What I’d Assign to Today’s College Students

My weekend column used this season of campus protest as an opportunity to discuss the evolution of Columbia’s core curriculum, whose readings on contemporary politics, I argued, usefully distill the core of contemporary progressivism while leaving a great deal else by the wayside.

I included some examples of ideas and writers that the present Columbia syllabus leaves out, but I wanted to give a little more attention to the question of what a supplement to the progressive approach would look like. If you were trying to bring a great-books program all the way up to the present and you wanted to widen the ideological aperture beyond Columbia’s progressive focus, what wouldyou have your students read?

One answer is that the very idea of being up-to-date is a mistake because readings oriented explicitly to the present are everywhere in education and the point of a core curriculum is to stand a little bit apart, to connect you to the riches of the past — riches that have been sifted in a way that just isn’t possible with the publications and arguments of the past few generations.

I have some sympathy with this idea: If I were designing a core humanities program for high school students (not that I’ve ever thought about this or anything), my strong impulse would be to just hit “stop” at World War II or 1965 and decline to make any judgment on what will be remembered as the great books of the recent past and present.

But Columbia’s core curriculum, while very much a great-books program in its execution, has also carried, since its inception in 1919, a mandate to address “the insistent problems of the present.” So one can criticize the ideological narrowness of the contemporary readings while still recognizing that the syllabus is trying to fulfill its academic mandate, not betray it.

Here, then, are four attempts at fulfilling that mandate but with a wider lens. I’m presenting these as potential modules, packaged similarly to the way the current Columbia curriculum packages its modern readings under “anticolonialism,” “race, gender and sexuality” and “climate and futures.” Note that I’m imagining these as supplements to those existing modules; if I were drawing up a complete syllabus, it would include more socialist and feminist and anticolonial perspectives. And obviously if tomorrow Columbia decided to supplement its syllabus along these lines, it could choose (or excerpt from) only a few of the books and essays I’ve listed; I’m just trying to show the range that each module might include.

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