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Remembering Earl Shorris

June 29, 2012 | By NEH Staff

The National Endowment for the Humanities mourns the loss of the writer and activist Earl Shorris, who brought the riches of the humanities to thousands of inner-city poor through his creation of a national tuition-free education program. Mr. Shorris passed away on May 27 at the age of 75.

Shorris is the founder of the Clemente Course in the Humanities, which provides those living in poverty a 10-month college level curriculum in literature, art history, American history and moral philosophy.  Shorris created the program in 1995 when he began teaching Plato and Shakespeare to the disadvantaged and drug-addicted in Manhattan after being inspired by a conversation with a maximum security prison inmate who told him that people were poor because they lacked “the moral life of downtown,” which she defined as exposure to “plays, museums, concerts, lectures.”

Administered by Bard College, the Clemente Course in the Humanities is now taught in 14 states and the District of Columbia, as well as at sites in Canada, Mexico, France, Korea, and Australia. The program provides tuition, books, carfare, and childcare to students over 17 with a household income of less than 150 percent of the poverty level who can read a newspaper and demonstrate intent to finish the course.

In 2000, President Clinton awarded Shorris a National Humanities Medal for his work on the Clemente Course. “The humanities have great appeal to give people a sense of self, to see the world and themselves differently in the Greek sense of reflective thinking, of autonomy,” Shorris told Humanities magazine at the time. “People who know the humanities become good citizens, become active, not acted upon.” 

A native of Chicago, Shorris studied at University of Chicago, which he entered as a scholarship student at age 13. He is the author of several novels and nonfiction books, and was a frequent contributor to Harper’s Magazine.