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Campus Classics

July-August 2010

For each Penguin Classics Newsletter we invite a professor to share an experience of teaching with a Penguin Classic—but this time we've invited our Penguin Classics summer intern, Ethan Wong, to discuss his first experience teaching the classics!


For the month of July, I have the privilege of being a Co-Teaching Fellow to a group of sixteen rising high-school seniors from various parts of New York City. The American Studies Department at Columbia University coordinates a special summer seminar for students from under-resourced areas. The seminar, which is modeled on Columbia's Contemporary Civilization course (a required class in political philosophy for all Columbia sophomores), lets these students engage firsthand with philosophical treatises from ancient, enlightenment, and contemporary periods. From Aristotle's The Politics to W.E.B. Du Bois' The Souls of Black Folk, the class spans the western canon and has the students look at these texts with the themes of freedom and citizenship in mind.

Though I've just started my first day of teaching, I can tell these kids are thoroughly engaged with these texts. Having started with Plato's The Death and Trial of Socrates, we examined ideas of piety and universal justice. The question that seemed to occupy everyone's mind was why did Socrates have to ask so many questions? Nick, one of my students, seemed to have an apt description of the wise philosopher: just like a little brother, Socrates never seemed to stop asking why.

But in some ways, Socrates is perhaps the best starting point and should serve as a model for the rest of the three weeks: these students are meant to continually ask why and to question these authors as well as their own beliefs. Ultimately, the point of the class is—as every great books class should be—to examine and discover new answers (and questions) in timeless texts.

Over the course of the next academic year, the students will be expected to take these ideas and apply them to issues in their present, finding ways that theory can translate into civic action. They will be doing an oral history project of the Double Discovery Center, a Columbia-sponsored academic resource for low-income and first-generation college-bound New York City youth.

This will certainly be a life-changing experience for them both personally and academically. The rigorous reading, complex ideas, and extensive civic project will hopefully push these students to be more engaged and active citizens.

Ethan Wong
Penguin Classics Intern
Co-Teaching Fellow, Columbia University
Course: Freedom and Citizenship: Explorations in Ancient, Modern, and Contemporary Thought