What Can Low-Income, Minority, Urban 16-Year-Olds Learn From the Great Books?

Tamara Mann teaches in the “Freedom and Citizenship Program” at Columbia University. The program is directed by American Studies scholar Casey Blake and brings low-income high school students to the Columbia campus during the summer to read Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Hobbes, Locke, Jefferson, Lincoln, DuBois, Dewey, King, and other authors.  In a piece at Inside Higher Ed, Mann discusses how this program has transformed her and her students. Here is a taste:

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.