Endings and New Beginnings with the Core Curriculum: Seeking Wisdom from Dante:

Dante enters the Empyrean and Prepares to see the Beatific Vision in Paradiso, Photo Credit: Posterazzi: Dante Paradiso 1861

“O you who are within your little bark,
eager to listen, following behind
my ship that, singing, crosses to deep seas,
turn back to see your shores again: do not
attempt to sail the seas I sail; you may,
by losing sight of me, be left astray.” – Dante, (Paradiso 2, vv. 1-6).


Almost everything is characterized by a beginning and ending, and as Seniors get ready to
graduate from Columbia, and the underclassmen and Juniors prepare to move into new courses next year, we can get the sense that while new beginnings are exciting, they may also be nerve racking or challenging as we seek to set out onto new waters. For the pilgrim in the beginning of Dante’s Paradiso, the shift to a vision of heaven and the celestial heavens presents its own challenges of forcing one to confront his fears that are often associated with change and asking us whether we’re ready to be led into new places that will force us to change. The reassuring yet also demanding reality is that it is ultimately within our power to adapt well or poorly to the new circumstances that life throws our way.

This semester, I had the privilege of taking a course on Dante Aligiheri’s Divine Comedy with Professor Teodolinda Barolini in the Italian department, and we had the chance to read through the latter half of Dante’s Purgatorio and also Dante’s Paradiso. Dante’s work covered a wide range of remarkable topics including unity and difference, the highest good and justice, and man’s search for the satisfaction of all of his desires. Dante did all of this with a remarkable synthesis of political, historical, theological, literary, and poetic criticism combined into one impressive text. But, while the text can be analyzed in many different ways, I think it is Dante’s theology of love, his vision for how the world is both united and differentiated by love and how all things are to be made new in love, that has the most to teach us about how to move on to new beginnings and to say goodbye to those things that are fleeting, transitory, and which must pass as we move on to greater things. Continue reading

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Sapere aude! Have the courage to reason for yourself!

 Luther Hammers His 95 Theses to the Door,” Ferdinand Pauwels, Photo Credit: (courtesy of UChicago Magazine and Wikipedia Commons)

When Immanuel Kant penned those words at the end of the 18th century, Europe was ostensibly emerging from a dogmatic, intellectual slumber in which well-intentioned heterodox reasoning demanded great courage. That being said, perhaps my most sobering observation regarding academic life at Columbia over the past four years is that immense courage must still precede honest, independent reason. This is not a phenomenon that is restricted to the classroom. It pervades almost all areas of our academic and extra-academic life, whether it be supervised research endeavors, talks with friends on the way to class, or the context of club organizations putatively dedicated to true ideas and their pursuit.

Rather than nostalgically opining about the fictitious ideal of a bygone age in which independent academic reasoning was universally welcomed, we ought to come to grips with the descriptive reality that academic settings have always been rather antipathetic to intellectual dissent, and plausibly always will be. The Pythagorean Hippasus was “mysteriously lost” at sea following his geometric proof of the existence of irrational numbers, the ‘Southern Chan’ Buddhist monk Huineng was (allegedly) driven away from his rightfully-inherited patriarchal seat due to his ‘proper’ exposition of Buddha Nature, Johann Bernoulli was heavily chastised for suggesting that infinitesimals had theological significance in the early differential calculus, and Ludwig Wittgenstein reportedly threatened Karl Popper with a hot poker at Cambridge for asserting that not all philosophical problems are mere terminological disagreements. Continue reading

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Riggio Travel Seminar: Studying Medieval Art in Germany

Photo Credit: Elia Zhang, Riggio Seminar in Freising, Germany.

Last spring break, I had the good fortune of participating in the Riggio Travel Seminar, a program offered to undergraduate students at Columbia University that enables them to study art history by visiting the sites where the artwork was created and preserved. In this blog post, I want to share my experience and encourage others to take advantage of the many learning and travel opportunities provided by Columbia.

