Since Harvard's Core Courses offer "approaches to knowledge" rather than comprehensive surveys, there has been little campus-wide debate about the canon here.
But at Columbia University, every student is required to take an unabashedly Western core curriculum, so such arguments can involve the entire college community.
Earlier this year the administration tried to cut back the core's Contemporary Civilization requirement, says Edward W. Tayler, Columbia's Trilling Professor of the Humanities.
But protest from students and alumni stymied the effort. "About a million alumni wrote, met, came on campus, and the administrators just backed down," says Tayler, who directs the Logic and Rhetoric division of Columbia's core.
Columbia's old-fashioned general education program requires year-long surveys in areas such as Literature Humanities, Contemporary Civilization, Art Humanities and Music Humanities.
The curriculum is Columbia's "intellectual cost of arms," according to the university's course catalogue. It is meant to provide students with "the lively inheritance of Western literature, philosophy, history, music and art."
"This is the hallmark of [Columbia students'] education," Tayler says.
The traditionalist approach does not threaten the diversity of students' learning opportunities, he says.
"We have a lot of cultural materialists, Marxists, gender people who object to it because they think it's trying to indoctrinate," he says. "They misunderstand it."
Classic texts such as the Iliad and the works of St. Augustine introduce students to foreign cultures, according to Tayler.
"The world of the Iliad is a foreign world, a warrior culture," he says. "St. Augustine was a Black from North Africa."
But Harvard students may never see these worlds, Tayler says, since the Core here allows so much choice.
"Instead of opening doors for you, you make choices based on past habits," he says. "You have a cafeteria--that's a disservice to students."
A Harvard faculty member who used to teach Contemporary Civilization at Columbia agrees that the more unified program there draws the college together more effectively than Harvard's Core.
It provides a "common experience" for all students, says Professor of History James Hankins.
"It gives a more serious intellectual atmosphere," he says. "It's more fragmented here. People are assumed to have done general eudcation before."