Social Transformation through the Humanities:
An Interview with Earl Shorris

Earl ShorrisEarl Shorris is founder and chairman of the advisory board of the Clemente Course in the Humanities, a college-level course in the humanities for people living in poverty. Educated at the University of Chicago in the classics-based curriculum designed by Robert Maynard Hutchins, Shorris has had a distinguished career as a journalist, social critic, lecturer, and novelist. His articles and reviews have appeared in Harper's Magazine, where he has been a contributing editor since 1972, as well as in The Atlantic Monthly, The Nation, and many other publications. Among his nonfiction books are The Death of the Great Spirit, Latinos: A Biography of a People, New American Blues: A Journey Through Poverty to Democracy, and the forthcoming Riches for the Poor: The Clemente Course in the Humanities. While doing research for New American Blues, Shorris had the conversation that inspired the Clemente Course. He described the first year of the course in the October 1997 issue of Harper's. Now administered by Bard College and in its fifth year, the Clemente Course is currently being taught at 17 sites in the United States, Canada, Mexico, and France, including The Care Center in Holyoke, where it is co-sponsored by the Massachusetts Foundation for the Humanities. Kristin O'Connell interviewed Shorris by-email.

Kristin O'Connell: The basic concept of the Clemente Course is a radical one. Given the overwhelming problems faced by the poor, most programs designed for them have focused on practical goals, like developing employment skills. What is the rationale for offering a course in Plato and Shakespeare for people living in poverty?

Earl Shorris: I've argued that the humanities provide the most practical education. If we can stipulate that knowing is better than not knowing, then the comparison is between education, as in studying the humanities, and training, as in learning to operate a computer or mop floors or pull a tooth or make out a will. We can start from the simplest kind of training, that is, training to repeat the least complex task, which might be mopping floors or repetitively entering numbers into a computer. Such work is poorly paid, with little or no chance for advancement. Historically, the poor have been trained to do such tasks as a way of maintaining a low cost labor force. During the industrial revolution, an ethic (Weber's Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism is the best description of it) developed that kept the poor "happily" at their labors.

Training for complex tasks, such as dentistry or engineering, is more demanding, but nevertheless training, in that it teaches the student to do something that has been done before: pull a tooth, build a bridge, and so on. Compare even that kind of training to education in the humanities—philosophy, art, history, literature, and logic, in Petrarch's formulation. The distinction is between doing and thinking, between following and beginning. Nicolaus Copernicus, a Polish student of the humanities, with no formal training in astronomy, quite literally turned the universe inside out. Few ideas in modern history have had more influence on scientific thinking than the Copernican Revolution. Similarly, Descartes, whose method is at the base of technological activity, was not himself a technologist or even a scientist; he was a philosopher. If America is to remain a leading nation, it will do so because of the humanities, not because of training, even of the most sophisticated kind.

Let's apply that practicality to a person living in the second or third generation of poverty. If one has been "trained" in the ways of poverty, left no opportunity to do other than react to his or her environment, what is needed is a beginning, not repetition. The humanities teach us to think reflectively, to begin, to deal with the new as it occurs to us, to dare. If the multi-generational poor are to make the leap out of poverty, it will require a new kind of thinking—reflection. And that is a beginning.

KO: How did the concept of the course come to you?

ES: The philosophy of the Clemente Course grows out of an idea put forth by Robert Maynard Hutchins: "The best education for the best is the best education for all." The application of that thesis to the alleviation of poverty was not entirely of my own making, however. It came to me while I was in a maximum security prison in Bedford Hills, New York—just visiting, of course. I asked a prisoner, Viniece Walker, why she thought people were poor. Nicie, who has since become a good friend, said that it was because "they don't have the moral life of downtown," by which she meant Manhattan south of Harlem, where she grew up. Thinking she had probably undergone a religious conversion while in prison, which is not unusual, I asked rather casually what she meant by "the moral life." What a surprise when she said, "Plays, museums, concerts, lectures, you know." I said, "You mean the humanities." And she looked at me as if I were some kind of cretin: "Yes, Earl, the humanities." On my way back to the city I made the connection between Nicie's idea and my own education. It was the beginning of the Clemente Course.

I might add that when I described the idea to most people they told me I was "nuts." Or worse. Luckily, my wife, Sylvia, agreed that the idea was worth a try. And then Jaime Inclan, director of the Roberto Clemente Family Guidance Center in Manhattan, from which the course gets its name, agreed to give us a home. And some pals, most of them poker-playing buddies, agreed to teach.

