Eric Foner, DeWitt Clinton Professor of History at Columbia University, lectures on W.E.B. Du Bois.
Collaborating Partners: Columbia University and Double Discovery Center at Columbia University
The Center for American Studies and the Double Discovery Center (DDC) at Columbia University have forged a partnership to provide 45 rising seniors from New York City high schools with an academically rigorous, college-level program in the humanities. Now in its ninth year, the program seeks to introduce the students to college-level work in the humanities; assist them in improving their writing and verbal skills; and equip them with the historical knowledge and critical tools necessary to participate fully in American public life as active citizens.
Two significant Columbia College centers, the American Studies Center and the Double Discovery Center, collaborate on this work. Dean James J. Valentini, Dean of Columbia College and Vice President for Undergraduate Education, articulates,
The American Studies Center’s emphasis on civic education and service learning builds on Columbia’s long tradition of community engagement through programs such as Double Discovery.
College access is at the core of the Double Discovery Center’s mission. DDC’s programs are designed to improve the quality of students’ educational experiences while in high school; nurture a college-going culture; and support students’ academic and personal development.
Following a one-week orientation, students are divided into three sections of a college-level three-week humanities seminar on the theme of “Freedom and Citizenship: Explorations in Ancient, Modern and Contemporary Thought” that runs for three weeks in July. Assignments include selections from Plato, Aristotle, Thucydides, John Locke, the American Founders, Abraham Lincoln, Frederick Douglass, W.E.B. Du Bois, Jane Addams, John Dewey, and Martin Luther King, Jr. They begin with the Apology of Socrates and Pericles’ “Funeral Oration” and conclude with Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” and an essay by Martha Nussbaum on the value of liberal arts education. In addition to the seminar instructors, several other Columbia faculty members visit the seminar and lead discussions on specific topics.
Students write reflections on their readings each night and, with the guidance of nine undergraduate teaching TAs and a graduate student coordinator, work to express complex ideas in cogent and compelling ways. They emphasize the importance of active, critical reading, as opposed to the passive reception of knowledge sometimes found in high school. Students also enroll in skills workshops led by undergraduate TAs and take field trips to local cultural and historical sites. For example, in 2016, the students visited an exhibition on “Activist New York” at the City Museum of New York, the Whitney Museum of American Art, and the United Nations.
Academic Year Program
During the fall of their senior year, students work one-on-one with undergraduate mentors who assist them with the college application process. Seniors also collaborate on a research project on a contemporary public issue related to seminar themes. In 2016, for instance, the seniors pursued a collaborative project that took the presidential campaign as the occasion to explore issues they hoped candidates would take up in pursuing their parties’ nomination (e.g., immigration, policing, college tuition, global warming, human trafficking and gender equity). The students brought the analytical tools and knowledge of the western tradition that they had acquired during the summer to bear on contemporary public controversies. More on the students’ work can be found on the project website.
An annual alumni reunion dinner in January brings graduates back to campus to share their college experiences with the current class of seniors. During the school year, seminar instructors also write letters of recommendation for each of the Freedom and Citizenship students to be submitted with college applications.
Outcomes and Assessment
To date, all but one of the graduates from the Freedom and Citizenship program have gone on to college, in most cases as the first members of their families to do so. Their admission underscores that the Freedom and Citizenship program not only prepares students for college, but also heightens their expectations of what they can achieve while there. It is a program that raises students’ level of aspiration by proving to them what they are able to accomplish through their own hard work and endurance.
As the program has grown, an Associate Director of the program was hired in 2016 to be responsible for the management of the day-to-day program operations and oversight of graduate and undergraduate students. The Associate Director is also responsible for maintaining a database that will track graduates’ time to completion of their degrees, GPAs, majors, and extracurricular activities involving public service. DDC makes use of the National Student Clearinghouse and the National Center for Educational Statistics as a repository of data. In the future, they are also interested in assessing the students’ improvement in writing and study skills, and the program’s success in integrating its component parts—the summer seminar and workshops, college mentorship, and year-long research project—into a coherent whole.
Notably, and to their immense credit, American Studies is determined to continue the Freedom and Citizenship program, which is the centerpiece of its commitment to civic education, beyond the Teagle grant period. To that end they have launched a major fundraising campaign to build an endowment to support the program. This partnership has also benefitted from support from the Jack Miller Center and private donors.