Reclaiming Lives Through Humanities Education

Published July 1, 2013

Review of The Art of Freedom: Teaching Humanities to the Poor, W. W. Norton and Company, February 18, 2013, hardcover, 320 pages.

Writer Earl Shorris had looked everywhere for answers to the toughest questions about poverty in the United States. One resounding answer came from his conversation with a woman in a maximum-security prison: The difference between rich and poor is their understanding of the humanities.

Shorris took that idea and started a course at the Roberto Clemente Family Guidance Center in New York City. With a faculty of friends, he began teaching the great works of literature and philosophy from Plato to Kant, Cervantes to Socrates, and Hume, all at the college level, to dropouts, immigrants, and ex-prisoners. From that class have come two dentists, a nurse, two PhDs, a fashion designer, a drug counselor, and other successes.

Over the next 17 years, the course expanded to many U.S. cities and foreign countries. President Clinton awarded Shorris a National Humanities Medal for founding the Clemente Course in the Humanities and changing the lives of thousands of people stuck in poverty. Now Shorris has written The Art of Freedom: Teaching Humanities to the Poor, the stories of those who teach and who study the humanities, a tribute to the courage of people rising from unspeakable poverty to engage in dialogue with professors from great universities around the world.

The book will appeal to educators who care for their students and to those who never cease to be enthralled by the human condition. It illustrates how education can open the potential of those whom others think have none.

Escape Portal
The center of every course is now, as it has always been, the students who came heroically from the edge of hopelessness to the beauty and clarity of reflective thinking. The Clemente course teaches of classical works in moral philosophy, art history, history, literature, and logic.

The first course was taught to women in prison in 1995. All were eventually released. None returned to prison. Such a recidivism rate is otherwise unknown.

Shorris had spent three years interviewing poor people around the country and found numerous forces, including hunger, isolation, illness, landlords, police, abuse, drugs, criminals, racism, and others creating what he calls a “surround of force” which prevents these people from interacting with society. He figured out how to open a portal of escape from conditions that ravaged these people.

He insisted the courses be taught by capable professors from esteemed universities, figured out how to entice them into doing it, and found the money to pay them and support each course with the help of local people who believed in what he was doing.

Students must go through an interview process after responding to advertisements and word of mouth. The course pays their transportation, child care, food, books, and necessary materials, but in return they have to study, read, and think harder than they ever imagined possible. Not all make it through the program, which can last for four years, but an amazing number continue on to conventional colleges. 

The courses exist in Argentina, Mexico, and Sudan, to name but a few, and from Bard College in New York to Berea College in Kentucky and Indian tribes in Alaska. In Madison, Wisconsin, 14 of the students in a single class went on to college, but Shorris says most of his teachers would agree college is only one indication of a successful life. College may contribute to happiness, but a healthy family, steady employment, stable home, enjoyment of music, art, literature, and participation in the community are equal measures of happiness most students report experiencing. Socrates, Shorris says, “would tell us that using knowledge gained in the course, to have a life of virtue, would be the best road to happiness.”

This is an amazing story from a man who lived to see his dream become a reality across the world. It is also a travelogue of the world and the people who live in it. It is a story more people in the field of education need to hear.


Image by Kristin Dos Santos.