“Turn the air conditioning off.” It was a hot July day in New York City. “Trust us,” one of my students beamed, “we need absolute quiet.”
Quanisha rose, shyly adjusted her T-shirt and started to sing. Her voice was raw and stunning. When she finished, my 16-year-old students looked at me and said, “Now we’re ready for Rousseau.” That was the day I learned that great classes contain extraordinary moments of intimacy.
In a policy climate enamored with technology and distance learning, the Freedom and Citizenship Program at Columbia University stands out for its commitment to books and teachers. For the past six years, low-income, mostly minority, high school students have arrived on Columbia University’s campus to take a three-week intensive seminar based on the Columbia College Core Curriculum. These students return to campus throughout the academic year to research a contemporary political issue, such as immigration and prison reform. As Casey Blake, the American studies professor who directs the program explains: “The goal is not only to introduce the students to the centuries-old debate about the meaning of freedom and citizenship but also to prepare them for lives as active, engaged citizens.”
Two convictions animate the seminar. One is that 16-year-olds from low-income communities can handle and benefit from a college-level Great Books course. The second is that nothing can replace personal attention. Two Columbia professors, two graduate students, and six undergraduates serve as reading, writing, public speaking, and college-prep mentors for 30 rising high school seniors who live on campus while enrolled in the seminar.
When I first contemplated teaching the summer seminar, I did not grasp its purpose. I was more or less terrified. I had just completed my Ph.D. in American history and the seminar had little to do with the subject I had studied: aging in America. The syllabus was overwhelming: one day Plato, the next Aristotle, and then on to Hobbes, Locke, Jefferson, Lincoln, Dewey, and King. For weeks I tried to fill the gaping holes in my education, panicked that my students would look to me for answers I couldn’t give.
The first day of class I showed up an hour early, paced, and imagined the personal horrors of an oral exam on Plato. The students arrived on time. They ambled into the seminar room, some laughing, others stoic, all clutching their copies of The Trial and Death of Socrates. As they sat down, I knew that they desperately, achingly, wanted to be in this room. I recalled what the director of the Columbia Core, Roosevelt Montàs, said to me when I agreed to take on the course, “be quiet and be curious.”
When Montàs speaks about the Freedom and Citizenship Program and the Columbia Core, he often reflects on the purpose of a humanities education. “In most disciplines,” he explains, “the subject to be learned is at the center…. In this field of study, the student, the individual as a living growing entity, is at the center.” My job was not just to transmit facts and skills. My job was to create the conditions for these students to relate to, and grow from, these extremely challenging texts. Silence would be key.
I don’t come by silence naturally, but I spent years understanding its value. While working on my dissertation, I learned that sitting with an older person in need is a powerful lesson in humility and presence.
On that first day of class I sat quietly for a minute or two and waited for them to be ready. Then I took a page from Bertrand Russell and opened our time together with a question that would remind us all of the powerful, childlike core of all forms of learning: What fills you with a sense of wonder?
Their answers were tender and earnest; they ranged from observations about primary colors to small acts of kindness. And then came Quanisha. “I’ll tell you,” she offered, “but don’t laugh. I wonder what this guy Socrates is saying. I just don’t understand him. I have been up all night. I read this three times and I don’t know what he is saying and I wonder about it.” So our seminar really began, with that familiar little phrase, “Let’s turn to the text.”
It was Socrates’ description of wisdom that caused the most collective confusion. “I don’t get it,” Lanique piped, “he is wise and not wise, but wiser than other people and still ignorant. That doesn’t seem very wise to me.”
I smiled knowing that my students cared and were close to understanding something of great value. “Let’s look closely at what he says when he is off investigating those who might have a claim to wisdom,” I said. “But I observed that even the good artisans fell into the same error as the poets; because they were good workmen they thought that they also knew all sorts of high matters, and this defect in them overshadowed their wisdom….”
“What’s going on here?” I asked.
Gabriel spoke up, “I think he is saying that you’re not wise if you think you know something that you don’t know. It’s like a person who knows a lot about one subject and just because of that he thinks he knows about everything.”
