To accommodate what the administration and government saw as the needs of war, the curriculum of Columbia University changed significantly in 1917 and 1918. Probably in the most meaningful sense, this is where integration into the war effort occurred: for a period of several months in the fall of 1918, Columbia University became what President Nicholas Murray Butler referred to as “The New Columbia.” It was no longer a chiefly a liberal arts or professional school; it was a war school.
Maybe it wasn’t such a difficult transition. Randolph Bourne wrote disparagingly of the new generation of college students – particularly the students of Columbia philosopher John Dewey – noting that the new pragmatic trends in college education made students less devoted to principles, and more to technique. In other words (at least according to Bourne) the university was already providing its students with a sort of amoral worldview, one that would serve them equally well in industry, charity, or in building and commanding machines of death.
So if the University transformed as a result of the war, it was a transformation it was in some ways well prepared for.
Click on the tabs below to learn about the different elements of Columbia's war curriculum
The young men in Belgium, the officers' training corps, the young men being sucked into the councils at Washington and into war- organization everywhere, have among them a definite element, upon whom Dewey, as veteran philosopher, might well bestow a papal blessing. They have absorbed the secret of scientific method as applied to political administration. They are liberal, enlightened, aware. They are touched with creative intelligence toward the solution of political and industrial problems. They are a wholly new force in American life, the product of the swing in the colleges from a training that emphasized classical studies to one that emphasized political and economic values. Practically all this element, one would say, is lined up in service of the war-technique. There seems to have been a peculiar congeniality between the war and these men. It is as if the war and they had been waiting for each other. One wonders what scope they would have had for their intelligence without it. Probably most of them would have gone into industry and devoted themselves to sane reorganization schemes. What is significant is that it is the technical side of the war that appeals to them, not the interpretative or political side<>
~ Randolph Bourne, "Twilight of Idols" The Seven Arts. October, 1917.
The War Issues Course
Above: The lesson plans for the first War Issues lecture
Above: A letter from an S.A.T.C. official explaining that unfortunately, it would take longer than one lesson to explain the causes of World War One.
The War Issues class is on some level infamous; the Columbia University website on the history of the Core Curriculum includes it as one of the first steps towards the development of Columbia’s modern liberal education; its successor, Contemporary Civilization, was originally devised as “peace issues,” after the war.
Above: a copy of the S.A.T.C. War Issues textbook given to students
It is a strange origin, for a mainstay of liberal arts education. War issues was propaganda, meant to explain to would-be officers something about the cause they would be fighting for, and the place in which they’d be fighting for it. It was not meant to open minds.
But the War Issues course, somewhat surprisingly, was not only propaganda. An S.A.T.C. student could actually emerge from it with a complicated, if incomplete, picture of the life in Europe. It wasn’t all high politics: students spent considerable amounts of time reviewing social conditions in the French countryside. Its introductory lesson discussed the agricultural and mineral resources of Europe in almost mind-numbing detail.
Nor was the course uncritical of the entente powers, reflecting, perhaps, Woodrow Wilson’s reluctance to commit fully as an ally (instead joining the entente as an “associate power.”) The various deficiencies of the allied nations were discussed in some detail, both in their histories and present policies; one memorable lesson on the history of British politics painted a highly critical picture of Britain’s involvement in Ireland. Nor was the course wholly uncritical of the United States, which was listed as a “National Empire” alongside Britain, France, Germany, and Russia, without meaningful distinction on account of its democratic governance.
This is not to say that War Issues did not feature healthy amounts of propaganda. Imperial Germany’s submarine warfare was discussed as an atrocity. And on an even more basic level, the German Empire was often described as ruthless or worse. But the course was far more than it could have been, and was the product of actual intellectual effort by the Columbia University professors involved in its creation. Indeed, all of the S.A.T.C. curriculum at Columbia was devised in consultation both with faculty and military officers, and was approved from Washington. Many of the members of the bureaucratic agency involved in approving the course content were university professors, and many of these were Columbia faculty as well. Accordingly, the War Issues class was simultaneously chauvinistic and circumspect.
