You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.
Skip Navigation

For Richer and Poorer

Teaching the humanities to everyone

Daniel Mihailescu/AFP/Getty Images

Do the classics matter? The Common Core State Standards—new, K-12 education rubrics that were rolled out in 2010 and have been implemented in 45 states and Washington, D.C.—seem conflicted about the answer. Their designer, David Coleman, is a self-professed atavist, and the standards praise the value of Ovid and Shakespeare. But they’ve also drawn heat for requiring that teachers include a huge proportion of nonfiction “informational texts” on their syllabi—70 percent of reading materials by twelfth grade.1 Some of the suggested texts are literary memoirs or historic speeches, but others suggest a brutally pragmatic view of what it means to prepare someone for the workforce: the Department of Energy’s “Recommended Levels of Insulation,” for example.2 The underlying attitude seems to be that the old-fashioned stuff is lovely, and we should hold space for it—but we also need to make room for the stuff that works.

But what if the humanities do work—not as indulgences, but vital lessons? That’s the position of the Bard College Clemente Course in the Humanities, a night class for underprivileged adults with a syllabus resembling the core curricula of the Ivy League. Clemente began in lower Manhattan in 1995, and in 2000 it came under the auspices of Bard, which now confers six college credits on graduates. Today, it has roughly 25 outposts in the U.S. and over 50 worldwide. Enrollees must be at least 17, earn less than 150 percent of the federal poverty level (for a single-person household, that tops out at $16,755 a year), and be able to read a newspaper in English.

Clemente’s founder, and until recently its animating spirit, was the writer Earl Shorris, a prolific novelist, journalist, and social critic who died last May.3 Shorris called teaching the humanities “a redistribution of wealth,” and laid out Clemente’s philosophical underpinnings in a 2000 book, Riches for the Poor. “Poverty,” he wrote, in Freedom, “is not a necessary condition of human life.” Shorris was working on another book at the time of his death—The Art of Freedom, which will be published posthumously this month.

The Art of Freedom is more a collection of memories than a book in any traditional sense. If it traces one thing, it is Shorris’s movement away from a purely Western idea of the humanities; he started a number of courses in indigenous communities from Mexico to Alaska. At the heart of the book, though, are the disjointed but beautiful portraits of the people who poured themselves into his improbable, consummately hopeful idea, many of whom became his dear friends along the way. Freedom is suffused with his deeply, almost anachronistically humanistic ethos.

Clemente’s idealism is stirring, even galvanizing, but—and the question is particularly pressing given the current, embattled state of the humanities—are its methods working? It is hard to judge from this book: Its presentation of the project is not systematic enough to impart any overarching sense of its impact, and Shorris uses the abstract language of the ivory tower, not the data-driven parlance of today’s education reformers. He writes that the poor are born into a “surround of force,” a choking circumscription of exhaustion and anxiety.4 They live by “reaction” to whatever is thrown at them. The humanities, Shorris argues, can teach them “reflection,” the ability to analyze and alter their circumstances. This sounds credible, but too lofty to capture attention in the present educational climate.

By the numbers, though, the Clemente program has seen considerable success. A top administrator for the course told me about two-thirds of students who begin the class finish it. Of those, three-quarters receive credit from Bard and about one-half go on to two- or four-year colleges.5 If these figures don’t sound rosy, bear in mind that Clemente courses are often composed almost entirely of the people who run up the failing grades and attrition rates at public schools. And since, for many, the Clemente course is a stand-in or a preparation for college, it is worth noting that its graduation rate trumps those of four-year public universities—on average, under a third of students at these schools graduate in four years, and just over half in six.6

Any attempt to measure the success of the course by crunching numbers, though, is discordant with Shorris’s vision. He writes proudly about students who built middle-class lives for themselves after the course funneled them into traditional educational tracks, but emphasizes that Clemente is much more than “a college preparatory program for underprivileged people.” 7 In a longitudinal study of the Massachusetts branches of the course, researchers tried to measure impact by asking students a broad range of questions—from whether they had continued to pursue education, to whether they felt more capable of facing daily anxieties than before they took the course. “I am more confident in helping my son with his education and encouraging him to be more positive about himself and his abilities,” one subject said. “I also take a stand with the school when I feel his educational needs are not being met.”