“So, how would you describe this definition of wisdom?” I followed.
“Maybe wisdom is just knowing what you don’t know,” he replied. Laura and Genesys smiled. Now we could all remain in the classroom and claim to be wise, just by admitting what we did not know. Fabulous!
“But wait,” questioned a soft voice to my left. “Is that enough?” Fatoumata leaned into our seminar table. “How can it be enough to just say you don’t know? Don’t we have to do more? Don’t we have to figure out how we could learn about a subject?”
The class found its rhythm and my students, drawing deeply from their reading of the Apology, debated the contours of wisdom, knowledge, and learning for the greater part of an hour. The morning ended with our own working definition of wisdom that we would try to apply to our future seminars, “Wisdom is being upfront about what you don’t know and then carefully, ploddingly, figuring out how you would learn more about it.”
Thus began an intellectual journey short on ego and long on responsibility. As one of my own professors at Columbia, Andrew Delbanco, reminds us, the founders of America’s colleges thought learning could be blocked by pride. This is what Socrates gave our classroom: he allowed us to let go of pride while holding onto obligation.
From big questions, we launched into big problems. With Hobbes, we discussed the human proclivity toward violence, and with Locke and Frederick Douglass, the agony of slavery as well as the challenges of securing freedom. My students began to articulate a definition of freedom as the essential right to develop oneself and to a find purpose. The day Quanisha sang, our philosophical conversation about freedom grew more intimate.
It began with a question posed by Mysterie. “Man is born free and everywhere he is in chains,” she read. “Why does Rousseau think we are born free? Is anyone really born free?” My students pounced; everyone had a contribution. That day their comments didn’t just come from the text, it came from them. They talked about the challenges of living with a parent suffering from drug addiction, the lasting effects of physical insecurity, and the oppressive emotional state that can be induced by racism. That summer we didn’t just discuss freedom as an abstract concept; we discussed what that word meant to us as individuals, as members of families, of learning communities, and as citizens of our shared country. Our seminar became a model for education that was not only about absorbing facts, but one that was beholden to our world as it is and as it should be.
“If for Du Bois,” began Afroza in our last week together, “the problem of the 20th century is the problem of the color line, then the problem of the 21st is empathy fatigue. Human suffering is just so great; how do we know what to do first?” Kevin nodded but offered his own response, “I think the problem is really about access.”
Reyna agreed, “Some people can access the best of what we have, technology and education, and others can’t. It is completely unequal.”
“Isn’t the problem really then poverty?” posed Maisa. Kisairis and Joangie nodded. The nodding continued but the shoulders around the seminar table started to slump. Heebong voiced our collective sense of defeat, “but what can we do about those issues. They are so … big.”
We could have ended there. If I were alone, I probably would have. But we were in a classroom and we had started with Socrates.
“We need to get wise,” said Fatoumata, at first quietly and then emboldened by a chorus of her peers, “We need to get wise.”
These extraordinary students then started designing a plan of study, a course of intellectual action to learn how to tackle these problems. Their plan of action required knowledge produced by biologists, physicians, psychologists, philosophers, politicians, and sociologists, to name only a few. These students understood that the great human problems of their generation were at once structural and personal. To solve them, they would need a STEM education and a liberal education, the sciences and the humanities.
As the distance closed between 4th-century Athens and 21st-century New York City, between ideas and our actual lives, and between my students and myself, our collective education took on its full purpose-driven force. My students came to this course because it was a means to an end – college. They left the seminar almost embarrassed by the shortsightedness of that goal. As one student put it, “Now I want to go to college not just to get there but to really learn something, so that I can give back; it’s not just about me and my success but about what I can do with it.”
We are in a period of exceptional innovation in the way education takes place. We must test and develop ever-new forms of virtual courses to convey skills while containing costs. But while doing so, we cannot forget the value of an education that is personal and beholden. This July, over 40 individuals, both teachers and students, learned about freedom, citizenship, and the purpose of knowledge by reading significant books and talking to one another around a battered old wooden table. The results were wondrous.