After completing the university’s pre-departure orientation, our group of twelve students, accompanied by our teaching assistant Emma and professors Holger Klein and Gregory Bryda, embarked on the trip. Our first stop was Munich, where we visited the Odeonsplatz, the central square that connects old and new Munich and also served as the site of the Nazi march in 1923. We also saw the memorial for the White Rose movement, a nonviolent resistance group led by five students and one professor from Munich University who opposed the Nazi regime in 1942. We explored the old city center, seeing its inscriptions and architecture, which reminded us of the city’s 20th-century history. Continue reading

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The Power of Right Living and Intellectual Humility

The Book of Proverbs, Photo Credit: Proverbs an Overview, CPH.ORG

“Listen to me, my son, and acquire knowledge,/and pay close attention to my words./I will impart instruction by weight,/and declare knowledge accurately” (Wisdom of Sirach 16:24-25).

There’s a curious moment in one of Shakespeare’s sonnets where the narrator states the following:

“As fast as thou shalt wane, so fast thou grow’st
In one of thine, from that which thou departest;                                                                        And that fresh blood which youngly thou bestow’st                                                                Thou mayst call thine when thou from youth convertest.                                                   Herein lives wisdom, beauty, and increase;
Without this, folly, age, and cold decay” (Sonnet 11:1-6).

The narrator here writes about the subject, a mysterious young man, who is choosing to put off the responsibilities of maturing and having children for the pleasures and allurements of youth, all of which lead him away from cultivating his natural gifts by procuring offspring. The narrator considers this promising man’s choice to be a great dereliction of his duty to nature to live a life of “wisdom, beauty, and increase,” all of which leads away from the “folly, age, and cold decay” of dissolute living. Biblical language, from which this sonnet draws, expresses this point in even more stark terms. Indeed, as Proverbs states, “Wisdom is a fountain of life to him who has it, but folly is the chastisement of fools…There is a way which seems right to a man, but its end is the way to death” (Prov. 16:22, 25). In the Book of Proverbs, the reputed figure of King Solomon of Israel wishes to inspire his younger son to remain steadfast to wisdom, acquiring it, and cherishing this possession as the great guide to his life in the face of the temptations away from this arduous but fulfilling path. The older man, perhaps drawing from his own mistakes, begs his younger son not to trust the elusive seductress, an allegorical figure for deception and vice, but rather to take stock in “a good wife,” who “is far more precious than jewels” (Prov. 31:10). Like Shakespeare’s boy, the youth addressed in Proverbs is told to not trust his appearances, and rather to rest on the sure way to success and fruition. Continue reading

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The Politics of The Core

Photo Credit: Frontispiece of Thomas Hobbes Leviathan, by Abraham Bosse

What would Thomas Hobbes say about Covid-19 lockdowns? Would John Stuart Mill approve of the restriction on speech in the form of Twitter and Facebook banning Donald Trump from their platforms after the January 6, 2021 attack on the US Capitol? How have arguments employed by Augustine in The City of God influenced Christian sexual ethics today? These are just a small handful of the questions I remember discussing in my Contemporary Civilizations class as we attempted to bridge the wide gap between our present moment and the syllabus spanning from Ancient Athens through the Enlightenment up to twentieth-century thinkers like Hannah Arendt and Michel Foucault. Two years later, these are also some of the most memorable debates that come to mind when I think back to the class. An easily overlooked but valuable element of the Core Curriculum is the insight the ideas from these courses offer to some of the most pressing political and social questions of our present day. Continue reading

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Using Core Texts for Life Inspiration

Photo Credit: Hieronymus Bosch, “The Garden of Earthly Delights”

The end of the school year is a time that initiates reflection on our academic involvements as well as the social dynamics that defined these experiences. Thus, it seems meaningful to me to spend some time reflecting on and attempting to connect these moments and their potential intersections with formative texts from the Core. After all, our collective experiences at Columbia would not be the same if not for the moments we shared as students in Core classes like Literature Humanities, Art Humanities, and Music Humanities. In this application, I would like to look at how the curriculum of Contemporary Civilizations was intimately connected to my sense of identity, community, and friendships during my time at Columbia. This is also a somewhat sentimental project for me as I am a graduating senior. I am now finding myself reflecting on the most significant classes and extracurricular moments during my time at Columbia, particularly with respect to how the Core has informed and contributed to interpersonal relationships and my life at Columbia on a more general level. 

