I have been a university president for over 20 years and have been teaching students for twice as long. Last semester, however, I had a new experience in the classroom – teaching my first batch of high school students in a program sponsored by the National Educational Equity Lab, in partnership with Wesleyan University.
I had first heard from an undergrad about this non-profit organization, which enables high school students from historically underserved communities to take real college courses taught by college professors. . He was excited about his mission to provide free, college-level, credit-worthy courses to low-income high school students. The Wesleyan student was aware of our efforts to bring high-quality liberal arts education online, and he suggested that we do so in a way that would benefit high school students who did not have the same range of opportunities. to which he had access.
I was excited about Wesleyan partnering with the Ed Equity Lab because our missions are very aligned. We are always looking for highly talented students who may not have had access to educational opportunities, and if we see their potential and enroll them, we will meet all of their financial needs with scholarships and without ready. The Ed Equity Lab’s mantra is “talent is evenly distributed, opportunities are not”. The organization works with Title I high schools, which means at least 40 percent of their students qualify for a free or reduced-price lunch. Principals at these schools join teachers in choosing college-ready students, though sometimes the students themselves don’t realize how ready they are. The partner university chooses a professor and some teaching assistants to work with the high school instructor to deliver a course at the same level that would be found at the university. Howard, Stanford, and Yale universities have become partners, and now Wesleyan joins them and other colleges and universities in offering students the opportunity to earn high school college credit for free.
But the purpose of the Ed Equity Lab’s work is much more important than offering a free credit course. The goal is to give students from underserved high schools a chance to excel in challenging intellectual work and show them that they belong in a top-notch college or university. Many of these students had not considered applying to these types of institutions, and through these courses they learn that they are capable of doing the job. They also learn that attending a top university would be affordable with the need-based scholarships offered by the institutions. Many of these colleges and universities would be free for students.
Although I was excited to partner with Ed Equity Lab, I thought of recruiting a colleague from Wesleyan to teach a course in a high demand area. It turned out that the professors we had in mind already had busy schedules, so I volunteered to offer The Modern and the Post-Modern, a humanities course that I regularly teach in person and that I had already proposed as MOOC with Coursera. We recruited Wesleyan undergraduates who had teaching or classroom experience to be the teaching assistants, while Ed Equity found teachers and dozens of students in about six high schools, and we were on our way.
My course focuses on Western ideas of modernity, progress, artistic experimentation, and the anti-foundationalism of Rousseau and Kant through contemporary pragmatism and critical race theory. This is difficult for many students, as we move quickly from Enlightenment to Romanticism, from radical criticism to art for art’s sake. I’ve taught versions of the class for decades to freshmen and graduate students, but wondered what high school students would make of it.
It turns out that many were intimidated starting with Kant and Rousseau, but gained confidence reading Mary Shelley, Gustave Flaubert and Virginia Woolf. Secondary teachers commented on how the class taught students “how to think more critically and analytically” and that writing and rewriting essays helped them express themselves more clearly and concisely.
The material was ‘provocative’ – we read Charles Baudelaire, Alison Bechdel and Toni Morrison! – and some have even questioned its “relevance”. It was music to my ears. Having discussions about the boundaries of what we can talk about is much more empowering than guarding those boundaries in an effort to “protect” young minds. A student from Kansas said she enjoyed the discussions with the Wesleyan teaching assistants so much because she was not pressured to have strong opinions about the issues. She was able to explore these issues and her own relationship to them by listening to others. Learning to listen to others with whom one might disagree is an essential skill for civic participation, especially today.
As Roberto, a Californian student said before quoting Nietzsche, “I am able, we are able… to succeed, to adapt and evolve to be the best version of ourselves”.
There were bumps along the way. Equipment East hard, and some students found it intimidating. One school had to drop out due to COVID, and several students had life events that prevented them from completing their education. But we’ve all been impressed by the number of students who have earned college credit for successfully mastering the material and improving their writing.
We were also impressed with how the Wesleyan teacher aides connected with the high school students, building trust as well as skills. Isn’t that what we seek in liberal education: learning to talk together about difficult topics and lingering questions, inspired by powerful thinkers and artists? Max, a college student from Florida, put it succinctly: “Incredibly enlightening!
We begin The Modern and the Post-Modern with Kant’s definition of the Enlightenment: leaving self-imposed immaturity behind. That’s what my high school students did last semester. We treated them like adults, and they responded by thinking freely, working hard, and listening to a variety of viewpoints. They earned college credits. By listening to them, I also learned something. I learned on a very granular level the great things that can happen when you distribute opportunities more widely. College and university administrators and professors should create more opportunities to work with high school students. By cultivating pathways to college for students from diverse backgrounds, we become better teachers and better citizens.