While the majority of Americans attend community colleges, misconceptions about community colleges and the work that they do are pervasive. They are often viewed as less academic than four-year schools or universities; their students are often mockingly referred to as less skilled than their four-year counterparts; and the curriculum at community colleges is often understood as practical, career-oriented, and somehow less intellectual. In reality, community colleges are where most students complete their liberal arts requirements, and English in particular. The humanities and the questions that they raise for our students are integral to a community college education. For us, as community college educators, the issue was never about whether our students should read these texts, but about how we can make them accessible.

The Project

Our project, Core Books at CUNY, sponsored by the Teagle Foundation, is a professional development initiative that aims to bring texts from the Columbia Core Curriculum into composition and other general education courses. Our faculty have worked together to choose a handful of texts from the extensive Columbia curriculum and to make them accessible, meaningful, and relevant to our students.

Our project started out as an informal collaboration between the then-chair of Columbia College’s core curriculum, Dr. Roosevelt Montás, and the Hostos Community College English Department. To try to get some continuity in our composition sections, we wanted to make texts and teaching materials available to our interested faculty. The purpose was to create communities of practice among both faculty and students by having them, figuratively and often literally, on the same page. These are not separate stand-alone courses (which with tight budgets and limited available credit hours would be very difficult), but material embedded in preexisting courses, especially English composition.

Entering the Discussion

We teach a selection of Columbia’s core texts to help our students engage in a discussion that they are oftentimes excluded from. The texts we have selected and developed extensive classroom materials for include Plato’s Republic, Sophocles’ Antigone, Frederick Douglass’s “What to the Slave Is the Fourth of July?”, and Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon. These texts raise enduring humanistic questions that have shaped the world in which our students live and are part of conversations that continue to this day. Such questions will most likely never be completely resolved: What is the purpose of life? What is freedom? Who are we? What does it mean to know yourself? What is the purpose of an education? The books we read are not good merely because they are old. For example, we don’t valorize the Republic because it’s ancient; we study it because it’s a meditation on still-relevant topics about power, justice, and the good life, and the ascent to the beautiful.

These questions are the foundation of the human experience. These texts matter to our students not merely because they are considered canonical and we want our students to know “the important texts.” They matter because they invite our students into an ongoing discussion about what it means to be human, a discussion that has been going on throughout the history of civilization. The curriculum that we have developed to make these texts accessible to our students invites them into the conversation so that they can see the ways, for better or for worse, that this conversation has shaped their lives. And once they have a seat at that table, they are empowered to change the conversation.

Such opportunities to grapple with canonical texts are important, especially to community college students, because, whether they know it or not, or like it or not, they are immersed in the canon and its products. So, when we read Mary Wollstonecraft, we see that there are different interest groups; when we read some of the founding documents, we use the language of rights, which is one of the dominant discourses today; and when we read Sophocles’ Antigone, we know that there is a difference between religious expression and political power, and a tension between natural law and civic duty.

Canon as Construction?

We present these core texts to our students as avenues into conversations about the human experience, not as authorities on this experience. Part of studying them involves analyzing whose experience it is. Does Wollstonecraft’s understanding of education differ from Plato’s? And from W.E.B. Du Bois’? Why? And what other experiences could there be? We do not want our students to see these texts as the one and only way to understand the world. In this way, entering into the topics and discussions the core texts present, and oftentimes critiquing them, is freeing. Such free speech and civil discourse are liberating to students who often find the classroom one of the few places they can speak their minds. What we do is to try to lay the groundwork for such discussions and address what is needed to even grasp the relevant questions, not determine how to best argue for the answers. What we try to give students is an entry point to those discussions.

And such discussion, we feel, actually aids academia’s venerated “critical thinking skills.” For if students want to use their free discourse to criticize the systems and constructions that surround them, so much the better. In fact, one could go even further and say that these canonical texts model a continual unpacking and problematizing of various systems, many of which are in fact oppressive. So, when students read Plato’s famous “myth of the cave,” they see that the prisoners are both miserable victims being oppressed and passive participants in their own cruel system, and that it takes real effort to break the chains that bind them. When they grasp Du Bois’ “veil” that separates Black vision from white vision, they have to speculate on whether this is a good or bad thing, whether the veil is a structural limitation or a helpful filter, whether it is an image of bias or of insight. These texts do not present a single perspective. On the contrary, they perform fluid, often ferocious critiques on each other: There is no more brutal critique of the founders’ self-contradictions than that found in Douglass’ “What to the Slave Is the Fourth of July?” speech. Reading such texts, instead of imposing a system on students, helps them perceive the benefits, limitations, and/or evils of the systems that surround them, and then assess and even work to change them.

 But Can Community College Students Handle It?

One of the misconceptions about community college students is that they lack the ability to succeed in college. While it is true that community college students often have developmental needs in reading, writing, or math, this speaks to underpreparedness and not to lack of ability.  A major underpinning of our project and its pedagogical approach is the recognition that our students have the ability to tackle the same academic work as students at four-year schools.

Underpreparedness surfaces in our classes in many ways, and unfortunately can lead to our students feeling like academic imposters. For example, students often report that our classes are the first place where they have ever been asked to read a book from cover to cover. Without having a culture of reading in their lives, they do not have the study skills and academic schema to closely read a novel, annotate a challenging text, take notes, or synthesize the information presented. These reading skills that more-prepared students have been organically developing through years of reading pages and pages of text oftentimes need to be explicitly taught to our students. Similarly, students are also often underprepared for the demands of college-level writing. This is intrinsically connected to the struggles with reading. They have not been exposed to the varieties of rhetoric, voice, style, and tone that come with extensive reading. Again, these writing skills need to be explicitly taught. To close such gaps, our curriculum works to make the texts that we teach accessible to our students. Our pedagogy is about creating entry points to the texts and then providing students with the guidance and support they need to read the texts and to write about the questions and issues they raise.

We begin each unit/text with the recognition that while students may not be familiar with texts such as Song of Solomon or Antigone, they have ample experience with questions relating to identity and power. It is part of the college experience to struggle to find your voice and to question who you are and where you are going. At a four-year residential college, such explorations are usually frequent, supported, and broad. But at community colleges, they are inevitably more limited, focused, and intentional. To make the most of our time together, each unit begins with informal writing questions that ask students to write about what they already know about these issues before they even read a word (for example, the question before reading Antigone is “What rituals for the dead are you familiar with?”). The texts are then covered slowly; Columbia students cover 30 texts in a semester, while we cover four. Because the texts are taught in general education courses like composition, ample time is spent in class closely reading the texts, analyzing phrases, reviewing vocabulary, and writing about the themes and issues the books raise. The multiple opportunities to write about each text, on their own and in groups, build on one another and culminate in a more formal writing assignment that pulls the work they have been doing together. In this scaffolded way, the students are able to grapple with the texts and issues the books present.

The opportunities these texts create for students to identify, unpack, question, and even reject the books’ ideas is precisely the reason that core texts like these are beneficial to community college students. As these students, like other college students, work to shape their futures and the role they will play in society, a curriculum that invites them into a conversation about what it is to be human and live the human experience shows a respect for their intellects that signals that they belong in that conversation and that they unequivocally belong in college.