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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

By Marjorie Coeyman Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / February 27, 2001


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.

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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.

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