Univ. Seminars Celebrate Their 50th Birthday

Photograph, "Scholars in Transition" is a theme of the University Seminars 50th anniversary celebration, captured in this adaptation of a Renaissance drawing.

The first University Seminar created at Columbia 50 years ago was titled "The Problem of Peace." It continues to meet to this day, as timely as its topic and as vigorous as the University Seminars movement that spawned it, conceived at Columbia in 1945 and about to celebrate its golden anniversary.

The Seminars bring together scholars from many fields and organizations to discuss broad topics and major questions of the day that cross traditional academic boundaries. Five original seminars created by a small group of Columbia scholars have today grown to 76 with nearly 2,000 participants from 148 institutions and almost every branch of learning. The movement has spread to other campuses here and abroad.

Among the other original seminars still meeting are "Studies in Religion" and "The Renaissance." Others created over the years include "American Civilization" (1954), "The City" (1962), "Innovation in Education" (1970), "Women and Society" (1974), "Scientific Literacy" (1987) and "Japan's Global Role" (1992).

The Seminars' 50th anniversary celebration, titled "Scholars and Communities in Transition," will begin Fri., Mar. 24, with a day of open seminars on five major topics and an evening banquet. Forty-two leading scholars, including Columbia historians Kenneth T. Jackson and Simon Schama, political scientist Ester R. Fuchs, sociologist Herbert J. Gans and African-American studies scholar Manning Marable will take part in the seminars on scholarly communities, New York City, the Middle East, religion and the evolution of thought and culture. Sessions will be held in the Kellogg Center in the International Affairs Building and in Faculty House.

At the banquet in Low Rotunda, the Frank Tannenbaum Memorial Award will be presented to Columbia's scholar of Asian humanities Wm. Theodore de Bary, and professors David N. Dinkins and Gillian Lindt will speak. Tannenbaum, a professor of history at Columbia who died in 1969, founded the University Seminars. A two-day conference on agrarian reform in Mexico, one of his interests, is planned Apr. 6-7 for the 50th-year observance and to mark the 100th anniversary of his birth.

The seminars were brought into being in 1945 by a group of 18 Columbia professors worried that academic specialization might limit the ability of scholars in different disciplines to talk to one another. They feared that universities would become unable to cope with the world's deepest concerns--peace, governance, urban life--that do not fit neatly into any one academic discipline. They conceived of the seminars as voluntary associations of scholars from Columbia and other universities as well as nonacademic institutions--government, foundations, business, the arts and others.

The seminar on Peace was first chaired by Philip C. Jessup, the Columbia professor and international jurist, and has drawn its membership for 50 years from a wide intellectual spectrum--historians, economists, sociologists, philosophers, theologians, physicists, philanthropists, corporate executives, military leaders, lawyers, politicians, United Nations officials. Its subsequent chairmen have been well known scholars Arthur Burns, Leland Goodrich, John Hazard, Marshall Shulman and Oscar Schachter.

Jessup said when he proposed it, "The emphasis of the Seminar should be on the maintenance or waging of peace rather than on prevention of war, which has been the typical approach to this topic. I think we need to be constantly reminded that peace is attained by continuous effort, like crops in a rugged climate."

Over its first half century, the movement at Columbia spawned 143 seminars; while a majority have survived, some, like one of the originals, "The Seminar on Rural Life," have disbanded. Most meet monthly over dinner at Faculty House and feature a speaker and discussion. They are virtually autonomous, setting their own schedules and agendas.

The director, Aaron W. Warner, offers space, advice and other support, using a small endowment given by Tannenbaum and funds raised continually. The University provides offices and gives members campus privileges.

Warner notes that the roster of seminar titles indicates that scholarly interest in religion and science appears to be increasing. Recently created seminars include "Buddhist Studies," "The Veda and Its Interpretations," "The Changing World of Mathematics" and "National Health and Science Policy."

"The Seminars have staying power," said Warner, a professor emeritus at Columbia and former dean of the School of General Studies, "because they give academics the opportunity to meet other distinguished people who are dealing with the same subjects but in different fields both in and outside universities. The seminar broadens their exposure and enriches their knowledge of a subject and enables them to be better teachers."

Robert L. Belknap, professor of Slavic languages at Columbia and chairman of the Seminars' advisory committee, said: "The Seminars are at the boundaries of traditional departments, where intellectually exciting things have happened, bio-physics, for example, or genetic epidemiology. The University Seminars are a good place for such fields to germinate."

"Frank Tannenbaum," said Warner, "could not have foreseen the phenomenal growth of the Seminar movement 50 years ago. I receive calls and letters from other institutions regularly asking how they might start their own. A number have, notably North Carolina at Chapel Hill and George Washington."

Since his death 25 years ago, Tannenbaum has been remembered in a lecture in his name given by a distinguished scholar at the Seminars' annual dinner on campus. In 1993, through a bequest, the Seminars inaugurated an annual lecture series named for Leonard Hastings Schoff, a long-time member.

Looking to the future, Warner has begun to experiment with establishment of what he calls "the one-book seminar," a regular, fully-functioning seminar but one created with a set lifetime sufficient to produce a book on its subject. Cities in the 20th Century may be the title of the first one.

In a 1962 appraisal, Tannenbaum wrote: "While the Seminars differ in manner and method, there is probably no other place in the country where so many distinguished scholars bring their wit and wisdom to bear on the puzzling and unsolved difficulties that beset our times, or where so many new ideas are brought to the surface." It is an observation, Warner notes, that "resonates to the present day."

All events Mar. 24 are open to the public. Registration for the seminars is $10, free for students with valid ID. The banquet is $35; reservations required. Information: 854-2389.


Columbia University Record -- March 24, 1995 -- Vol. 20, No. 21