The S.A.T.C Curriculum
Not all of the S.A.T.C. curriculum was like the War Issues course, however. Much of it was considerably more practical, and at least nominally related to the pursuit of war (although sometimes this was a stretch: a “war freehand drawing course” for example, was likely a bit less relevant). Most courses were like Military Topography, an intensive surveying course. Students were tracked according to what particular role they might play in the military, with more demanding jobs featuring more demanding course loads.
Above: the required courses for members of each track
There were also schools – whether they were part of the S.A.T.C. or existed alongside it is difficult to determine – devoted to gas engine maintenance, ordinances, and “military cinematography,” the latter of which, attached to the US Signal Corps, is the source for many of the photographs used in this exhibit. While the military thought very little of the products of the aspiring military cinematographers, Columbia University’s administration and public relations team thought otherwise, quietly asking for possession of the photographs at the war’s conclusion. (As they wrote to the military, “no one need know.”)
Below: a brochure produced by the Military Cinematography program
Some student notes from some of these courses survive, and we can see from them (and the remaining photographic evidence) a bit about what it was like to learn war at Columbia.
Another set of student notes includes phone numbers of “Florence” and “Laury” alongside notes about gas engine repair. Marginalia of the military variety wasn't too different from the normal state of affairs.
The Extension School
The department that changed the most to accommodate the new reality was the extension school, which even before the war had been more pragmatic and practical-minded than the rest of the university. A large number of its professors actually left to serve – likely a larger portion than in any other department. And those that stayed found plenty of opportunities to participate in the domestic mobilization. Through the extension school, Columbia offered a series of courses identified in the archive as “War Courses Offered at Columbia” – though the extent to which this appellation was used at the time is unclear.
Just the titles of these courses are illuminating, both in terms of what Columbia actually did, and what its faculty and administrators thought was significant and relevant to the prosecuting of the war. They included such topics as Ship Drafting, yes – but also Indexing and Filing.
This was not going to be a war fought only by soldiers. Instead, the country’s new and powerful professional classes were eager to be heavily involved, too. It would be a war of guns and posters, ships and statistics, artillery and social work. Accordingly, many classes were offered that might suit a young professional’s needs. What follows is just a small sampling:
- Emergency Course to Train Typists for Government Service
- Volunteer Emergency Courses for Clerical Workers
- Community Centers and Democracy
- Statistical Training
- Indexing and Filing
- Elementary Accounting
- Patriotic Advertising (taught by Fine Arts faculty)
Many of these courses were likely intended for young women, meant to fill roles either created or left unfilled by the young men sent across the Atlantic. This was often left unsaid, although a course on Elementary Accounting came close. Its pamphlet explains: "Repeated requests from governmental departments and boards at Washington and subsequent analysis of the situation there have shown the pressing need for persons who have statistical training and are fitted to rendering assistance to in the rapidly expanding office and organization work in the various departments of government. Similar requests are being made by business organizations whose personnel have been depleted as a result of war demands."
Also memorably included among the extension courses was a class on “Recreation and the Changing Social Order: A training course for girls' recreational work.” It offered tips about how young women could entertain young men – soldiers – without crossing any moral boundaries. One recommendation: "Recreational Material: Games, quiet and active"
Women, and their appropriate role in the war-changed society, were a significant focus of the New Columbia’s extension school. Many extension classes were devoted to traditional middle class female professional topics, like social work. Others were more domestically focused. Two stand out: "Emergency Courses in Gardening for Women,"and "Home Vegetable Gardening and Tree and Small Fruits and Other Timely Courses of the Department of Agriculture."
With Columbia’s help and expert guidance, even the home could be put on a war footing.
Teacher’s College was similarly involved, hosting extension-like classes on a variety of subjects. One is of special interest: TC faculty taught a series of classes on Occupational Therapy, starting in February of 1918. For between $6 and $16, students could take classes designed to address what would eventually become known as PTSD – though that language was not used at the time – and physical, crippling war wounds. The course description was not shy about why this might be necessary: "There has long been a demand for teachers of occupations in these fields, and with the new problems of the war which will throw back into the community large numbers of crippled, disabled, and shell-shocked men, this demand will undoubtedly be tremendously strained.” Despite all of the fanfare, eventually the war was going to come home.
The full Occupational Therapy course took two years, and included numerous components. Two of these stand out, though we know nothing about them aside from their titles: “The Problem of the Negro” and “The Problem of the Immigrant.” One Dr. Thos. Jones taught them both.