By Jillian Kay Melchior: "The Wall Street Journal" 

On her first day of English class at Hostos Community College during the fall 2017 semester, Maria Diaz glared at the reading handout, a Plato excerpt on the trial of Socrates. “I used to be like, ‘Prof, why are we reading this? It’s so boring and confusing,” she recalls. But only months later, Ms. Diaz would gush about the merits of the Western canon, quoting Socrates’ claim that “the unexamined life is not worth living.”

While much of academia continues its progressive and postmodern lurch, these courses at Hostos, first offered in 2016, represent a move in the opposite direction. One of the classes even was designed especially for students who score a “high fail” on their literacy tests. Profs. Andrea Fabrizio and Gregory Marks, along with their colleagues in the English Department, created the courses in collaboration with Columbia University. They borrowed heavily from the Ivy League school’s core curriculum for liberal-arts undergraduates.

So far about 1,300 students at Hostos, which is part of the City University of New York, have taken these Western Civ classes. “We’re trying to make them good writers, good thinkers and ultimately good citizens by talking about these deeply humane questions,” Mr. Marks says.

Studying the classics has become an anomaly on many campuses, as once-foundational texts have come under attack. The faculty at Oregon’s Reed College recently bumped up their decennial review of a required humanities course that student activists claimed was “Eurocentric,” “Caucasoid” and “oppressive.” Yale’s English Department voted in March to change its curriculum after more than 150 students signed a petition claiming “a year spent around a seminar table where the literary contributions of women, people of color and queer folk are absent actively harms all students.” It’s now fathomable that a student could get a Yale English degree without studying Chaucer, Shakespeare or Milton.

And in 2016, Seattle University students held a weekslong sit-in to protest the classical emphasis in the humanities college, ultimately prompting the dean’s departure. One student, Zeena Rivera, complained to reporters that “the only thing they’re teaching us is dead white dudes.”

Based on demographics alone, Hostos Community College might seem like a probable place for similar protests. Hostos is in the South Bronx, in a congressional district that has repeatedly ranked the poorest in the nation. People of color account for more than 98% of the student body. Many are immigrants. In one Western Civ class, the 25 students spoke 10 foreign languages.

Like their counterparts at other colleges, Hostos students are focused on oppression and injustice. During a recent class I sat in on, slavery came up several times, and one student suggested that because of economic disparities and discrimination, “we’re still not really free.” Several students talked about how they suffered from racism and sexism.

“These students’ interest in rights and equality is just burning,” Mr. Marks says. He and Ms. Fabrizio draw on that interest with readings like the Declaration of Independence and excerpts from the Federalist Papers. Students also are given Frederick Douglass’s 1852 Fourth of July oration, which venerates America’s founding principles but notes that they are “flagrantly inconsistent” with slavery.

Students at other schools often cite this mismatch as a reason to reject the Western canon wholesale. Mr. Marks and Ms. Fabrizio say one of their goals is to cultivate critical thinking, so they encourage classroom debate—as long as students first demonstrate they’ve understood the writings and have weighed the merits of the author’s arguments.

After that, “when we see students ripping apart a classical text, we’re like, ‘Great,’ ” Mr. Marks says. But Ms. Fabrizio adds that by the end of the semester, “I think the students appreciate how revolutionary these texts actually are.”

In some cases, at least, that seems to be true. “These are books that should be taught,” says Reynaldo Martinez, a freshman studying chemical engineering. “I think the hypocrisy is not behind the papers, the writing. It’s the people. These works open your eyes to the way morality and education and equality are still needed in our society. These books don’t focus on power, because power is misleading for the purpose of a perfect life.”
Ms. Diaz, the student who was initially so skeptical, says that the class has been “really important, and not just because of language.”

The 32-year-old is adjusting to civilian life after nearly seven years in the Navy. There, Ms. Diaz says, she learned to take orders unquestioningly; in Western Civ class, she’s weighing virtues and values and thinking about what it means to live well.

“First, you need to know the concept of what freedom means to be hungry for it,” Ms. Diaz says. She adds that these books “are for everyone. They were different people in different centuries, but at the end, they’re thinking about the same problems. And if we’re talking about this, it’s because we’re not where we need to be.”