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Streetwise Socrates

By Maggie Riechers | HUMANITIES, May/June 2000 | Volume 21, Number 3

"The poor in America get job skills--that's all," writer Earl Shorris says with an edge. "But the poor deserve an education in the humanities every bit as much as the rich and are as capable of enjoying it. They just don't get the chance."

To even the imbalance, Shorris has started a program called the Clemente Course in the Humanities, where the poor learn how to function in society in the company of Socrates and Plato and Shakespeare. Shorris maintains that the study of the humanities can reconnect the poor to the ideas of democracy and civic involvement. The course began in 1995 in New York City as an experiment in teaching a college-level humanities course to poor and uneducated adults. Shorris's inspiration for it came while researching his book, New American Blues: A Journey Through Poverty to Democracy. On a visit to a women's prison, Shorris met an inmate named Viniece Walker, who told him that what poor people needed was a "moral alternative to the street." Shorris reflected on what she was saying, and decided she was right--that an academic course in the humanities could give them skills to deal more effectively with the society at large. In the long run, as he saw it, that knowledge could change their lives in more meaningful ways than entry-level job skills.

"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," he says. "People who know the humanities become good citizens, become active, not acted upon."

He told the poor that they would be "as rich as Rockefeller"--at least, as rich as Rockefeller in the humanities. Shorris started an experimental course at the Roberto Clemente Family Guidance Center in lower Manhattan. Students had to be between the ages of eighteen and thirty-five, have a household income of less than 150 percent of the poverty level, be able to read a tabloid newspaper, and show an intent to finish the course.

To those who were doubtful at the outset, Shorris said: "You've been cheated. The humanities are a foundation for getting along in the world, for thinking, for learning to reflect on the world instead of just reacting to whatever force is turned against you."

He told them: "Rich people know politics in that sense. They know how to negotiate instead of using force. They know how to use politics to get along, to get power. It doesn't mean that rich people are good and poor people are bad. It simply means that rich people know a more effective method for living in this society." He told his students--who included former prisoners, drug addicts, the homeless, and people with AIDS--that they would think harder and use their minds more fully than ever before and that the course would cover the same ideas as a first-year course at Harvard.

For teachers he called upon some of his poker-playing friends. Novelist Charles Simmons taught poetry, Grace Glueck, an art critic for the New York Times, taught art history, Shorris taught American history and political philosophy. The first classroom book was Bernard Knox's Norton Book of Classical Literature--thirty copies compliments of Starling Lawrence, editor-in-chief of W.W. Norton.

Shorris continues to insist the faculty be first rate, preferably people with doctorates or MFA degrees. "It's vital students don't get second best."

That first year was a success. Sixteen members of the class graduated. They began attending four-year or community colleges or working full-time.

Shorris tells a story about one of them. "It was Saturday. I was at home and the phone rang. I thought, 'Uh-oh, bad news coming.'"

The student on the line "was a big fellow with a temper," says Shorris. He had had an argument with a co-worker.

"She made me so mad," the student said. "I wanted to smack her up against the wall. I tried to talk to some friends to calm myself down a little, but nobody was around."

By this time, Shorris figured, the fellow was probably in the lockup, making his one call to the outside. "What did you do?" Shorris asked, dreading the answer.

A pause. The student spoke again."I asked myself, What would Socrates do?"--and then he walked away. It is a moment Shorris clearly relishes and a story that he likes to tell.

After the first year, Shorris stepped aside as a teacher to complete his book, and Bard College in Annandale-on-Hudson, New York, took a larger role. The Clemente courses are thriving, and Bard offers credit to those who satisfactorily complete the course.

"We were handed on a platter something so well thought out," says Robert Martin, dean of graduate studies. "What attracted us was the simplicity and basic value of the concept. It was not a remedial course but gave underprivileged students the chance to learn important ideas of western civilization."

Bard infused the program with a commitment to expand and professionalize the courses, hiring Martin Kempner, a former philosophy professor, as national director. Eleven courses are currently offered in five states (Alaska, Florida, Massachusetts, New Jersey, and Washington) with a goal of fifty in the coming years.

In the 1998-99 academic year, of the 122 students who enrolled nationwide, 56 percent completed the course, earning certificates of achievement, and 46 percent earned college credit. Bard also offers a "bridge" course for Clemente graduates who are unable to attend college but want to continue with classes.

The course offers 110 hours of classes over twenty-eight weeks and explores some of the greatest works ever produced in literature, art history, moral philosophy, and U.S. history. Writing and critical thinking are included. The classes take place at a public school or community center. The course is free. The books are free. The cost of transportation is provided. Childcare is provided. Those who teach are paid what they might get as adjunct professors at an Ivy League school--Shorris wants no sense of second-class citizenship for his students.

A major share of the success lies with the professors. Anthony Baldino teaches moral philosophy to Clemente students in Manhattan. A commodities broker by profession, Baldino has a Ph.D. in philosophy and teaches at Rutgers.