In the spring semester of my CC class, we discussed many texts including Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America and Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations. These texts were particularly compelling when considering the importance of group formation and associations. Initially I was skeptical of political philosophy influencing the way in which I explore and develop connections, but upon reflection I can say that they were incredibly relevant.  Continue reading

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As a STEM Major, Frontiers of Science Could be the Most Important Class You Take at Columbia

Orion Nebula, Photo Credit: NASA

It’s no secret that it is sometimes necessary to convince STEM majors that the Columbia Core’s Frontiers of Science class is worth their time. A good number of my friends who study the natural sciences skip the lectures of the units pertaining to their fields of forthcoming expertise. On the face of it, one can hardly blame them. What’s the point of requiring those Columbia students who study the natural sciences to take Frontiers of Science? Why might one think that those who skip lectures or who fail to take the class seriously are making an unfortunate mistake? I hope that my answer here will not only shed light on the relationship between STEM majors and Frontiers of Science, but also on the relationship between philosophy majors and CC, between art history majors and Art Hum, etc.

Frontiers of Science does not purport to be a mathematically or experimentally rigorous class, even for applied mathematical standards. We don’t regiment our discussion of general relativity in (pseudo-)Riemannian geometry, we don’t enter the lab in discussing the physiological-behavioral bridge laws in our unit on mind and brain, and we don’t model possible time-evolutions of animal populations using mathematical game theory. The focus is far more conceptual, and the general methodology is one of giving an intuitive gloss on some of the most exciting areas of current research in various natural scientific disciplines. But this is exactly one of the virtues of the class, for both the “seasoned” budding scientist and the novice humanities student.  Continue reading

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How Do You Balance Taking Classes and Having a Job?

The mindset behind taking classes as a student and having a job as an entry-level employee are very different. While taking classes, we want to absorb knowledge and ask questions under high intellectual demand. While working as an employee, however, we are held accountable for the tasks to which we are assigned, and should find solutions we

Toward a well-rounded Columbia experience, Photo Credit: Elia Zhang

encounter along the way either by working independently or collaboratively. Having a part-time curatorial assistant job and completing my thesis research at the same time this semester, I hope that this blog post can not only be an opportunity for me to reflect on this experience, but also provide my fellow college students with lessons and tips that I have learned along the way. 


As students in New York City, we always seek ways to integrate our hands-on experiential learning with the knowledge and wisdom we acquire from the classroom. Trying out a position in an industry that we might be interested in contributing to in the future is a great way to add to the Columbia experience. As an international student, I am also grateful for the opportunity to take the Core class “Core as Praxis/Fieldwork” which inspires students to bridge the industry experience with Literature Humanities or Contemporary Civilization texts. Ultimately, I think combining research and internship during undergraduate studies can make us realize that there is no “barrier” between the seemingly out-of-the-world ivory tower and the practical day-to-day workings of society: the masterpieces in literature and the political theories we read from the Core are the authors’ critical engagement with their respective historical realities. The interlocking experience between the internal and external of the book makes life a continuous and holistic attempt to learn about both the world and ourselves. 

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On Writing a Senior Thesis: Notes from the Field

Thesis Books, Photo Credit: Juliet Paiva

I originally wanted to write a blog post on the Core this month, connecting some seminal

idea from a philosopher in Contemporary Civilizations to our day-to-day lives as Columbia students. However, every time I tried to begin writing, I found myself preoccupied with another project perpetually looming over me this semester: my senior thesis. Many other seniors are experiencing the same thing this month as we all attempt to complete the most significant accomplishment of our academic lives so far. As I write this, I am still a month out from when the final draft of my thesis is due. While I expect to have a more expansive perspective on the whole process by then, I wanted to dedicate this post to sharing advice on writing a thesis from the middle of the experience. Hopefully,  this advice can also extend to any significant independent research and writing project. Continue reading

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How LitHum Allows Us to Consider the Nature of Reality (and question it…)

When I first enrolled at Columbia, I was convinced that I would study Biochemistry. While my profound appreciation for the discipline has not dissipated; my academic, professional, and personal commitments have pivoted. All this to say, LitHum was the first

Windmills in Portugal, Photo Credit: Elliott Hueske

course that opened my eyes to the humanities world—encouraging abstract thinking and knowledge

acquisition in a way that was entirely new to me. Part of what was so illuminating and different from my STEM courses was the encouragement to reexamine the nature of reality through the narratives and figurative devices of the texts we were studying. Never before had I felt compelled to interrogate what the concept of reality means, and how reality as we know it can be questioned. I now found myself in a place where inquiries of this nature were not only typical but encouraged. 

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