A Double Take on Clemente

Boston Clemente Class of 2007The Massachusetts Foundation for the Humanities presents the Clemente Course in the Humanities at three sites in Boston, New Bedford, and Holyoke. Plans are underway for a fourth site in Lowell this fall, and we would like to start the program again in Worcester in the coming years. Through Clemente, low-income adults take introductory college-level classes in American history, art history, literature, moral philosophy, and writing and critical thinking, for one academic year, free of charge. Successful participants earn six transferable credits from Bard College. Most of the participants are women, and most are racial minorities. The Clemente experience encompasses many steps toward a better future for participants, their families, and their communities. Lyda Kuth and Julia Legas share a passion for Clemente. Lyda recently attended a class taught by Julia, and they have inspired each other to continue supporting the program in their own ways

Julia LegasJulia Legas teaches philosophy and critical thinking at Suffolk University and Cambridge College, in addition to teaching the moral philosophy component of the Clemente Course. She has advanced degrees in English and Philosophy from California State University, Long Beach and Boston College. Her academic specializations include political philosophy, democracy theory, philosophy of literature, ethics and aesthetics. On the first day of teaching the moral philosophy section of the Clemente class in Boston, I had prepared my usual stirring speech about the value of the humanities: you will encounter the great minds of the past; you will take up the great ideas that all people have contemplated; you will read and write in ways that will help you discover your place in this great conversation. All the educated people of the past have read these same texts; you will read them as they are themselves, no extraneous commentary; just you and the text. The humanities will open up the world to you in new and different ways that will change your vision of the world, and of yourself. I was stirred, at least. I got to the end of my talk where I wind up to my dramatic conclusion: philosophy requires arduous thinking and careful reading and writing; it is often hard to hear your long-held beliefs criticized; people who are invested in the status quo do not want philosophers in their midst shaking things up. Be advised, scholars: philosophy is difficult and dangerous. Ta-da. I look out to the room and there is a hand up. Excellent, someone is willing to sign up for the cause; the first soldier in the army is volunteering. A well-turned out, very proper woman in her 50s asks me, “Have you ever taught this class before? Because I think philosophy is very enjoyable.” And there began the great conversation I had with the Clemente Class of ’07. Our time was spent together working philosophy. I always address my class as “scholars.” I want them to rise to the challenge of doing philosophy, not just reading it. By taking up the selfsame questions that plagued Socrates, Aristotle, Kant, Sartre, and the other great philosophers we study, we do not just read what they wrote; we do what they did. Philosophy is an act: a commitment to seeking out, and seeking within. Philosophy engages the whole person. At the end of the class, my scholars agreed with me that philosophy was difficult and dangerous, but not for the reasons they initially assumed. They got better at reading, writing and arguing, to be sure, but they saw that they themselves were changed because of what they had thought, and that their lives were at stake for them in a new way. The habits of mind we tried to cultivate together in our classroom would keep them restless for the remainder of their lives.

Lyda KuthLyda Kuth is a founding board member and current director of the LEF Foundation, a private foundation founded in 1985 to support the creation and presentation of new work in the visual arts, performing arts, literary arts, new media, film and video, architecture and design. The Clemente program has captivated me since I read an article about it over twenty years ago and tucked it away in a file. In 1999, I read in the “Mass Humanities newsletter” that the program had been launched in Massachusetts, and I contacted the organization to learn more. I’ve been supporting the program personally ever since. The Clemente Course resonates with me because it puts into action many of my own core values, like individual agency and the idea that people can change their lives. As a student of literature and history, I left college for five years and returned to finish my degree with a great deal more conviction. I understand how adults motivated to return to school are likely to have profound experiences. What struck me about the Clemente classes that I have attended is how the “humanity” at the heart of the humanities is immediately apparent. All participants, faculty and students alike, are on a level playing field. At LEF we emphasize access to the arts for all people, and a mutual respect between artist and funder. This is the kind of mutual respect I have seen, between faculty and students. In a Clemente classroom you see a microcosm of the ideal community, a place where voices have equal weight and are heard by all. In the art world, everything boils down to the work of the individual artist. My fellow trustees at LEF and I believe in the “ripple effect” of the creative endeavor of artists and the collective result that is greater than the sum of individual experiences of a work of art. Earl Shorris,* the founder of the Clemente Course, applies this concept to society and the poor. I agree with his emphasis on the fact that individuals make up the body politic, and I admire his patience in attending to one person at a time. We also share the belief that educated mothers create educated families. All of these are characteristic of the Clemente Course. The value of this kind of patience is too often overlooked in the foundation world. This reflects a concern that is emerging in the field as a whole, which is that the pendulum has swung too far toward funding decisions being based on tangible results within a set timeframe. While the longitudinal evaluation of the program that Mass Humanities is conducting shows many promising results of this type, I choose to support Clemente because of the subtler, longer-term outcomes for participants that are probably impossible to measure. I encourage you to become more involved. There are many ways:

  • Attend a Clemente graduation this spring.
  • Let your legislators know that you support the Clemente program.
  • Donate to the Clemente Course, and encourage others to do so. If your book club or other group gives together, consider Clemente. Donate online at www.masshumanities.org; or contact John Sieracki for more information about giving: jsieracki@masshumanities.org

* Earl Shorris is founder and chairman of the advisory board of the Clemente Course in the Humanities, and author of Riches for the Poor: The Clemente Course in the Humanities (W.W. Norton & Company, 2000). An interview with Mr. Shorris can be found at the Newsletter section of www.masshumanities.org.

©2008 The Massachusetts Foundation for the Humanities Published Mass Humanities, Spring 2008