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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

What I’d assign to today’s college students

A student reads at a pro-Palestinian encampment on Library Mall, at the University of Wisconsin-Madison campus on May 2, 2024. (Kaleb Autman/The New York Times)

By Ross Douthat

My weekend column used this season of campus protest as an opportunity to discuss the evolution of Columbia University’s core curriculum, whose readings on contemporary politics, I argued, usefully distill the core of contemporary progressivism while leaving a great deal else by the wayside.

I included some examples of ideas and writers that the present Columbia syllabus leaves out, but I wanted to give a little more attention to the question of what a supplement to the progressive approach would look like. If you were trying to bring a great-books program all the way up to the present and you wanted to widen the ideological aperture beyond Columbia’s progressive focus, what would you have your students read?

One answer is that the very idea of being up to date is a mistake because readings oriented explicitly to the present are everywhere in education and the point of a core curriculum is to stand a little bit apart, to connect you to the riches of the past — riches that have been sifted in a way that just isn’t possible with the publications and arguments of the past few generations.

I have some sympathy with this idea: If I were designing a core humanities program for high school students (not that I’ve ever thought about this or anything), my strong impulse would be to just hit “stop” at World War II or 1965 and decline to make any judgment on what will be remembered as the great books of the recent past and present.

But Columbia’s core curriculum, while very much a great-books program in its execution, has also carried, since its inception in 1919, a mandate to address “the insistent problems of the present.” So one can criticize the ideological narrowness of the contemporary readings while still recognizing that the syllabus is trying to fulfill its academic mandate, not betray it.

Here, then, are four attempts at fulfilling that mandate but with a wider lens. I’m presenting these as potential modules, packaged similarly to the way the current Columbia curriculum packages its modern readings under “anticolonialism,” “race, gender and sexuality” and “climate and futures.” Note that I’m imagining these as supplements to those existing modules; if I were drawing up a complete syllabus, it would include more socialist and feminist and anticolonial perspectives. And obviously if tomorrow Columbia decided to supplement its syllabus along these lines, it could choose (or excerpt from) only a few of the books and essays I’ve listed; I’m just trying to show the range that each module might include.

The secular and the sacred

Harvey Cox, “The Secular City”; Philip Rieff, “The Triumph of the Therapeutic”; Tom Wolfe, “The ‘Me’ Decade and the Third Great Awakening”; Christopher Lasch, “The Culture of Narcissism”; Richard John Neuhaus, “The Naked Public Square”; Charles Taylor, “A Secular Age.”

Technology and its discontents

C.S. Lewis, “The Abolition of Man”; C.P. Snow, “The Two Cultures”; Marshall McLuhan, “Understanding Media”; Neil Postman, “Amusing Ourselves to Death”; Jaron Lanier, “You Are Not a Gadget”; Sherry Turkle, “Alone Together.”

After the Cold War

Francis Fukuyama, “The End of History?”; Samuel Huntington, “The Clash of Civilizations?”

Community, solidarity, inequality

Robert Nisbet, “The Quest for Community”; Michael Young, “The Rise of the Meritocracy”; Robert Putnam, “Bowling Alone”; my colleague David Brooks, “Bobos in Paradise”; Lasch, “The Revolt of the Elites.”

You’ll notice that each of these modules includes conservative-leaning writers, but none of them are titled “conservatism.” In my previous column, I mentioned the dearth of representation for the most important nonprogressive political ideologies, meaning especially modern conservatism and neoliberalism, and you could imagine explicitly building a module around that lacuna — with, say, Friedrich Hayek paired with James Burnham or Milton Friedman with Roger Scruton. But I think if you’re trying to grasp the world through a few key texts, it’s better to come at political ideas a bit more from the side, via figures who are less associated with a specific ideology or team. Fukuyama, for example, isn’t exactly an ideologist of neoliberalism, but if you read “The End of History?” (just the original essay, not necessarily the book), you’ll have a pretty good grasp of what the neoliberal era meant.

Finally, I am under no illusions that the Columbia core curriculum or any other attempt at a collegiate canon is actually the place where progressive orthodoxy is forged or soon-to-be protesters discover their ideological beliefs. The Columbia syllabus is interesting as a manifestation of a worldview, not as its origination; the point of origination is much more likely to be what future Ivy Leaguers are assigned in high school and what they’re given by the ambient culture, which could mean anything from social justice extracurriculars to TikTok discourse to young adult fiction.

So if you asked me what I would assign to readers in their late teenage years, generally, to challenge (or at least complicate) progressive groupthink, I might not even start with any of the texts listed above. Instead, I might try to assemble a list of narrative works, mostly novels and some nonfiction, not all of which would be aesthetically notable enough to fit into Columbia’s “literature humanities” syllabus but all of which would help broaden a too-narrow ideological picture of the world.

Here’s one such list, suitable for an enterprising high school senior or college freshman: Aldous Huxley, “Brave New World”; Lewis, “That Hideous Strength”; Joan Didion, “Slouching Towards Bethlehem” and “The White Album”; Ralph Ellison, “Invisible Man”; V.S. Naipaul, “A Bend in the River”; Wolfe, “Radical Chic” and “The Bonfire of the Vanities”; Philip Roth, “American Pastoral”; Michel Houellebecq, “The Elementary Particles”; P.D. James, “The Children of Men.”

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