KO: Who were your first students?

ES: The first two people who enrolled in the course were women I had known in a drug recovery program in the South Bronx. One was perhaps our greatest success and the other our worst tragedy. Since I'd rather end on an upbeat note, let me begin with Bernadette. She was, by far, the most physically perfect person who attended the course, slim, with the most delicate hands, and skin that appeared almost velvety, it was so dark and perfect. And she had no tolerance for nonsense. When the women at Young Mothers, the rehab program, were working with me, trying to define the meaning of poverty, Bernadette had the sharpest answers, and she said them in a hard pure Bronx accent that made them seem even tougher. She didn't like me, and frankly, I didn't much care for her. Then one afternoon she asked me if I knew anything at all about drugs, what it was like to be hooked, to be around people who were hooked. I said that I had some experience: "My mother was addicted to Demerol."

"What do you mean, was? Don't you know that once you're an addict you're always addicted, only just recovering?"

"She's dead."

After that, Bernadette was one of the most articulate people in the group. I was so pleased when she decided to enroll in the course. Bernadette, I was certain, would be among the best students. That was in late summer. Bernadette had not been so well groomed, so perfect as I had remembered her. She said she had a cold. She came to the first few classes, but she did not say much. She always brought her daughter, a tiny, two-year old version of Bernadette.

It was just before the fourth or fifth class when I had a phone call from Bernadette. Her Bronx caw had become a whisper. "I can't come to class tonight, because I'm in the hospital. Will you please excuse me? I'll be there next week, sure." Before the year was up Bernadette had died of AIDS.

The other woman from Young Mothers, Carmen Quiñones, had brought videotapes of the classes for Bernadette to view while she was able to think she might get well again. When I first met her at Young Mothers, Carmen was the toughest talking person, male or female, I had ever known. She wore black leather jackets with dozens of zippers and spoke in a Bronx Puerto Rican accent designed to frighten anyone she came in contact with. One night, when I was walking to the bus on my way home, Carmen said, "Earl, you better let me walk with you so nobody don't (verb deleted) with you." Carmen had great humor, a deep seriousness about studying, and an irresistible soul. When we had a problem with people being tardy, it was Carmen who stood up before the class and delivered a lecture on the importance of being prompt. "This is my last chance," she said. "I don't get no other chances after this. Don't wreck it for me or for yourselves."

Carmen has gone from client to counselor at the Young Mothers clinic. After leaving the course, she enrolled in college, worked hard, and put her life together. At graduation she wore a black dress and high heels and arrived with her parents and her boyfriend. The last time I saw her, she told me she had just completed a philosophy course as part of her degree program.

"How did you do?"

"What do you think, Earl? I got an A."

KO: What have you learned from your Clemente students?

ES: First, the poor need not be relegated to training. They are perfectly capable, in most instances, of studying the humanities and benefiting from their studies.

Second, the poor are less likely to be cynical and bored than middle class students at expensive schools. They're good students.

Third, the poor bring the experience of living "close to the bone," into the classroom. It permits them to understand great works at a deep level.

Fourth, the Greek experience that led to the invention of democracy can be reproduced through the teaching of the humanities. In ancient Greece, the humanities led to reflective thinking, which in turn led the Greeks to examine the polar opposites of social life: order and liberty. Upon reflection, they chose the middle way, auto nomos, or self-government, which we call democracy. In the same way our students come to the political life of citizens.

Fifth, the problem for the poor lies not in the poor themselves, but in the way the society has cheated them.

These were, in fact, proofs of the thesis I had brought to the course. But I also learned things about the material I had never even suspected. I understand Socrates now as a person, not merely a set of ideas. Because the students taught me to think of him as a person, the ideas affect me more deeply. He was, in many respects, the real founder of the course, because he was both a philosopher and a political man, and the unity of life and thought is what the course is really all about. Similarly, I had been interested in Antigone over the distance of time, but until I talked with the students about her decision, I had never felt it. [Ed.: Antigone, in Sophocles' tragedy, defies the state and brings about her own death by burying the body of her brother, who has been declared a traitor after leading a failed uprising.] One of our students in the Bedford Hills prison, a classmate of Nicie Walker's in the course, told me that she did not know whether or not she could write an essay about Antigone. When I asked why not, she said that she had turned her own daughter in to the FBI. In her face, our conversation, I came at last to understand the depth of the meaning of the conflict between family and law.

