Higher Ed

Inside and Outed

Big Thinking & the College Promise

SMW, August 6, 2014 12:17 AM


"It assumes that these kids,
like any others,
are hungry for big ideas.
-Frank Bruni

Students as Political Agents,
Reading the News Differently

DSC_0163-1_2.jpgby C.J. Westerberg

In Plato and the Promise of College, Frank Bruni talks about a bold three-week summer enrichment-type program at Columbia University. It's free to 30 selected minority students. It
provides "a literary diet that focused on Plato, Aristotle, Thomas Hobbes and John Locke." Formatted in a seminar- style and titled "Freedom and Citizenship in Ancient, Modern and Contemporary Thought," Bruni noticed that "the summer sun was shining like a cruel taunt outside the windows, the kids paid close attention, nodding and chiming in. There was no stealthy texting on smartphones. No fidgeting that I could see."

Sure, one may think, these are already motivated students. They're unique. But wait before you pass judgment and dismiss this example as an anomaly. This is an article about ALL students, not just minorities. (The mentoring aspect by Colombia undergrads with these first gen college aspirants is huge and received a short yet important mention but that is another post.)

The bigger point is how this program shouldn't be left for summer enrichment; shouldn't be considered bold; shouldn't be the exception; the special, the headline.  This is critical thinking that schools mostly don't prioritize, let alone rhapsodize about, in high school. If we did, they may become the next SAT question and that, my friends, won't exactly inspire, either. Here's Bruni BRILLIANTLY suggesting: 

But the distinction of this one and the reason it (Ed.note: this type of course study) should be replicated is that it doesn't focus on narrow disciplines, discrete skills, standardized tests. It doesn't reduce learning to metrics or cast college as a bridge to a predetermined career.

It assumes that these kids, like any others, are hungry for big ideas. And it wagers that tugging them into sophisticated discussions will give them a fluency and confidence that could be the difference between merely getting to college and navigating it successfully, all the way to completion, which for poor kids is often the trickiest part of all.

Monta′s also wants for these kids what he wants for every college student (and what all of us should want for them as well). If the seminar is successful, he told me, they wind up seeing their place on a continuum that began millenniums ago, and they understand "their fundamental stake in our political debate."

"They read the news differently," he said. "They see themselves as political agents, able to participate."

So as he toggled over the span of the seminar from the French Revolution to Obamacare, he wasn't just connecting dots for them. He was rooting them in our noble, troubled democracy, and trying to turn them into enlightened caretakers of it.

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The secret message communicated to most young people today by the society around them is that they are not needed, that the society will run itself quite nicely until they - at some distant point in the future - will take over the reigns. Yet the fact is that the society is not running itself nicely... because the rest of us need all the energy, brains, imagination and talent that young people can bring to bear down on our difficulties. For society to attempt to solve its desperate problems without the full participation of even very young people is imbecile.
Alvin Toffler
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