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Teaching Classics to the Homeless

Poverty war starts with Socrates

by Mike Greenberg


The desperately poor have two ways to rise above their condition - a practical way and an impractical way. The impractical way is job training, the tool that rich people use to make poor people better servants and seal them into a more-comfortable state of dependence. San Antonio is big on the impractical way. That's why wages are so low here. The practical way is education, the process by which the poor learn to reflect, question and act like citizens of a republic.

I recently learned about the practical way from Earl Shorris, an author and founder of the Bard College Clemente Course in the Humanities. Shorris led the last of four fall seminars on poverty sponsored by the Institute for the Humanities at Salado. I can't vouch for his program because I haven't observed it firsthand, but I can vouch for the principle Shorris espouses: "The humanities are the most practical education. The humanities will change the world."

The impetus for the course came from Viniece Walker, an inmate at the Bedford Hills Correctional Facility in New York. While doing research for a 1997 book on poverty, "New American Blues," Shorris asked Walker why she thought people were poor. Her answer: "You've got to teach the moral life of downtown to the children. And the way you do that, Earl, is by taking them downtown to plays, museums, concerts, lectures, where they can learn the moral life of downtown."

Taking Walker's advice, Shorris enlisted the cooperation of Bard College to teach a classical humanities course at the Roberto Clemente Guidance Center in New York City. The program has since spread across the country. Students who pass the course earn six college credits from Bard. The curriculum comprises logic, literature, moral philosophy, art history and American history. Classes meet two evenings a week.The students read Plato, Aristotle, Sophocles, Shakespeare, Langston Hughes, Jean-Paul Sartre. They study Michelangelo, Caravaggio, Picasso. Teaching follows the Socratic method. "That's the only way that works," Shorris said.

Conventional wisdom has it that this sort of curriculum doesn't fit the students the Clemente Course seeks - impoverished single mothers, recovering drug addicts and alcoholics, homeless people, prison inmates. The main entrance requirement is an ability to read the newspaper. Conventional wisdom is wrong. "Kids who live close to the bone really understand Socrates," Shorris says.

The Clemente Course syllabi include only the greatest writers and thinkers, those who laid the foundation of Western values. These writers confronted fundamental moral issues, matters of life and death - the same kinds of issues that touch the very poor far more directly than the shelterand comfortable middle class.

Sophocles' "Antigone," which deals with a moral conflict between family loyalty and the public good, is an abstraction to most middle-class students, but it may be a very personal reality to the poor - for example, Shorris recalls, to the female inmate who turned her daughter in to the FBI.

Early results of the Clemente Course are promising. All the gradu-ates are either employed or attending college - except for one who got fired for trying to organize a union.

To learn more about the Clemente Course - and especially if you'd like to establish one in San Antonio - e-mail the national director, Martin Kempner, at

Saturday, Nov 27, 1999 © 1999 San Antonio Express-News

Newspaper article sent on by Chris Hardaker:
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