Blue Notes, Orientation 2016
Updated: Jul 24
Columbia University is most well known among the Ivies for its infamous Core Curriculum. While kids at Brown can haphazardly choose any class, many students come to Columbia for the rigid requirements that supposedly bring eternal enlightenment and superior wisdom. Yet alongside the teachings of Homer and Machiavelli, students are also expected to suffer through the slightly less erudite tribulations of the swim test.
Seventy-five meters using any stroke, doggie paddle included, the swim test is among the oldest of requirements at Columbia, predating even the Core (1919). In the early days of the swim test, students often took the plunge their first year. Nowadays, many wait until their senior spring, rounding up a couple of their best buds to jump in together. Swimming tests were once in vogue across the country, and up to a quarter of universities held the requirement; yet today only a few—Bryn Mawr, Cornell, Dartmouth, MIT, Swarthmore—have kept the tradition alive.
At several schools, Harvard in particular, there persists a rumor that a wealthy woman whose son had perished on the Titanic donated money under the condition that all students learn to swim prior to graduation. At Columbia, the most amusing theory, and the one likely touted on your college tour, has it that one College president decided that since Columbia is on an island, in the unlikely event that Manhattan should sink, students must be able to gracefully swim across the Hudson or East River and casually avoid catastrophe. This myth goes on to explain the exemption of the requirement for SEAS students: any fast-acting engineering student could build a raft and escape unscathed. (In reality, SEAS faculty voted in May of 1992 to abolish the requirement due to its lack of “academic value.”) While the true origins remain quite murky, speculations continue to swirl. Forums on the subject, in keeping with Columbian traditions of rigorous intellectual inquiry, have incited such philosophical questions as, “What’s wrong with wearing a speedo?”
— Breton Carter
When I board the safety shuttle in front of 110 College Residence Hall it is nearly eleven on a cool May night. As the driver prepares to depart, two seniors jump out of a Gett and run to flag the shuttle down. They’re wearing black going-out dresses and stilettos, and I, in my mom jeans and fisherman sweater, immediately feel underdressed for our late night journey.
The driver turns back to us, “Where am I dropping y’all off?”
“Just 600,” one of the seniors calls back. She’s tipsy, and while she doesn’t slur her words, they roll off her tongue a little too loud for the crowded compartment. Suddenly, she begins to frantically search through her purse.
“Shit,” she turns to the other senior, a blonde, also wearing a black body-con dress, “I left my phone in the cab.”
The driver makes a U-turn, “don’t worry ladies, we’ll try and catch the cab.”
But as we turn back on Broadway, the Gett disappears into a stream of near-identical black cars.
“Sorry,” the driver turns back on route, “can you call the cab company?”
The blonde dials the Gett headquarters from her phone and after a few minutes on hold, begins explaining to an operator that her friend has left her phone in the car. They are still on the line when we drop them off in front of 600 and the driver turns back to me: “Where are you heading honey?”
“I am just riding the shuttle for a little while.”
“Just riding?” she raises an eyebrow.
“You can drop me back in front of 110 after we make the other stops. Does stuff like that happen often?”
“No,” she pulls back into the road and starts up Broadway, “normally, I have the same regulars every night, students coming back from the library or campus.”
“Do you talk much with them?” I scoot forward along the bench-style seat so that I can see her reflection in the rearview mirror.
“Sometimes, mainly, I like to listen to talks, podcasts. I am really inspired by the students though.”
“Oh, have you worked here long?”
“No,” she says, already pulling into the stop in front of Cathedral Gardens (no one boards the shuttle here), “I like it though. I wanted something at night because I am an actress. It’s a lot better scene than bartending.”
— Geneva Hutcheson
Columbia owns over ten-thousand pieces of art that range from ancient Chinese vases to original Warhol stills. The collection is maintained by Art Properties, which works in concert with art and art history students to restore and preserve, house and catalogue the pieces.
The collection is almost exclusively gathered through donations as well as from commissions ordered by faculty members. These alumni gifts peaked during Columbia’s 150th and 200th anniversaries, when, most probably, aging alums thought back on their undergraduate years and were moved to dig a Renoir or two out of their attic to bestow upon their alma mater. It is through such alumni contributions that we have amassed one of America’s largest and most eclectic assemblage of art. Pieces range from Buddhist altarpieces, to Inupiat drawings and Rodin sculptures.
The collection resides, unbelievably, below Avery Library, in a temperature and humidity sealed vault—a great treasure chest that remains locked to most students. It seems a shame that the collection should be relegated to a subsurface crypt, especially seeing as the function of the collection is a didactic one. Instead, we should be displaying our horde, exhibiting the great assets we have stored up, and we should be learning from them.
Luckily for us current students, such an initiative is underway. The head of Art Properties, Roberto Ferrari, and the rest of his team, have launched a vast project to digitize the collection and afford students much greater access. The initiative will hopefully spearhead a new wave of object centered learning, a method Art Properties has helped foster before through specific visitations and periodical loanings. Indeed, our art has graced numerous museums, let alone classrooms. Let’s just hope the increased visibility does (or does not) lead to more statues in front of Butler lawn.