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At a Brooklyn high school, students ponder big questions in Stanford’s 'great books' program

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An ethics course, based on the Structured Liberal Education curriculum, combined online and in-person teaching to inspire a group of first generation, low-income students.

By Jonathan Rabinovitz

Three high school students were talking about Aristotle with a Stanford frosh 3,000 miles away. As part of an unusual new Stanford course —“Searching Together for the Common Good”— the Stanford undergraduate was leading a discussion in a Zoom breakout room with the younger students and had posed a question: Can you name someone alive today who embodies Aristotle’s standards of ethical excellence?

“Zendaya,” volunteered one high school student. “My mother,” added another. “Mr. T.,” said the third.

That last one was not a reference to the former professional wrestler-actor known for his mohawk hairstyle, but to Michael Taubman ’04, MA ’05, the high school students’ affable teacher at Uncommon Charter High School in the Crown Heights neighborhood in Brooklyn.

“That’s nice,” Taubman said upon hearing the compliment. “I’m not sure Aristotle would agree.”

Maybe no, maybe yes, but there’s no doubt that without Taubman the course would not have been happening at Uncommon.

“This course opened my eyes to so many different things that I would have never even thought to try had Michael Taubman not given me this opportunity,” said Maya Slinger Harvey, a senior at Uncommon. “I’m now walking into college with a more open mind to learning and participating in opportunities to broaden my outlook.”

A veteran teacher of 17 years, Taubman wanted his students to have the same intellectual awakening he experienced at Stanford studying the great books in the university’s Structured Liberal Education (SLE) program. He wanted them to be invited to engage in a centuries-old philosophical conversation about the meaning of life, and he wanted them to see how they could thrive in a Stanford course.

Taubman, Stanford lecturer Greg Watkins, and several undergraduates are part of a pioneering effort to make Stanford learning opportunities available to talented high school students in low income communities.

“Searching Together for the Common Good” was one of three credit-bearing courses—along with courses in academic writing and computer science—that Stanford offered nationwide this past year in a hybrid format. The students earned both high school and Stanford credits. This innovative approach was devised by Stanford Digital Education, a new office launched in September by Provost Persis Drell, in tandem with a New York City nonprofit, the National Education Equity Lab, which has built a network of Title I high schools seeking to add challenging courses to their curricula from Stanford and other universities.

The Stanford courses provide college-level in rigor with supportive scaffolding to meet the needs of high school students. The ethics course, for instance, involved online meetings twice weekly with course leader Watkins, who has taught in SLE for two decades, as well as in-person classes twice weekly at the high school with Taubman. Several Stanford undergraduates joined in, logging on twice a week to lead small-group conversations, help with assignments and take part in discussions involving the entire class.

“The course drew on the expertise of an experienced teacher and near-peer connections with Stanford students to ensure that the high school students could learn a topic, philosophy, that’s not typically taught in high school, let alone a school that serves a predominantly first-generation, low income community,” said Vice Provost for Digital Education Matthew Rascoff. “Greg brought the intellectual energy and authenticity of Stanford and SLE. Mike knows each of these students and was motivated to redesign the senior year of high school as a bridge to college. And our Stanford undergraduates were role models and motivators, helping the Uncommon High students to imagine themselves as college students.”

“The result is that instead of telling the Uncommon students that they belong in a Stanford class, they could see it for themselves.”

* * * 

Taubman is well-suited to play the role of Stanford ambassador. His parents met as undergraduates on the Farm. Years later his father wrote a moving article in Stanford magazine about dropping him off Freshman year. His passion was not purely academic. A lanky 6’2”, Taubman played countless pickup games at the Ford Center and was a diehard member of the Sixth Man Club. But perhaps more than anything else, it was his experience in SLE—as a first-year student, as a writing tutor, as a resident assistant—and then at the Stanford Teacher Education Program that shaped his vision of teaching and his adult life.

Now approaching its 50th anniversary, SLE is a Stanford institution. Part of its appeal is that SLE students are housed in the same dormitory, with their instructors. They bond over late-night discussion of the greats of the philosophical canon, from Cicero and Buddha to W.E.B. Dubois, Sigmund Freud and Simone de Beauvoir.

“SLE changed my life,” Taubman said. “It made me feel the power of ideas and that teaching them to others could help to change the world. I was welcomed into a conversation that has been going on for centuries about how we live together in society, about what's right and what's wrong, what's true and what's not, what's beautiful, what's good. I became part of an intellectual community.”

During his undergraduate years, Taubman came to know Watkins, the SLE lecturer, and like many in the tight-knit SLE community, they kept in touch over the years. When SLE’s founder Mark Mancall died in 2020, the two reconnected and took to heart Mancall’s dream of extending the conversations that take place in SLE beyond Stanford. They conducted a two-week pilot in the summer of 2021, and that fall Taubman launched a program at Uncommon called Senior Year 2.0 in which he presented students with the opportunity to explore potential academic and career interests. In the winter quarter of 2022, he launched the course at SLE Uncommon, with 15  students.

