Crowdsourcing the Core: Columbia College Celebrates 75 Years of Lit Hum

Gary Shapiro
June 25, 2013

Thucydides and Twitter are not an obvious pair. Classic authors and digital technology nevertheless clicked at an April celebration marking the 75th anniversary of the undergraduate Core Curriculum course, Literature Humanities. Students, faculty and alumni gathered in Low Library in spring to celebrate Lit Hum, the conversations and the life of ideas it cultivates—and to live tweet about it.

James Mirollo (GSAS’51,’61), Parr Professor Emeritus of English and Comparative Literature, reminisced about having to teach "King Lear" to students during the day and then again the same night at a Heyman Center alumni event that revisited the Core. “The young students thought the play was about a crazy old man,” he said. “The adults thought it was about the ingratitude of children.”

That the same text says different things to different readers is the theory at the heart of Lit Hum, the two-semester survey of the masterworks of Western literature and philosophy that all Columbia College first-year students are required to take. It’s been a key part of the Core since 1937, along with Contemporary Civilization, which focuses on readings in politics, morality, religion and society.

“Lit Hum equips students with tools to think about and talk about fundamental questions that they’re facing in their own lives,” says Roosevelt Montás (CC’95), director of the Center for the Core Curriculum.

Or, as Gareth Williams, Violin Family Professor of Classics and chair of Lit Hum put it at the anniversary seminar, “Lit Hum’s texts do not remain static. They change, as we change.”

As if to prove Williams’ point, a large screen displayed live tweets from the event. “(Lit Hum) unites us across viewpoints, across generations... gives us a common ground,” tweeted Montás. A student point of view came from Huilong Han (CC’15), one the student panelists at the event, who was quoted in a tweet as saying, “Lit Hum takes a lot of time.”

Another screen had excerpts of works that have been the backbone of the course once called Humanities A. Four titles have never left the reading list, which means that generations of Columbia College students have all read Homer’s "The Iliad," Aeschylus’ "Oresteia," Sophocles’ "Oedipus the King" and Dante’s "The Inferno." Mirollo noted how reading the latter—a mainstay of the syllabus—can put the fear of hell into students—literally. “I like to ask them, after they read the book, to tell me in which part of the Inferno they are going to end up,” he said, adding, “Most of them say they would end up in the Circle of the Lustful.”

Today’s Lit Hum syllabus includes works ranging from the Bible and Augustine’s "Confessions" to Montaigne’s "Essays" and Virginia Woolf’s "To the Lighthouse."

Small class size, primary texts and student participation are the bedrock as the course sails across centuries, nationalities, genres and styles. With the entire incoming freshman class simultaneously reading the same books, informal discussion often spills over into dorms and dining rooms.

Mirollo described how the faculty of 75 years ago horsetraded over food and wine at each others’ homes to come up with the first syllabus. The negotiations, he says, went something like this: “I want three Moliére plays, I’ll give you four Shakespeare plays.”

After the panel presentation, alumni and students fanned out to Kent, Hamilton and Philosophy halls for breakout sessions. Toting excerpts from Jane Austen, Montaigne, Euripides and Homer, they found common ground discussing the texts and their own Lit Hum experiences.

Deborah Martinsen (SIPA’82, GSAS’90), associate dean of alumni education, identified what she calls “Core nostalgia,” where alumni bond over Core books they read or meant to read. She has helped develop study questions for Core-based alumni book clubs, which have sprung up in New York and Washington.

Among the conference attendees were many current and emeriti professors who taught Lit Hum. Edward Tayler, the Lionel Trilling Professor Emeritus in the Humanities, said, “The Core propels you into areas of thought and feeling that you would not enter on your own.”

Among the tweets swirling across the screen in Low Library were several from Toomas Hendrik Ilves (CC’76), who graduated from Columbia with a B.A. in psychology and is now the president of Estonia. “Congratulations #LitHum75—and CC: the two best courses I have ever taken. 40 years later, when all else is forgotten, still with me daily,” he posted. And then, a bit later, “The #LitHum75 cringe: years later, reading your erstwhile margin notes when re-reading the Iliad or Beyond Good & Evil for the nth time."