The Magazine

Culture Shock

There’s a reason why they call it the humanities.

Aug 12, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 45 • By JONATHAN MARKS
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'That will never work,” one cannot help thinking, as the late Earl Shorris retells the story of the first Clemente Course in the Humanities, or in “the study of human constructs and concerns,” such as political philosophy, history, literature, art, and logic. 

Odyssey Project Chicago South

The students to whom Shorris and his faculty introduce Socrates, Dostoyevsky, and truth tables do not seem promising. Almost all live on incomes no greater than 150 percent of the Census Bureau’s poverty threshold. Some are homeless; some are pregnant; some have been in prison; some can barely read a tabloid newspaper. There is a woman with five children who “often answered the door at the single-room occupancy hotel where she lived with a butcher knife in her hand.” 

We meet many like her in this book, which follows the students, teachers, and organizers of the Clemente Course as it is implemented in the United States (in Illinois, Wisconsin, and South Carolina), Korea, and the Sudan, among other places. Shorris’s improbable thesis is that, even more than job training, poor people need an education that will draw from them their opinions about fundamental human questions and subject them to gentle scrutiny.

In the course of such an education, they will be drawn from a life of reaction to the forces with which poverty surrounds them into a community of reflection that connects them with each other and to the wider world. To become reflective and capable of changing their lives, they must become, in W. E. B. Du Bois’s words, “co-workers in the kingdom of culture.”

Perhaps more remarkable is Shorris’s conviction that these students will respond to high demands. As he says to potential recruits, they will “have to read and think about the same kinds of ideas [they] would encounter in a first-year course at Harvard or Yale or Oxford.” They will “have to come to class in the snow and the rain.” They will have to take tests and write papers. 

Not everyone responds. About half failed to complete the first Clemente Course. But of those who completed it, many went on to attend college. Two became dentists, two went on to study for doctorates, and one is head of the counseling staff at the drug program at which she was once a client. 

One student, Barbara, who took a version of the Clemente Course after escaping with her child from a polygamous cult, helps explain what in the course (apart from the hope of having a better life) inspires students to meet its demands. “I was born,” she says, with “a giant question mark in my head.” She had, for most of her life, been encouraged to think that this question mark was a defect rather than a sign of her “freedom to choose how to live.” 

“I know,” she now says, “that all the questions inside of me are freedom.” 

Teachers of the humanities have much to learn from The Art of Freedom about the soft bigotry of low expectations—and not just for these students, but for their own. We may know that Socrates and his friends reflected on love and justice even as the Peloponnesian War was destroying Athens. But we are not always confident that the works we teach have the power to draw students away from their immediate concerns. It helps, then, to read the testimony of Ismat Mahmoud Ahmed, head of the philosophy department at the University of Khartoum, about the version of the Clemente Course he helped teach to “internally displaced persons” from Darfur. “At the beginning of the class, there was a prevailing feeling of despair,” says Ahmed, “but as the study progressed that feeling was replaced by hope. .  .  . [T]his might be one of the reasons that strengthened my trust in philosophy.”

The story of the Sudan course is another point at which I thought to myself, “This will never work.” But even if Shorris is half right about the “extraordinary success” of the course, I have to admit that I was wrong, and that my error was in underestimating the power of great texts.

The Art of Freedom is also a testament to the value of good, dedicated teachers. Mutasim Yousif Mustapha, who organized the Sudan course—“in a country where the government threw dissenting students out of fourth-story windows” and teachers had reason to fear for their own safety—is a rare example of courage. But Shorris also gives us more everyday examples, like Vivian Hapaniewski, who delayed her retirement to bring the Clemente Course to a troubled high school in Chicago’s South Side, and Darrell Moore, a philosophy professor at DePaul University who, as a Clemente faculty member, “learned each student as if they were his family.” 

Especially now, when great bets are being made that massive online courses will open education up to people who cannot otherwise afford to attend college, it is worth bearing in mind Shorris’s model, which depends on teachers who can earn the trust of students who, in the absence of such teachers, would have little hope of succeeding.

Shorris was a man of the left, and not every reader will agree with some of the ways in which he understood the success of his course: “They all had notably more appreciation for the concepts of benevolence, spirituality, universalism, and collectivism.” He also adhered to a kind of multiculturalism; and while few will argue with his claim that wisdom speaks many languages, not every reader will agree with his decision, in at least one version of the course, to set aside Western texts entirely. 

But in The Art of Freedom, Shorris nonetheless champions an idea of the humanities as something that transcends politics and against which the works of any culture can be judged. The idea of the humanities as the source of reflection is the means by which “the Greeks first stepped back from nature to experience wonder at what they beheld.” At the first Clemente graduation, Shorris had his students “recall the moment when [they] had come to the denouement of .  .  . [Aristotle’s] Nicomachean Ethics” and, in particular, when they had encountered “the idea that in the contemplative life man was most like God.” 

“One or two, perhaps more, of the students closed their eyes,” says Shorris. “In the momentary stillness of the room, it was possible to think.” 

Had Shorris told us in the beginning that this was the very moment at which his course was aiming, I would have thought, “That will never work.” Amid increasing calls for us to recognize that college is not the best path for everyone, it is worth recalling, too, this quiet moment—and its democratic promise that the humanities will sometimes find its lovers in surprising places.

Jonathan Marks is professor of politics at Ursinus College.