“Too often challenging courses and experiences like the ones you find at the elite private schools are not available to students from low-income communities,” said Taubman. “We see courses like this one from Stanford and the National Education Equity Lab as the next frontier in high school education.”

Taubman calls Watkins the “the embodiment of SLE” and the “sine-qua-non” of the course at Uncommon. Working through the McCoy Family Center for Ethics in Society at Stanford to find a way to bring the SLE experience to a wider audience, Watkins condensed the year-long introductory SLE course into a shorter semester-long syllabus for Uncommon. It is a uniquely mind-bending mix of materials. In addition to Aristotle, Marcus Aurelius and Sophocles, they read Confucius and Karl Marx, capping it off with a viewing of Spike Lee’s masterpiece, Do the Right Thing. It all adds up to a compelling whole, thanks to his ability to zero in on the precise passages to shed light on the larger meaning.

While Watkins brought the academic knowledge to the table, it was Taubman who was there with the students in the classroom, building relationships that enabled the students to flourish.

“Mutual respect is at the foundation of any powerful educational experience,” he explained in an email, when asked about the student’s engagement in the course. He routinely works on his relationship individually with each student, but the SLE course demanded even more. The most profound form of mutual respect, he added, is the creation of an “authentic community”—that’s what distinguishes SLE from so many other academic programs.

So, in Watkins’s seminars, Taubman sits in a circle with the students at a student desk. He shares experiences from his own life. “To be sure, teaching involves the teacher creating learning experiences for students and holding students accountable for demonstrating their learning,” he said. But when a teacher does all those things in the context of a learning community, they stand alongside students, not above them. Taubman referred to what he learned in the Stanford Teacher Education Program at Graduate School of Education, “Paulo Freire and bell hooks write well about this balance between a teacher's authority and students' agency; I often use their work as a touchstone for my efforts,” he said.

All National Education Equity Lab courses aim to make students who are often part of the first generations in their families to go to college more confident about the transition. The classes give them a sense that they can handle the academics, bolstering them against doubts that are sure to arise when they hit one of the rough spots that most new college students experience. The ethics class does this and more; not only do students feel that they can do college-level work, they also feel that they have something unique to bring to a quest for deeper meaning and that they can be asking the same big questions as peers from very different backgrounds.

Taubman is working to offer this course again next year at Uncommon as well as to develop new ones with Stanford.

* * *

Ula Lucas, one of the Stanford undergraduates involved in the course, recalled the first conversation she had with Uncommon students in a Zoom breakout room on the first day of class. It was about one of the Confucian analects in which a governor boasted that his province was so righteous that when the father stole a sheep, the son would testify against him. In turn, Confucius answered that his village was different: the sons were so righteous that they would cover up for their fathers.

Lucas, who is enrolled in SLE, had discussed that same anecdote with her Stanford classmates a few months earlier. That conversation probed which position is correct, and it was on a high intellectual plane: Does the family supersede the state or vice versa? “Although spirited, it was a detached, somewhat abstract discussion,” she said.

The lesson was structured differently for the high school students. The discussion was transplanted to a hypothetical contemporary situation with a prompt Watkins had provided to the courses. The Uncommon students were asked to reflect on what a child’s responsibility would be in the event of a family member’s shoplifting at a grocery store in Brooklyn. While the dialogue among Stanford students in SLE had assumed the state and family were both pure, that was not assumed by the high school students. “They asked, ‘What if we don't trust how the cops are going to handle something?" she said. “The conversations brought up deep points that my Stanford classmates and I hadn't considered in our analysis.

“It was super awesome.”

Lucas decided to be part of the Uncommon course after having a fantastic first quarter in SLE at Stanford. She had already read the materials that the high schoolers would study, but that didn’t matter. The whole point of SLE is that you can find new meaning every time you re-read the texts. And she felt like it would not only sharpen her own thinking, but also give her an opportunity to help the younger students.

“The Stanford students had a big impact on my entire experience,” said Uncommon student, Maya Slinger-Harvey, who plans to study nursing at Penn State and to continue to study philosophy as well. “I already understood to an extent what I was being taught in the lectures, but being able to sit, have conversations and break it down with Ula and the others helped me to really understand what was being taught.” Another Uncommon student talked about how it was so much easier getting advice on her essay from a college student than from teachers. And Gashley LaFleur, another senior, said that the experience would help her when she started school in September at University at Albany, where she plans to study computer science. “I really appreciated having Stanford students in the course, because it made me feel like I was in college already. They gave me more confidence to question others’ thinking, and they gave good advice about how I could take the next step.”

Since coming to Stanford, Lucas said, she had thought much about the accessibility of education and how selective schools can create an intellectual distance between their students and others who are not part of these institutions.

“It would be a shame if a place with such a low acceptance rate, with such a high barrier to entry, continued to perpetuate those barriers with its graduates,” she said. “It meant a lot to me to take Stanford out of Stanford and see firsthand how this material can be shared with everyone.”

Jonathan Rabinovitz, Stanford Digital Education's communications director, plans to read Moby Dick this summer while learning to sail. He lives on Bainbridge Island, across from Seattle.