NEW YORK - In a conversation with her classmates at John Jay Dining Hall, SEAS freshman and bona fide ignoramus Jenna Lee completely missed a reference to Aeschylus’s 5th century BCE tragedy, the Oresteia.
Lee, whose schedule is comprised of lowly subjects like physics, calculus, and the Art of Engineering, was silent as her friends debated whether it was fair for Aeschylus to portray Clytemnestra as vengeful given that she had just suffered the loss of her daughter, Iphigenia, at the hands of her husband.
“It was like she had never heard of Aeschylus, one of the greatest tragedians of Western Civilization” said Mark Hernandez CC ‘20, Lee’s floormate and frequent dining companion. “I only read the Sparknotes, but even I was able to deliver a vehement diatribe against his unfair treatment of women, which is a pretty safe argument to make about any of these books.”
Like Hernandez, many faculty members have expressed concerns over the quality of students graduating from SEAS. “It terrifies me, frankly, to think that there are mechanical engineers and computer scientists out in the world bearing the Columbia name who are constructing self-driving cars and artificial hearts without possessing any slight understanding of Aeschylus’s treatment of moral ambiguity,” said Julie Crawford, Chair of Literature Humanities.
But Crawford would be even more disturbed if she looked at the graduates of other top universities. Sources estimate that close to 80% of Harvard alumni can’t explain why Athena decided to acquit Orestes of his mother’s murder at the end of the Eumenides, and the outlook at some universities is even bleaker.
“M.I.T. doesn’t make its engineers read a single chant by the Chorus in Agamemnon,” said Mary Boyce, Dean of Columbia Engineering and former Dean of Mechanical Engineering at M.I.T. “ I had to get out--I just couldn’t handle the ignorance.”
But unless Boyce makes substantive changes to the SEAS curriculum, the same ignorance will likely assail her at Columbia. And if Lee is any indication, the future for Boyce and for SEAS is grim. Lee has decided to opt out of both Literature Humanities and Contemporary Civilizations, and instead will take the same two blowoff Global Core courses as every other engineer.