A Classless Education

Earl Shorris
The Art of Freedom: Teaching the Humanities to the Poor
(W.W. Norton, 2013)

“Wealth we employ more for use than for show, and place the real disgrace of poverty not in owning to the fact but in declining the struggle against it.”

—Pericles’ Funeral Oration, 430 BC.

Recently, I was in Houston for work, but not the glossy downtown that visitors usually see. I spent most of my time in the Fifth Ward, a historic neighborhood founded in the aftermath of the Civil War by freed slaves. The once bustling and prosperous area has become a pocket of poverty—and all that comes with that condition in America. High crime and subpar schools plague the neighborhood. Over swaths of the ward, we saw ramshackle shotgun houses on barren lots. The stench of sewage rose up out of manholes. And on block after block, residents were camped out on stoops, another day slipping by.

I was disheartened. How can someone living in these conditions imagine a different life for herself? My colleague, always a good conversational partner, reframed the question. How can you inspire people who live in poverty to participate—in work, politics, or their community?

Earl Shorris spent the latter part of his career exploring these types of questions. He came up with appealing but challenging answers. A social critic, journalist, and novelist, Shorris also founded the Clemente Course in Humanities, a rigorous, two-semester, college-level program for low-income adults. Shorris launched the Clemente Course in Manhattan in 1995; today there are dozens of courses across the United States (some administered by Bard College, which grants six credits upon completion), and dozens more scattered around the globe. Shorris, who died last May, originally wrote about the Clemente Course for Harper’s. He also detailed its history, pedagogy, and implementation in the 1997 book New American Blues (republished in 2000 as Riches for the Poor). In The Art of Freedom, Shorris’s posthumous book about the Clemente Course, he revisits the program for the last time, writing lovingly about the many teachers, students, and supporters who have helped it flourish. The Art of Freedom demonstrates bold thinking about education, but it contains no talking points, pithy slogans, or divisive proclamations. The only grand upheaval here is a tilling of all the riches among us that have long lain fallow.

The Art of Freedom is a collage of Clemente Course portraits, from programs in Madison, Wisconsin, to Merida, Yucatan, to the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta. Though the narrative can seem fragmented, when pieced together, these profiles make up a conversation—an appropriate form for an educational approach that prizes didactic dialogue.

The Clemente Course uses a classic humanities curriculum inspired by Shorris’s own undergraduate education at the University of Chicago: moral philosophy, art history, literature, history, critical thinking, and writing. Classrooms practice the Socratic method with teachers serving as midwives, inviting their students into discussion by posing questions. Instructors are culled from prestigious universities and are always paid—a point Shorris makes repeatedly to emphasize that good teachers are a worthy investment. Students are between 18 and 35 years old, make less than 150 percent of the poverty threshold, can read a basic newspaper article, and express a genuine desire to finish the course.

Shorris developed the Clemente Course after a provocative exchange at the Bedford Hills Correctional Facility in Westchester, New York. He had been researching poverty in America and by that point had come to understand the experience as a “surround of force”—the hunger, violence, unemployment, crime, addiction, and other pervasive and persistent factors that make poverty tenacious. At Bedford Hills, Shorris asked inmate Viniece Walker why people are poor. Her answer was startling. She said they needed to learn the “moral life of downtown…plays, museums, concerts, lectures.”

This shifted Shorris’s ideas. An environment of poverty, he eventually came to understand, is intractable because it doesn’t allow for true freedom, that inalienable right of humanity and founding tenet of democracy. As a Clemente student in Utah explains in The Art of Freedom, the course taught her that "you’re part of a country, and you can make a difference in that country.” Before this epiphany, inspired by her history teacher, this student says, “I didn’t make a difference to anybody, all I did was survive.”

Motivated by his conversation with Walker, Shorris built a program rooted in Greek philosophy, the very seat of democracy. As the Clemente Course’s guiding light, Shorris held fast to a rigorous classical humanities curriculum—an obstinacy that could elicit accusations of cultural imperialism. In The Art of Freedom, he addresses this criticism head-on. He details the nitty-gritty planning that precedes the launch of each course, and admits when the local culture and history are beyond his ken. In these situations, he seeks out intrepid locals who intimately know a place and its people and can help build an appropriate curriculum. He shows how, despite his rigid parameters, the course can be molded by those who implement it. The Mayan course includes Mayan history and language; the program in Darfur features Fur language and culture classes. This isn’t bespoke education, but it is tailored.

There are certain texts, however, that make every syllabus, including Plato’s Allegory of the Cave. This was Walker’s suggestion and it’s a fitting text for students who are ready to see and understand the world in a wholly new way.

Those students offer some of the brightest moments in the book. Their contributions are the antidote, the outright rejection, to any claim that poor people are lazy, resigned, or otherwise unfit to participate in society. In a long-term shelter in Sydney, Australia, Shorris overhears two men discussing Plato’s Euthyphro—which hadn’t even been assigned. He describes their lively exchange and then leaves them to their dialogue. A diffident student in New York agrees to read one of his poems aloud, a piece Shorris says “belonged somewhere in the triangle formed by Ginsberg’s Howl, the Book of Lamentations, and hip-hop.” In a class observation, a teacher writes that her students were impressed by abolitionist John Brown. But the instructor was even more surprised when the discussion turned to the Civil War diary of Mary Boykin Chestnut, a white, upper-class Confederate. “I was struck, over and over,” the teacher writes, “about how active and imaginative their readings were: seizing on suggestive moments in the text—was she unhappy, depressed, longing for liaisons with other men, antislavery, fully on board with secession?—to offer informed (and sometimes quite provocative) readings of Chestnut’s ‘inner life.’”

Clemente Course graduates also speak of the psychological effects of the program. “I think it was great that [my children] saw me doing something for me. They saw how much I value education,” says a student in Utah. “[The children] are three and five, and my five-year-old loves my art books. And he loves going to the art museums now, loves it.”

And this is the answer to the inevitable questions about the program’s effectiveness. What is the success rate? How does the program affect students’ income? What practical skills do they learn? These are valid questions and many of the students featured in the book complete the course and go on to pursue higher education. Others talk about the different types of jobs they sought out after attending the program.

But as one might expect from a humanities-based education, numbers do not figure heavily into The Art of Freedom. After all, how do you measure the impact of an opened mind? The rippling effect on a student’s children, neighbors, and friends? As Shorris explains, “The changes came largely in what I would describe as their political lives, using the definition of politics supposedly spoken by Pericles; that is, the students became more involved at the family, neighborhood, community, and state levels.” (For evidence hounds: recent studies have shown that increased exposure to language and conversation at home have a profound effect on a child’s academic success.)

Shorris asks the question we have been avoiding: Why do we value education? His answer, that it should teach us how to be citizens of a free democracy, may seem idealistic or even unattainable. That didn’t stop him or his cohorts.

At the end of the book, Shorris describes more recent efforts to bring the Clemente Course to younger students. The inaugural high school program at Chicago’s Harlan Community Academy High School presents a new set of challenges: how to fit a Clemente Course into a packed school day, how to find teachers who can lure teens into meaningful discussion, and many, many others. It’s a complex, challenging, exhausting endeavor—one that is undoubtedly worth it.

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Katie Rolnick

Katie Rolnick is a freelance writer and co-editor of the Brooklyn Rail Books section.