As the Columbia University School of General Studies celebrates its 70th anniversary, the "GS at 70" series highlights critical moments in the creation and growth of the School.
by Robert Ast '08
“And what shall be their education? Can we find a better than the traditional sort?”
Socrates’ question to Adeimantus in Plato’s The Republic has been at the heart of the School of General Studies mission since its founding in 1947. However, on a University-wide level, it grew increasingly vexed in the late 1980s, as the nature and content of a college education received scrutiny that was academic, political, and, above all, new. “Multiculturalism. Eurocentrism. Political Correctness. Culture Wars. Many of the terms that dominate the current debate on higher education were virtually unknown ten years ago,” notes Timothy P. Cross in An Oasis of Order, a 1995 essay on the history of Columbia’s Core Curriculum.
The Columbia Core was precisely the type of curricular model in question. At its foundation lay the texts of the Western canon, widely influential yet authored by a narrow coterie of dead white men. Like the student activism campaigns urging divestment from the apartheid regime in South Africa—which, at Columbia, included hunger strikes and a barricade of Hamilton Hall—that spanned the decade, the discussions over the canon and its continued relevance to undergraduates at GS and Columbia’s other undergraduate schools reflected a heated national debate.
The issue of greater representation of women and people of color on syllabi took on increased resonance with Columbia College’s admission of women in 1983. While most classes had long been coeducational, thanks to the women students of the School of General Studies, Barnard College, and Columbia’s graduate schools, the presence of women in the College spurred a re-evaluation of the Core’s list of exclusively male authors. Faculty struggled to balance historical impact and inclusiveness, a negotiation that persists today as the Core continues to be revised and reimagined.
Perhaps the most poignant distillation of the historical moment was provided by GS student Laura Hotchkiss Brown ’89, who created a banner featuring the names of women authors in the same typeface as those of the male authors and orators engraved on the façade of Butler Library. After she and four friends were arrested on Butler’s roof when they attempted to unfurl the banner during the 1989 Commencement ceremony, she worked with GS Dean Ward Dennis, University Librarian Elaine Sloan, and the Institute for Research on Women and Gender on an exhibition in the fall of 1989, during which the banner was displayed.
As with the Core, other aspects of Columbia’s academic structure were being reevaluated to better represent the entirety of the undergraduate and graduate student bodies. The unification of faculty members in the humanities, social sciences, and physical sciences into a single body, rather than separate faculties for Columbia College, the School of General Studies, the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, and the School of International and Public Affairs, had been discussed with increasing enthusiasm since it was first proposed in 1957.
In 1987, a presidential commission reported that at least 90 percent of faculty members in arts and sciences departments taught in at least three of the four faculties that would be merged, noting that it made “little or no sense” to maintain separate faculties that were “no longer distinguished by the character or qualifications of the professors who serve in them but only by the age of their students or the level of their instruction.”
A single faculty would facilitate a holistic consideration of the University’s academic endeavor: “In our present circumstances, there is virtually no issue that concerns one school that does not concern, directly or indirectly, the others as well,” the report stated. While there were some initial concerns, all faculties ultimately supported the merge, and the Faculty of Arts and Sciences held its first meeting in December 1991—a moment that, like the changes to the Core, helped to define Columbia as the institution it is today.
From June 1-4, 2017, GS alumni, students, and staff celebrated the 70th Anniversary of the School of General Studies. To view event photos, please visit the Columbia University School of General Studies Alumni Facebook Page.