Helping Disadvantaged High School Students Love the Classics

  • Education
  • 2005

Walter Teagle, longtime president of Standard Oil (now ExxonMobil) graduated from Cornell University in 1899, served as a Cornell trustee for 30 years, and was an energetic advocate for “liberal education.” He believed that lessons learned from the “great books” could give college students the perspective and confidence to succeed in life by thinking their way through changing conditions. His Teagle Foundation, established in 1944, has had a long history of supporting excellent traditional liberal-arts programming at fine universities. The foundation has long taken a special interest in its home community of New York City, and in young people who are the first in their family to attempt college. Combining these interests, the foundation launched in 2005 its College-Community Connections program to help New York-area low-income and minority students grasp the advantages of high-quality liberal education. As its name implies, the program recruits community groups that have experience and credibility with disadvantaged high school students and links them to area colleges like Columbia, Cornell, Fordham, Drew, NYU, Skidmore, and Manhattan College that are willing to conduct special classes, often during the summer, to hook these young people on challenging reading and big-picture thinking.

For instance, one of Teagle’s CCC grantees (with co-funding from the Jack Miller Center—see 2007 entry on teaching history) is a “Freedom and Citizenship” seminar that brings several dozen bright but poor high-school juniors or seniors to Columbia for an intensive three-week session where they read and discuss Aristotle, Hobbes, Locke, and other greats. Rather than offering skill training or test prep, as many college-track programs for underrepresented kids do, the CCC efforts try to fascinate students with the life of the mind so they will not only get into college but prosper and graduate once there. Participants also get paired with a Columbia undergraduate who mentors them during the subsequent year as they prepare to enter college.

Teagle has devoted many millions of dollars to this College-Community Connections effort. After interviewing several hundred students who participated in the program, professional evaluators described it as “highly effective” at helping disadvantaged high school students “learn about the academic rigors of college coursework and the social responsibilities of being a college student.” With donor support, similar undertakings are operated by Scripps College for low-income girls in Los Angeles, by the University of Chicago for students from the Chicago public schools, and other colleges.