In 1916 Columbia University dropped its Latin requirement for admissions, effectively opening its doors to the striving sons of immigrants. Thus (in a word) it became the first Ivy League school to deal with the issue of diversity. In the same year, Professor John Erskine proposed what became the General Honors course, Columbia’s celebrated core curriculum of Great Books. Much later that program would come under fire for not including enough female and non-Western authors—but measured against the standards of its time, it was strikingly democratic, inclusive, and anti-authoritarian. The students who were now entering, educated at public schools, lacked the common classical training of prep-school boys, so Erskine aimed to teach them a shared body of literature that was far more broad and accessible. It took the Classics Department a year to get through Herodotus in the original: General Honors covered him (in translation) in a week. And Erskine’s definition of “Great Book” was clearly flexible: he envisioned that the reading list would be revised from year to year, and at first it was. The aim was not to follow a rigid canon, but to create the basis for a common conversation. And so it did: the early cohort of students included young men who would go on to shape intellectual discourse in mid-century America: Lionel Trilling, Jacques Barzun, Clifton Fadiman, Whittaker Chambers, Joseph Mankiewicz (future screenwriter and director), and Leon Keyserling (later Harry Truman’s top economic advisor), with Mark Van Doren and Mortimer Adler serving as instructors. Early in his teaching career, Erksine explained his liberation pedagogy: . . . A college course in literature should provide for two things—the direct contact of the student’s mind with as many books as possible, and the filling in of any gaps in his sympathy with what he reads. Almost all the great books were intended for the average man, and the author contemplated an immediate relation with his audience. There is room for the annotator or teacher only when time has made the subject remote or strange, or when the reader’s imagination is unable to grasp the recorded experience . . . If the student’s task is to read great books constantly, the teacher’s part [is] to connect the reading with the pupil’s experience . . . . . .
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