Blogging stops at 2-3 a.m. every night, then it’s 3-4 hours of sleep, if we’re lucky (not tonight!), and then one more hour or so on the train. We get to Penn Station at 11 a.m.; the kids step outside and it’s New York City: Madison Square Garden on top of us, madness all around. Up 8th Ave. in a cab, towards Lincoln Center, slowly, in the midst of all the glorious din. (“Oh look there’s… Oh, and there’s…”)
Too early to check in, we drop off our bags at the Empire, on West 63rd. We have two hours to walk to Morningside Heights and the Columbia campus. We go by way of Central Park. After the last three days, the gods of summer smile on us and grant us a breezy, dry, sunny, warm day.
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We clamber on the black basalt, whose sister rocks—separated hundreds of millions of years and two oceans ago—make up the Scottish highlands.
We pay tribute to John Lennon at the Dakota and have pretzels at the Natural History Museum. The park is as lovely as could be, but at 96th Street we descend to the 1 train. As we would find out later at dinner, the first test the city administers is at the turnstiles: how many times will it take to swipe that damn card? We do just fine. Most of us, that is.
For how impressive the Columbia campus is, area-wise it’s relatively small, maybe 25-30 square blocks. And where UPenn has more of a gothic vibe, architecturally speaking, Columbia is definitely and heavily classical. (For you kids: think Harry Potter vs. Percy Jackson.)
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At Columbia, it’s all about The CORE. At the info session, on the tour, at the dinner we would be having later… the core is queen. What is it? The writings, and I quote, of dead white men; dead hundreds, thousands of years. The core is 35% of total curriculum, 25% for engineers (because they’re also building aqueducts, presumably, stone by stone… but I digress). The core is called the core because calling it the canon is subjective, perhaps even smacking of cultural chauvinism, whereas calling it the core is only localizing it at the foundation of all Western (Civ.) learning; so that’s more objective.
I don’t care. I love it and I teach it, in digestible doses, to my AP Language and Composition high school juniors. My students, and Columbia’s students, initially balk. But when my students come back to visit from college, they are grateful. And when Columbia’s upperclassmen reflect, they are also grateful. Maybe grateful isn’t the word, though; maybe the word is resigned, resigned to the fact that Columbia’s core is now their core.
Some would call it brainwashing; some would call it education. At Columbia, being the dialecticians that they are, they call it contextualization. What they mean, I think, is that’s it’s all good and fine to take a class on Zen, turn in a blank final essay, and get an A; that’s what college is for. But no matter how much that Zen blank paper is not supposed to mean anything, it means even less, if anything, without the context of the core.
Now it’s 3:30 a.m. and I’m speaking in koans.