But it was one evening during the history course that I had my second best lesson. One of the students, Henry Jones, asked, "Mr. Shorris, if the founding fathers so loved the humanities, why did they treat the Native Americans so badly?" For a moment, I thought it was all over. I had been found out. Western civilization had been found out. I didn't know what to say.

Another student, who prefers that I not use his name, raised his hand. With great relief, I called on him.

"Aristotle answered Mr. Jones's question," he said. "It's what he meant by incontinence, when you know what's morally right, but your passions make you do something different."

The man who answered the question had never known his father. He was homeless, living in a shelter. At the age of 13 he had witnessed the killing of his mother by his stepfather. He spoke with a strong Dominican accent, and he was dyslexic. He is now in his third year at Bard College.

The other lesson I shall never forget came from Nicie Walker. Shortly before the course was to begin, I went up to the prison to talk with her about it. The day was hot, the drive was long, and there is no air conditioning in a maximum security prison. Nicie was talking her HIV medicine while we talked. I told her about the five subjects in the course: philosophy, art, history, literature, and logic. "And what are you going to teach?" she asked.

"Moral philosophy."

"And what will you teach exactly?"

I outlined the syllabus for her. "There's something missing," she said.

It had been a rotten day, and nothing is so likely to put me in an ill humor as a maximum security prison. "Oh, yeah," I said. "What?"

"Plato's Allegory of the Cave. If you want to teach this course, you've got to teach about the Cave. That's what it means to come out of the ghetto, to come out of poverty into the light."

Orientation was held a week later at the Clemente Center. Before the students went home, I passed out their first reading assignment. Of course, it was the Allegory of the Cave.

KO: These stories—and others I've heard from Clemente Course teachers—are powerful testimony to the universality of the classic humanities ideas and texts. I wonder, though, if the Clemente Course, with its focus on the Western tradition, has ever been criticized as too Eurocentric. There's been a lot of debate about the Western canon, particularly in literature. Many thoughtful people have advocated diversifying the curriculum with more works by women and nonwestern, or non-Anglo, writers and thinkers—not only for their intrinsic merit, but to reduce Americans' cultural provincialism and acknowledge the achievements of groups that have been marginalized in our society. What would—or do—you say to critics who advocate a more culturally diverse curriculum?

ES: Yes, the course has been criticized as Eurocentric. But never by the students, and it is the students who are important to us. The course places great emphasis on the Greeks, as it should. Their work has lasted and influenced all the world that followed simply because of its quality. It did not endure for reasons of the race or gender of its authors. Moreover, those dead white European males, especially the Greeks, were not the Establishment, they were the great troublemakers of history. Their art spurred people to think reflectively, to question the status quo. Our students deserve nothing less. If we were to deny them these conversations with the great ideas and give them instead a curriculum based on race or gender, we would be cheating them. And they have already been cheated. Society has already denied them access to the very works and ideas that bring people legitimate power in a democracy. That is why they are poor, why their parents were poor.

The humanities are a very practical kind of education in that they enable people to think and take pleasure in art, to learn to begin from the great beginners of history, to apply this capacity to begin to any field, any problem. If our students choose later to concentrate on questions of race or gender, they will do so more effectively, more ingeniously, and with better results for having spent their time in conversation with the great troublemakers.

KO: I understand that in Yucatán and Alaska you have developed variants of the course that depart from this model and focus on the cultural traditions of Native American peoples. Would you close by telling us something about these courses, and how they fit into your vision?

ES: It is a matter of what is just and appropriate. The course depends upon what is generally described as "high culture." When I began to work with the Maya, it was clear that teaching European culture there would be an extension of colonialism. I soon saw that Maya high culture had the same effect on the Maya students as teaching of the Greeks had on students in New York. With the help of the Alaska Humanities Forum, we brought our Maya teacher, a poet and critic in Maya, to Alaska to explain his methods to a group of Yupiit (Eskimo) intellectuals. Now there is a course, accredited by the University of Alaska at Anchorage, in Chevak on the Bering Sea. The results (teaching in Cup'ik—a dialect spoken in Chevak) appear to be as good as those in Yucatán, although it is too early to know for certain. Next year, we hope to be doing the same thing in Kiowa and Cherokee. It fits comfortably enough into the overall vision for me, because democracy, that Greek invention, is an idea that embraces many cultures. It is a risk worth taking in any language.

©2000 The Massachusetts Foundation for the Humanities

Published in Mass Humanities, Spring 2000