Lifted up by liberal arts

Dropouts, the homeless, new immigrants find a special humanities course enriches their lives and can open the door to college

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It's a bleak Monday evening in February and a thick, damp snow is falling on the streets of New York City's East Village. The few pedestrians appear to be making rapid tracks for home.

But inside the Roberto Clemente Community Center, no one is rushing. Instead, about 18 eager seekers are clustered around a long table, searching Plato's "Republic" in contemplation of the question "Why be moral?"

Melting snow is still dripping off their jackets, but their faces are a picture of concentration.

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These students are the beneficiaries of a program with a quixotic goal: to transform society by bringing the liberal arts to those without financial means. Enrollees in the Bard College Clemente Course in the Humanities include dropouts, former inmates, homeless people, new immigrants.

Offered in 12 US cities, it focuses on the "great books," the Western canon of culture, philosophy, and literature.

The curriculum is a bit out of step with the pragmatic approach prevailing in many realms of higher education, where students (and parents) want to see a direct correlation between education and earning power.

But Clemente's founder, New York

author Earl Shorris, believes this traditional core of knowledge is exactly what's needed to help expand mental horizons, sharpen thinking skills, and promote greater reflection. He calculated that strengthening the inner lives of individuals would also be a means of improving their outward conditions.

"This is for people who for one reason or another have been shut out of the educational system," says Robert Martin, associate dean of Bard College in Annandale-on-Hudson, N.Y. For the students, many of whom are encountering Plato and Shakespeare and Dante for the first time - the course "is about a door opening," he says.

Take Francisco Correa, an immigrant from Mexico who says he had always dreamed of becoming well educated but didn't see the means of pursuing that goal until he found this class. "You're getting double here," he says. "It opens the door to college, but it also enriches your personal life."

The tuition-free program provides textbooks, transit fare, and child care as well. Those who complete the course work earn six college credits. The only requirements for admission are an interest in studying the liberal arts and an income no more than 150 percent of the federal poverty level.

'The moral life of downtown'

In the early 1990s, Mr. Shorris was visiting a New York prison to research a book, and he asked a female inmate what she believed needed to be done to break the cycle of poverty.

"You've got to teach the moral life of downtown to children," she told Shorris. In other words, children in low-income areas need exposure to plays, museums, concerts, and lectures.

The comment struck Shorris as profound, and in thinking about the power of the "moral life" of culture, he conceived the idea of bringing the humanities to adults who may never have had a chance to experience them. With the backing of Bard College, which agreed to offer credit for the course, Shorris taught the first class at the Clemente center in 1995. That's why the now-national course shares the name of the beloved Pittsburgh Pirate baseball player honored by the community center.

The original participants were attracted to the program by notices placed in public libraries, community centers, and homeless shelters.

"It's fascinating that [the course] is both a very conservative and a very radical idea at the same time," says Mr. Martin. "The canon is old-fashioned, but providing it to this group is a very new idea."

Many of the ideas that inspired Shorris - the notion of shaping a better citizenry through exposure to culture, for instance - come directly from Plato and Aristotle, Martin says.

Steppingstone to college

The class is taught two evenings a week throughout the school year, covering literature, art history, moral philosophy, history, and writing. Students must attend classes, keep up with the readings, and write papers.

Of the 450 who took the Clemente course in its first five years, 252 completed the full course and 212 earned college credit. Of those, 179 have gone on to college of some sort or plan to do so in the near future. Nine have attended Bard College on full scholarships.

The program is now in its sixth year and is offered at 14 sites in such cities as Seattle, Philadelphia, Washington, Atlanta, and Fairbanks, Alaska. For funding, it relies on two grants from the US Department of Education, in addition to private foundations.

Some participants have already attended college, although often their experiences were interrupted by immigration or financial setbacks. Many are former prison inmates who may have had little opportunity for college courses. (Funding for education in prisons has almost entirely disappeared in recent years).

A significant portion of Clemente students have had little exposure to academic pursuits in any fashion, and need considerable support to learn to keep up. That's one reason a writing course is now interwoven with the other liberal-arts disciplines.

Transformation

Martin Kempner, who formerly taught philosophy at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, N.J., is now Clemente's national director. He also teaches at the original site in New York. Dr. Kempner says involvement with the program has offered him the chance to see the transformative power of the liberal-arts experience in the lives of the students he works with.

"Some go on to college, but even if they don't, studying these works captivates the imagination and stretches the mind and challenges them as people," he says.

He remembers one student recently released from jail who enrolled in the course in search of a mental grounding that would prevent him from returning to crime. At the end of the course, he told Kempner that he felt the study of philosophy and art history had transformed him, first by the example of Socrates, whom he read about in the "Republic," and second by filling his thought with new and improved subject matter.

"Now when I walk around New York and look at the buildings, I understand the architecture. That makes a big difference," he told Kempner.

Model for other courses

At the University of Notre Dame in Indiana, two professors inspired by Shorris's ideas began their own version of the Clemente course a few years ago.

The Notre Dame Great Books course is shorter and is offered only to residents of a local homeless shelter. It focuses on works by such writers as Shakespeare, Montaigne, and Melville, and the professors involved say they see such books work magic in the students' lives.

"We make art and culture available and with just a little bit of help [the students] fall in love," says Clark Power, chair of the Program of Liberal Studies at Notre Dame. "I've gained myself in appreciating what the arts give to our shared sense of humanity," he says.

Many teachers of these types of classes say they appreciate the gratitude and enthusiasm their adult students bring to their studies.

"There's a seriousness about getting educated that's more apparent," says Kempner. "For the people in this room, there's something vitally important about education that I don't find with the undergraduates."

Fernando Castro, a Mexican immigrant who works cleaning offices, is currently enrolled in the course at the Clemente center in New York. He hopes eventually to make it to college and become an architect.

Mr. Castro says he's thrilled at this chance to get college credits for free, but his pleasure extends beyond the thought of economic opportunity.

"I like the whole learning experience," he says. "I love the intellectual stimulation. You can never learn enough."

E-mail marjorie@csmonitor.com

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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