Demands that institutions diversify their curriculum abound. Students at institutions as wide-ranging as Yale and Seattle University are calling for their institutions and departments to “decolonize” their curriculum by revising their syllabi and requirements to ensure that that the educational experience addresses present-day and historic inequalities.
One possible model that institutions might consider as they seek to diversify the curriculum is Columbia’s now vanished, but much lamented, CC-B. CC-A, officially known as Introduction to Contemporary Civilization, is a sweeping overview of Western moral and political philosophy and theology from ancient Greece to the early twentieth century organized around the close reading of classic texts. CC-B, in contrast, focused on the pressing problems of the present through the lens of relatively recent works of social theory, economics, ethics, philosophy, and contemporary theology.
Unlike CC-A, whose syllabus changed exceedingly slowly and incrementally, CC-B’s syllabus was much more dynamic, focusing on economic issues during the Great Depression of the 1930s, anthropological and sociological perspectives in the 1940s and early 1950s, and works of morality and philosophy by such figures as Jean-Paul Sartre, Reinhold Niebuhr, and Paul Tillich during the mid- and late 1950s and early 1960s. CC-B was emphatically presentist, not that it uncritically adhered to present-day values and attitudes, but in addressing contemporary controversies through the lens of recent works that spoke profoundly to the underlying issues of the day.
What CC-B was emphatically not was a disciplinary-based survey course. Instead, it sought to put the “contemporary” into Contemporary Civilization by exploring how leading present-day thinkers responded to the critical issues of their own time. Like Columbia’s other “Great Books” courses, it adopted an approach similar to that advocated by the early Protestant reformers: Seminal works were read closely and critically, but without supplemental contextualization or exegesis by specialists in a particular field. The point was to engage the texts directly, without mediation through the eyes of authority figures.
No doubt, no single course could hope to address the complex social issues of our time, whether these involve privilege, inequality, globalization, (post) colonialism, bioethics, the environment, or emerging technologies and automation. In addition, history hasn't yet sifted the works of the past century to determine which will truly stand the test of time. Certainly, something is lost when we confront texts without the scaffolding offered by a particular discipline, which brings its own methodology, vocabulary, subject matter, and agenda. And many find the very notion of a common syllabus an anathema.
But something is also gained by such an approach. Such a course is interdisciplinary by design. Instructors become active participants in the learning process, rather than simply serving as subject matter specialists. Above all, the skills most prized by the liberal arts – critical inquiry, close reading, textual explication, and moral reflection – become central to the learning experience.
It is extraordinary, in retrospect, how few books many of the great thinkers and writers of the past actually read. In today’s environment where much reading consists of skimming and scanning, an opportunity to read deeply and closely complex, seminal texts with an established reputation for profundity and insight – such as Frantz Fanon’s Black Skins, White Masks, Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex, James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time – is not only rare but immensely valuable.
The demise of CC-B in the mid-1960s reflected the triumph of disciplinary-based thinking within the academy. Although Columbia encouraged departments to develop courses that exploited cross-disciplinary connections and explored links between the discipline’s foundations and contemporary issues, most departments simply offered general introductions to their particular field. The result: Students inadvertently received the message that no works in philosophy, social science, or theology published in the last 75 years deserve the same kind of searching analysis as do the great books of the more distant past. They inadvertently received the message that the issues that preoccupy thinkers today – involving the nature of power, stratification, and inequality and ethnic, gender, and national conflict—do not merit the concerted focus that the current core places on the gradual rise of liberalism and its critics and adversaries. Faculty may feel more comfortable teaching within their disciplinary silos and paradigms, but the issues of our time deserve a more holistic analysis.
An updated version of CC-B might address some the defining present issues and controversies through the lens of literature, social science, philosophy, as well as feminist and critical race theorists. Such a course can offer what the Great Books curriculum offers at Columbia, the University of Chicago, and St. John’s: A shared intellectual experience, a common frame of reference, and a set of ideas that one will engage for the rest of life.
Great Books did not end with Sigmund Freud or Virginia Woolf. The time has come, yet again, to embrace the Great Books spirit and delve into the most problematic aspects of our contemporary reality through works that speak to our time and perhaps all time.
--Steven Mintz, University of Texas System