Outside on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, the summer sun beat down on the Columbia University campus. Inside a small seminar room, 15 high school students – all immigrants or the sons and daughters of immigrants – discussed for two hours the meaning of equality and the nature of man.
“How many of you had heard of Hobbes?” asked American Studies Professor Roosevelt Montás.
“The cartoon?” a student responded.
“No, no, no – not of Calvin and Hobbes!" Montás said.
On this day, the students read and then debated the work of British philosopher Thomas Hobbes.
"Hobbes is the first thinker who tries to imagine a society - a political organization - assuming equality rather than inequality among people,” Montás explained.
“I feel like he's talking about men only, though, because he's talking about stealing wives and children and conquering land and being violent, so what are you talking about equal?” a student wondered aloud.
"OK, that is a great question,” Montás replied, before launching a sweeping conversation.
This summer seminar called Freedom and Citizenship in Ancient, Modern and Contemporary Thought is a crash course in Columbia's Great Books curriculum. While many schools offer summer bridge programs, Columbia's is unusual in offering a curriculum focused on the classics.
Students start with Plato and Socrates and end with W.E.B. DuBois and Martin Luther King, Jr. They read and write every day, honing their persuasive skills in order to become more engaged citizens.
The 45 New York City students in this summer seminar spend three weeks living in dorms together, getting used to the rhythms of college life, all at no financial cost thanks to local and national foundations.
"I like that I get to learn a lot and I get a sense of what college is going to be like," said Jessie Henriquez, an avid reader whose Dominican family doesn't speak English at home.
The 16-year-old from Washington Heights says she had wanted to get into this program ever since freshman year. At first, Henriquez found the ancient texts intimidating, but now she appreciates the rigorous curriculum.
"I feel like the more challenged I am, the more I'll progress,” she said after class. “If I'm too comfortable, I'm not going to grow at all.”
Montás teaches one of three summer seminars. As a Dominican immigrant, he sees himself in many of his students, who are Latino, African-American or Asian-American.
"I came to the U.S. as a teenager not speaking English, and my own education in the core curriculum was deeply transformative and it reoriented my life," Montás said, sitting in his office. "I hope that [students] are awakened to a new way of thinking about themselves in society. They often come from places where their voices are marginalized, and we want to introduce them to a great conversation."
Casey Blake, director of the Center for American Studies at Columbia, said the summer seminar grew out of a program developed in 1965 by two Columbia undergraduates who wanted to give back to the local community.
"Of course, being mid-1960s liberal idealists, they thought that they could solve all of the city's public school problems within a couple of years,” Blake recalled. “Here we are some 50 some odd years later."
Blake said most students when they enter the program view college as a pre-professional experience.
"They tend to think that they will major in the sciences or in business,” Blake said “Many of them go on to do so, but I think that as a result of their experience in the program they have a broader understanding of liberal arts education and what we have found is that many of them end up majoring in the humanities.”
Since 2009, the Columbia program has expanded from 15 to 45 students and so far 100 percent of its graduates have gone to college. There has been no tracking to determine how many earn degrees.
Henriquez said engaging in sophisticated philosophical discussions has given her the confidence to succeed in college and life.
"When we were reading Plato, it said that virtue should be discussed every single day to make life better,” she said. “I really agree with that and I'm starting to incorporate that more into my life so that I can become a better person."
This fall, Henriquez and her classmates all plan to apply to college. Columbia undergrads will help them write their essays and complete their applications.