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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

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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.

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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