Baldino, like other Clemente instructors, finds the students very different from the usual middle-class college student. "First of all they are more diverse--ethnically and racially and by age and ability," he says. "They also want a lot more from the course than students in regular college. These students are impressed that people want to discuss elevated ideas with them."

Baldino's students read Plato's The Apology, Crito, and four books of The Republic. "These works can be read at many levels," says Baldino, and his students were not at the lowest.

It is the students' attitudes that surprised Baldino the most. "They had great attitudes," he says. "I was shocked that they didn't resent being taught works by 'dead white males' but they liked the fact that someone was willing to teach them."

Susan Weisser, who teaches writing and is director of the course in Harlem, agrees. "This is something they want, not just another consumer product."

But the problems of the outside world sometimes creep into the classroom, leaving instructors frustrated. Weisser recalls one of her best students, who had dropped out of school in seventh grade and worked thirty years at menial jobs. He was devoted to the Clemente classes, and he grappled with the disparity between his mental abilities and his reading and writing skills. Three weeks before graduation, he stopped coming to class. "He never came back and I couldn't reach him anywhere. It was heartbreaking," says Weisser. "These students often lead chaotic lives with no solid addresses or phone numbers."

For every student who disappears, however, there is a success story. To Weisser, the success stories are more than gratifying. "The course gives the students two kinds of empowerment, personal and cultural," she says. "On a personal level, they get a sense of capability--they can do it. On a cultural level, it gives them a sense of a world they have been excluded from."

Alberto Dobles, who is thirty-eight and a custodian in a public high school, had been a gifted student at New York's Brooklyn Technical High School until he dropped out to get married. For the next twenty years he spent his life, he says, "seeking existence." He always had an interest in computers and electronics, "but I wanted to study humanities."

Clemente gave him that chance and he has since earned fourteen college credits, hoping to get another four of the "bridge" credits this year.

The father of three boys, one about to enter college, Dobles sees the Clemente courses as an opportunity to show his children that no matter what happens it is always possible to continue your education. "I had the potential, but it was wasted," he says. "They say there's no excuse, but there really can be excuses. Fortunately, it's never too late."

In spreading the Clemente courses into the community, state humanities councils have played a key role. After Bard's Martin Kempner presented the program during a meeting of the Federation of State Humanities Councils, several councils began Clemente courses in their communities.

"The councils see it as meeting their mission of bringing the humanities to the public," says Kempner. "What they especially like is reaching a group they wouldn't ordinarily be able to reach." The New Jersey Council for the Humanities, the Massachusetts Foundation for the Humanities, the Alaska Humanities Forum, the Florida Humanities Council, and the Washington Commission on the Humanities have provided grants to fund the course. The Illinois Humanities Council is raising funds to start next year.

Each program has a community partner that provides a place to hold classes and helps recruit students.

Seattle became one of the first large cities outside of New York to offer a Clemente course, with the Washington Commission for the Humanities obtaining funds from local sponsors, among them the University of Washington.

Amy Acquisito completed the Seattle Clemente course in June 1999 and is now a full-time student at Seattle University, where she earned a 3.9 grade-point average her first year. Describing herself as a low-income, single mother, Acquisito says the Clemente course gave her the assurance to go to college to become a secondary school teacher. "I never would have done this before I took the course," she says. "It sounds corny but I went from thinking school was just an obligation to it being enlightening, encouraging, and fun. The professors were magnificent."

Shorris has expanded the program beyond this country. There are now Clemente programs in Mexico and Canada.

In Mexico, and in Alaska as well, the courses offer instruction to indigenous populations in their native languages. In Yucatan, a course is offered in the Maya language, teaching Maya culture. In the Alaskan village of Chevak, native groups are studying their Yup'ik language and culture.

The Oklahoma Humanities Council has given a grant to the University of Science and Arts of Oklahoma to offer a course to members of the Kiowa tribe. "It is extremely important that these humanities, which are American humanities, be kept alive," says Shorris.

The Alaskan Humanities Forum hopes to extend the course to other native groups in the state, says director Steve Lindbeck. "The theory of the Clemente courses works for all cultures, " he notes. "The humanities explores the human condition."

The experiment that began in a makeshift classroom in lower Manhattan continues strong. Thirty-seven-year-old Janet Welt of Seattle, who describes herself as a high school dropout who had been on public assistance, tries to explain its pull. "It's like I was thirsty for a long time and finally got a drink of cool water."

She got a job; she started tutoring a high school student in advanced placement English. Her depression lifted. "My head was stuffed full of Aristotle and Plato. There was no room left to be depressed," says Welt.

She is taking the course for a second time until she can finance going to college and she is working as an administrative assistant for an agency of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. She says the course was like a series of light bulbs that went off.

"We delved right in with Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics. For one of the first times in my life I was challenged," she says. "Nothing before had prepared me. . . . I had never faced that kind of logic before. I look at life differently now, I care about people and events that shaped the way we live and how we are."

About the Author

Maggie Riechers is a writer in Potomac, Maryland.