There’s an old saying in the New York City Morningside Heights neighborhood — “The Widest Street in the World is West 120th Street.” — and the significance of that chestnut is that West 120th Street is the “dividing line” between Columbia College and Teachers College at Columbia University.

The uncrossable crevasse of West 120th is due to polar opposite realms of teaching and educational philosophy — even though Columbia College and Teachers College both serve the same University master.

Columbia College has a regimented style of learning.  You take a “prescribed program of study” all four undergraduate years and you have little, if any, room for elective courses.  The philosophy behind that mandate is that Columbia College believes you should know certain things to have an “educated mind” and oftentimes you don’t know what you need to know, so they tell you.  That undergraduate philosophy also stokes the graduate schools at Columbia.  You are given a rigid set of courses you will take, and that’s that.  No electives.  No “similar course” transfer credit from other universities allowed. Columbia knows what they want to teach you. End of discussion.

Teachers College is much more open to interpretation and self-determination.  There is a freer sense at Teachers College that students know what they want to learn, and they should be allowed to explore all realms of their wants.  That isn’t to say Teachers College is in any way inferior to Columbia College.  Thorndike was a mighty mind there and has a building named after him and John Dewey set Teachers College on the intellectual map.

Here’s a more direct example of “The Widest Street in the World.”

Columbia College does not allow American Sign Language to be counted as a foreign language.  You cannot, in any way, use ASL to meet your foreign language requirement at Columbia even if you pay to take “equivalent” courses elsewhere.  Other major universities, like NYU, not only accept ASL as a foreign language, but they provide classes and even offer a minor in ASL.

Here’s where it starts to get strange at Columbia University:  Teachers College offers a Master’s Degree in teaching ASL as a Foreign Language!  What?  Huh?  How is it possible that ASL can be a celebrated language at Teachers College, but it isn’t even recognized “across the street” at Columbia College?  Where is the logic?  Where is the similarity of paths of mind sharing a proprietary end?

It all comes down to West 120th Street.  The Street.  The Maginot Line.  The Great Divide.  The Widest Street in the World.   Some see that street as a the shell of a cocoon, while others view it as a barricade and the last line of defense against a coarsening, and crumbling, world — and your point of view depends upon which side of the street you choose to stand.

9 Comments

    1. Yes, there’s definitely a tangible — “Yes, but that’s ‘Teachers College'” bias on the main Columbia campus when it comes to discussing the differences between the two schools — as if there’s no reason to even entertain any idea from that side of the street.

      The reverse isn’t really in effect. Teachers College does its own thing and doesn’t worry about the other side.

      During my MFA years, our formal classes were on the Columbia side, but our theatre was in Horace Mann on the Teachers College side — so we were exposed to both sides of the street and had to straddle the differences in operating philosophy for three years.