Columbia's Insistent Problems: Protestant Ethics, World War I, and Contemporary Civilization

Literature Humanities and Contemporary Civilization, the centerpieces of Columbia’s Core Curriculum, respectively consist of introductions to the Western canons of literature and philosophy. Contrary to its name, “Contemporary Civilization,” known colloquially as CC, does not pertain to contemporary political dilemmas, at least not directly. Starting their philosophical undertaking in classical antiquity, students taking CC end their inquiry in the twentieth century. Needless to say, the course has gaps, omissions, simplifications, and compromises of every kind, and it spends most of its yearlong duration on texts written before King’s College royal charter in 1754. While the present iteration of this unifying course lacks a clear connection to contemporary issues, the inaugural sections of CC, which began in September of 1919, examined primarily the fifty years preceding its founding. Novel and untested, CC intended to prepare Columbian men to participate in the contemporary American political economy.

A product of the end of World War I, the Core Curriculum’s first course claimed a class called “War Issues,” which educated future U.S. Army officers on the social and political underpinnings of the Great War, as an ancestor. The history and philosophy faculty, as well as Columbia’s administration, eager to preserve the homogeneity of their white Anglo-Saxon Protestant school as more Jewish students enrolled during and after the war, devised a curriculum that inculcated the attendant values: pride in agricultural and industrial prowess laden with a clear sense of Western superiority. CC emerged in a post-war milieu of anti-Semitism and uncertainty about the future of empire. These two attitudes bolstered one another and flourished among faculty and administrators. They devised a course focused on individual traits and their consequences for nationalism and imperialism. Its principle sections consisted of:

  1. The physical world, which man has to live in and use.
  2. The chief racial and cultural groups.
  3. The chief human traits which must be considered if man is to know himself and direct his own activity.
  4. The unique features of the life of the western world of today—intellectual, economic, political—displayed in contrast with the characteristic features of the civilization of earlier days.
  5. The history during recent times of the countries now linked in close international relations.
  6. The insistent problems these nations must face, internal and international. Among these problems are: How to produce many goods cheaply and at the same time humanely; how to determine the just division of industrial earnings; how to achieve a legal and political order which will be at once responsive to a changing social opinion and sufficiently stable to permit the completion of large cooperative enterprises; how to eliminate waste, human and material; how to preserve national unity and individual strength, yet enjoy the benefits of international cooperation; how to devise an educational system advantageous commercially and culturally and productive of individual profit and social benefit. [1]

White Euro-American hegemony appeared as the central premise and conclusion of the new course in contemporary civilization. This exhibit examines CC’s creation in the context of World War I and challenges to WASP’s superiority. The architectural histories of Morningside Heights and Columbia’s campus, as well as Columbia’s educational role in World War I, contextualize CC’s racist and imperialist ideologies. The course made little to no mention of American slavery, reconstruction, and imperialism and promoted American exceptionalism. The following sections tell how the actions of a few men defined a cornerstone of the Columbia experience.

[1] Herbert Hawkes, “A College Course on Peace Issues,” Educational Review 58 (1919): 147-8.


Dimitri Leggas