in progress edited by Daniel
Department of Adult Education, Community Development and Counselling Psychology,
The Ontario Institute for Studies in Education of the University of Toronto (OISE/UT)
year, in a classroom at the Roberto Clemente Family Guidance Center in the Lower
East Side of New York City, Earl Shorris launched an initiative that in spite of
the skepticism of many social service agencies, became a success: a course to
teach humanities to the poor. The ‘impossible’ idea proposed by Shorris was
to transform the lives of the poor through education in the humanities by
offering tuition-free, college-level instruction to economically and
educationally disadvantaged adult students. Only a few years later, courses
based on the Clemente model were being taught in over 25 cities, including
Vancouver, Seattle and the Yucatan in Mexico.
many voices in the United States and elsewhere were calling for more training
and more vocational education for the poor, how did Shorris challenged the
dominant paradigm and come up with the opposite proposal? According to his own
account in a recent interview with Kristin O'Connell, his inspiration for this
idea came from Viniece Walker, a female prisoner at a maximum security prison.
When Shorris asked Viniece why people
were poor, she said that it was because "they don't have the moral life of
downtown," meaning plays, museums, concerts, lectures and all those things
that sociologist Pierre Bourdieu would include as part of cultural capital.
According to his own account, when Shorris ask Viniece if she meant the
humanities, she looked at him as if he was some kind of cretin and said:
"Yes, Earl, the humanities." On his way back to the city, Shorris made
the connection between Nicie's idea and his own education, and the Clemente
Course was ready to begin (O’Connell 2000).
first Clemente course in New York had thirty students, recruited from settlement
houses, drug rehabilitation programs, and neighborhood centers. Of those who
entered the course, five had been in prison, three were homeless, and one, who
was to die before the end of the year, suffered from AIDS. The only requirements
for taking the course were a history of poverty and the ability to read a
tabloid newspaper. Shorris recounts that “they were exactly the kind of people
Allan Bloom had said were not fit for the humanities.” The
course did not start with basic literacy; it began with Socrates, set theory,
the drawings on the walls of the caves of Lascaux, natural law, and a sheaf of
English poetry. Indeed, at the end of the orientation session, the first reading
that Shorris passed out was Plato's Allegory
of the Cave. suggested by Viniece Walker.
mentioned previously, only a few years since its inception, the model of the
Clemente course had been adopted and implemented by educational institutions in
more than 25 cities in the USA, Canada, Mexico and France, often including
instruction in five humanistic disciplines: literature, art history, moral
philosophy, American history, and writing. In most cases, instructors are
experienced college-level teachers. Classes meet regularly for several months
(usually eight) at a community host site, and students receive free books,
busfare, and childcare. Higher education institutions oversee the program and
grant a certificate of achievement to all students who finish the course, and
those who complete it at a high level of academic performance receive college
credits. The work expected of students in the seminars is roughly equivalent to
what would be expected of a student at a first-rate university.
main pedagogical approach is the Socratic method, based on systematic
questioning and dialogue. Among other sources, the philosophy of the Clemente
Course was inspired by Jane Addam’s pioneering work in Hull House, by Hannah
Arendt's propositions about the vita activa,. and from Robert Maynard
Hutchins’ claim that "the best education for the best is the best
education for all." The purpose of the course was “to teach the students
to use their rational powers to think and to enjoy beauty, in order to bring out
their innate humanity”, which should come before mastery of a specific
Given its emphasis on Greek philosophy, and on what is generally
described as ‘high culture’ or ‘liberal education’, it is not a surprise
that when the Clemente course began to be ‘exported’, it was criticized for
its Eurocentric character. However, Shorris notes that the content of the course
varies according to the context. For instance, when the program expanded to
Yucatan (Mexico), Shorris initially planned to teach only what he called the
“world’s great literature.” Local Mayan scholars involved in setting up
the Yucatan program, called “El Rescate”
(the rescue) soon convinced him that he needed to adapt the program to meet
local needs and the local culture; they insisted that local Mayan culture and
history be included in the curriculum. Several months into the program, Shorris
admitted that their approach was the correct one, for learning Maya high culture
had the same effect on the students in the Yucatan as the teaching of the Greeks
had had on students in New York. He also realized that by teaching only European
culture there would be a continuation of colonialist attitudes and practices.
