself mostly as a poet, and this side of him is addressed by another former student, John Hollander ‘50C, the Sterling Professor of English at Yale University, who is himself not only one of America’s leading poets but an essayist, anthologist, and a much-honored teacher who carries on the ideals of liberal education that characterize the Core.

In addition to his role as teacher and poet, Mark Van Doren was a major figure in the Great Books movement, which reached out to the University of Chicago, St. John’s College in Annapolis and Santa Fe, and many other American campuses. We are fortunate to have Mark’s son John, long executive editor of The Great Ideas Today (a companion to the Great Books program), to give us a firsthand account of how that program developed. Carl Hovde ’50C, former dean of the College and a prominent leader of the Humanities program, tells us something of how the program has developed in more recent years, still as an integral part of the Core Curriculum in the College.

The third installment of Living Legacies featured Mark’s colleague Joseph Wood Krutch as a drama critic who evolved into an amateur naturalist and a great nature writer in the tradition of Henry David Thoreau. While Krutch was at this, the geologist Maurice Ewing was exploring the depths of the earth’s oceans in the course of revolutionizing the study of geology and oceanography. As the founder of the Lamont Geological Observatory (now known as the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory), he not only launched many geological expeditions but indeed set research vessels sailing from Piermont, New York, to range the seas like their predecessor clipper ships from the same launching site. At Lamont-Doherty in Palisades, New York, Ewing also established a major suburban campus as a base for Columbia’s earth and environmental studies.

Ewing’s grave lies on a mountainside overlooking the scene of his major scientific achievements, near a monument to another great American, the continental explorer General John C. Fremont. To give Ewing’s achievements new life for us, we turn to the prominent writer Laurence Lippsett ’81J, who is now science editor at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution.

Wm. Theodore de Bary ’41C ’53GSAS ’95HON
For the Living Legacies Committee of the 250th Anniversary Celebration