The ability to intercede and debate for a better outcome gets at what Shorris considered the heart of his project. The humanities, he writes in The Art of Freedom, are an ancient tool for imparting “politics,” in the Greek sense of the word: engagement in family, community, city, and state. “Rich people learn the humanities,” Shorris told his students at the first ever meeting of the course (the story is recounted in the book). “They know how to negotiate instead of using force. They know how to use politics to get along, to get power.”

This theory of education is alive and well in America. It’s why the top-ranked universities sink billions into their physical plants, creating idyllic spaces to foster model communities where students practice the “political” life. It’s why elite prep schools—in many cases, also residential—have mottos that emphasize participation and service, like Phillips Andover’s “Non Sibi,” or, “Not For Oneself.” Education, for a certain class, is full-time and immersive.

But this applies only to a small strata. About 90 percent of American kids and teens are educated in public schools, and in the past decade, these institutions have increasingly been, as the saying goes, teaching to a test—before long, to the exams being designed to accompany the Common Core. The evidence is mounting that this pedagogy does not impart critical reasoning, creativity, synthesis, and the other modes of thought that play a role in what Shorris termed “reflection.” In 2007, the Nation’s Report Card, an assessment overseen by the Department of Education, evaluated persuasive essays and rated only 1 percent of twelfth-grade students “advanced” and another 23 percent “proficient.” 8 And even students who fulfill all the requirements of high school often flounder in college and beyond: About 20 percent of students entering four-year colleges and up to 60 percent of those starting at community colleges must take remedial classes. (Only about one-third of the former graduate on time, and of the latter, only one in ten.) Given these realities, the director of the Washington, D.C. Clemente Course that I visited told me she feels her program “fills a gap in the American education system.” 

Beside our schools’ inadequacies, Clemente starts to look not just like an encouraging extracurricular, but like an important rebuttal to the argument that testing is the best way to ensure learning. It shows that students with limited prior education can, with enough support, tackle the hardest works in the English language, and that someone who did not do well on the tests can make it to, and through, college by reading Plato and Aristotle. Freedom, Shorris’s final book, records the course’s obstinate journey, in many scattered outposts, from a writer’s dream to a living method. As a document, it records the unabashed rejection of cynicism that allowed for such a realization.

By transforming his quixotic belief in the humanities into a project with undeniable efficacy, Shorris gave us an exciting foil to the narrow terms of the current education debate—but he also imagined the course would do more than “fill a gap.” In the D.C. class I visited, there are twenty-somethings who didn’t make it through college the first time they tried, and then there is Tiko Jackson, a 40-year-old stay-at-home mom who has been pursuing education online and in the evenings for years, and who told me she gets a little ribbing from the others because she comes early every week to set up the chairs. “I just wanted something different,” she told me, “and it has been wonderful.” Not every student uses Clemente to vault back onto the higher education track. The course is a reminder that it is exciting, even revelatory, just to read the great books and face up to their great questions—that education should confer something far more lasting and valuable than a degree.

  1. Education reformer Diane Ravitch called the Big Brother-esque specification of fiction to nonfiction ratios “an overreach” with “no basis in research or experience.”

  2. David Coleman, has been pilloried for his somewhat chilling statements about what it means to prepare the youth for the real world: He once told a room of educators to keep in mind that their students would never hear from a future employer, “Johnson, I need a market analysis by Friday, but before that, I need a compelling account of your childhood.”

  3. He received the National Humanities Medal from President Bill Clinton in 2000.

  4. Many Clemente students are former convicts and have been physically imprisoned, as well.

  5. She tracks this number through transcript requests when students apply.

  6. The Chronicle of Higher Education has done an extensive and dispiriting study on college completion.

  7. For example, fourteen graduates of the Madison, Wisconsin program have made it through four-year colleges to date.

  8. “Advanced” students were “able to produce a mature and sophisticated response…that uses analytical, evaluative, or creative thinking.” Students scored “proficient” were able to form “effective and fully developed” arguments.