The following year, Shorris encouraged the founders of the Mayan
program to help a town in Alaska start the first Clemente program in Alaskan
Native Humanities, taught in the Cup’ik language and accredited by the
University of Alaska at Anchorage. While the pedagogical method of the Alaska
course is similar in to the other 25 Clemente courses, it differs in terms of
content. Indeed, like the Mayan program, it focuses on content that is relevant
to the community it serves. This includes Alaskan native oral historical and
literary traditions, Alaskan native dance, music and art as well as writing
practice in the Cup’ik language. Shorris is now at work setting up programs in
other Native American languages, as well as one to be taught in Spanish, rooted
in local traditions, in Central Mexico.
Shorris has no problem with the blending of Greek and local cultural
traditions in the Clemente course. He
believes that the Athenian model based on the humanities, reflective thinking,
autonomy, democracy and active engagement in public life can survive the
particularity of culture. He acknowledges that democracy is an idea that
embraces many cultures and languages, and claims that “we are as different as
snowflakes, as similar as snow”.
Can a course on the humanities make a difference for adult poor? If so,
what type of difference can it make? Shorris is very optimistic in this regard.
He claims that “the multi-generational poor, because of their
circumstances, are not able to participate in the political life at any level,
from the family to the neighborhood to the polis. Life for them was exactly the
opposite of the political life Pericles had described for the Athenians”. He
further argues that the poor live in "a surround of force" that does
not allow them the time to think reflectively.
Given this diagnosis, he asks the question of whether a
practical-vocational education or a liberal education is more effective in
helping them to break out of the ‘surround of force’ and in enabling them to
enjoy the lives of citizens. He argues without hesitation that the humanities
are more likely to make a lasting impact. Why is this so? Shorris claims that
training teaches people to do things that have been done before, and is based on
repetition. The humanities, instead, promote creativity and critical thinking,
and lead to a ‘fuller life’.
The impact of the Clemente course, then, can be explored in different
areas. We can start by the most traditional ones, which focus on completion,
graduation, enrollment in higher education and employment rates. In the first
course, seventeen out of thirty students completed it. Fourteen earned credit
from a prestigious liberal arts college in upstate New York that has become the
administrative home of the course. Of those who completed the Clemente Course,
nine are now attending four year colleges and one is in nursing school. All the
rest are working, except for one who was fired from her job in a fast food
restaurant for attempting to start a union (something that could be interpreted
as a positive long term impact from a perspective that focuses on social
engagement rather than on employment exclusively). A more recent course
conducted through the University of British Columbia (UBC) in Vancouver boasts
similar accomplishments. In its first three years, out of the seventy five
students who started the course, sixty completed it.
graduation, further enrollment and employment figures, what type of impact does
the Clemente course have on learning? Do people change as a result of taking the
course? In this regard, Shorris notes that psychological pre- and post-testing
shows statistically significant changes in the ability to think reflectively, to
use negotiation in times of conflict, and to participate in community
activities, three areas that are of particular importance to progressive
educators. Shorris also claims that the course is changing the isolated,
excluded poor into political people, although he does not abound too much on
this. Then, there is the more intangible (but not less important) impact on
general culture and aesthetics, what can be called the cultivation of the
spirit. For Shorris, this is the most important contribution of the course, in
the sense that it succeeds very well in providing an education that nurtures
wisdom and appreciation of beauty. Learners start to read poetry, visit museums,
and try to think rationally about the world. For the most part, says Shorris,
they are able of leaving their unexamined lives behind, and build a new identity
as full-fledged citizens.
Clemente model is an interesting and admirable educational attempt to make a
positive difference in the lives of poor adult populations. It is not a magic
solution to all the problems and challenges faced by poor adults in their daily
lives, but it constitutes a well-intentioned and serious effort that deserves
support and merits further evaluations of its impact.
and links to some Clemente courses in North America
Earl (2000). Riches for the Poor: The Clemente Course in the Humanities. New
York, W.W. Norton and Company.
Mattson, Kevin (2002). Teaching Democracy: Reflections on the Clemente Course in the Humanities, Higher Education, and Democracy.
and poetry for the poor: Vancouver program [Humanities 101] (2000, July 15).
National Post, pp. B1-B2.
College, New York: http://www.humanities.org/clemente/
of Notre Dame: http://www.nd.edu/~pls/homeless/information.html
UBC, Vancouver: http://humanities101.arts.ubc.ca/
de la Raza, Seattle: http://www.humanities.org/clemente/index.html
Prepared by DS
Citation: Schugurensky, Daniel (2002). 1995: First class of the Clemente course: Humanities education for the poor. In Daniel Schugurensky (Ed.), History of Education: Selected Moments of the 20th Century [online]. Available: http://fcis.oise.utoronto.ca/~daniel_schugurensky/assignment1/1995clemente.html (date accessed).
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