A Woman’s Truth

Image: Columbia College Class of 1919 (via Columbia Library)

By The Red Pandas: Jorge Hernandez, Olivia Sieler, and Kathryn Whitten

On the web page entitled “About the Core Curriculum,” Columbia University’s Center for the Core Curriculum states the following about the areas of study in this program: “The Core seminar thrives on oral debate of the most difficult questions about human experience. What does it mean, and what has it meant to be an individual? What does it mean, and what has it meant to be part of a community? How is human experience relayed and how is meaning made in music and art? What do we think is, and what have we thought to be worth knowing?  By what rules should we be governed?”

Literature Humanities, a key component of the Core Curriculum, thrives on the oral debate regarding a syllabus of literature meant to explore these questions about the human experience. But, what happens when most of that syllabus was constructed at a time when the College consisted of a group of students that do not reflect the current student body? When the Core Curriculum was first instituted in 1919, Columbia College consisted of all men. Women did not begin attending Columbia until 1983, more than six decades later. The founders of the Core Curriculum did not fathom the participation of women in the academic space and the syllabus they organized reflects this assumption.

This podcast explores the issue of how the majority of the books currently on the Literature Humanities syllabus raise questions about gender that are founded on the idea that women are inferior. For example, the story of Daphne and Apollo assigns a male gender to the notion of being a “predator” and a female gender to “prey.” In this dichotomy, women are dehumanized and portrayed as helpless victims. Rather than holding a negative connotation, the term “predator” in this instance highlights the man’s ability to pursue his desires as he pleases.

To remedy the arguments against the equality of women, we suggest adding Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston to the syllabus. Her work raises important questions that challenge the governing assumptions about gender in so many of the other works on the syllabus.

We propose that the Core Curriculum needs to change to make all students feel as though they have equal stakes in the central questions about what it means to be human. Half of today’s student body should not be made to feel inferior because of the assumptions that are integrated into the throughline of the books in Literature Humanities. Their Eyes Were Watching God offers an extremely compelling, not to mention beautiful, argument that women are strong and capable of self-definition even in the face of external forces that try to undermine that essential human right.

Link to Transcript (with citations): https://docs.google.com/document/d/1k8NEzj1hSH5DUX5tc2sSZYXHogw98_jdAD5GeqJxG0E/edit?usp=sharing

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