Liberal Arts: A Path to True Riches

One of the people who inspired me to pursue a college education was a writer and educator named Earl Shorris. I can still remember the day I read his essay, “In The Hands Of The Restless Poor.” I was bursting with an array of emotions. From the onset of the essay, I was reminded of my own life and the trauma that came once I had been exposed to my ignorance of the humanities. It was painful, and I was angry that it had taken twenty-eight years for me to finally experience the true riches and treasures life had to offer. I felt as if the blindfolds were finally lifted from my eyes, and with a clear vision I could fully experience art, music and literature in a way that changed me completely. Once I made a conscious decision to pursue a proper education, I understood more clearly the systematic order that ran society and my place at that very moment within it.  It hurt me deeply to learn that I had been shorthanded by limited access to the arts, while others were born into such riches that greatly enhanced their lives. 

Shorris, while interviewing inmates for a future book project, became inspired to start an educational program that introduced the poor to the humanities. Viniece, an inmate at Bedford Hills Correctional Facility, was the source of his inspiration for the program, when during their interview, she told him that in order to remove people from poverty they had to be exposed to the humanities. She said the way to do this was by taking the poor children to plays, museums, concerts and lectures, “where they could learn the moral life of the downtown.” Shorris was struck by the profound truth of this statement, and it became the catalyst for his founding of The Clemente Course in the Humanities in 1995.

Initially, Shorris was not successful at finding participants for the program. But eventually he changed his approach by stating that, “It is generally accepted in America that the liberal arts and the humanities in particular belong to the elites. I think you’re the elites.” All but one of the twenty something students he was recruiting signed up for the program. By telling the poor that they were entitled to a liberal arts education and capable of academic achievement, just like those born into wealth and privilege, he was able to persuade them to sign up.  

Shorris believed that the humanities gave the poor the ability to think beyond the daily grind of their survival. He reminded his students that the humanities would absolutely make them rich, “but not in terms of money. In terms of life.” In my own experience, it wasn’t about the material riches a college education would provide, it was about experiencing the life transforming power of the arts. I was famished for knowledge and continued to press forward in hopes that Kent, Aristotle, Plato, Wordsworth, Bach, Renoir and many others would serve as stepping-stones as I climbed out of mental poverty and into “elite status.” 

Shorris writes, “The winner in the game of modern society, and even those whose fortune falls in the middle, have others means to power: they are included at birth. They know this. And they know exactly what to do to protect their place in the economic and social hierarchy.” He quotes Allan Bloom, author of, “The closing of the American Mind,” who wrote, “They direct the study of the humanities exclusively at those young people who have been raised in comfort and with the expectation of ever increasing comfort.” Shorris believed that exposure to the humanities would enable the poor to see reflection and creativity as their birthright, just as those “raised in comfort.” 

By the end of the first years of the program sixteen students graduated, four of them received scholarships to Bard College, while ten others went on to obtain their four-year degree. Shorris saw the personal change that the program had brought upon his students. In one instance, he recalls the change in David Howell who phoned him at home to tell him of a problem he encountered at work with another co-worker. While Mr. Howell’s first reaction was to, “Smack her up against the wall,” he instead asked himself, “what would Socrates do?” This was a powerful moment because it showcased the program’s ability to develop proper social skills. On the website, The Clemente Course in The Humanities, the values, mission and goals of the program are clearly stated. Mr. Howell’s experience cited above is an example of the program’s mission: “To strengthen habits of reflection and critical thinking so that students are better able to control the direction of their lives and engage effectively in action to improve their communities.”

The Clemente Course continues in places all over the country. A new book, edited by Jean Cheney and L. Jackson Newell titled, “Hope, Heart, And The Humanities: How A Free College Course Is Changing Lives” explores the enormous contributions of the Clemente Course. I wish I had the opportunity to meet Earl Shorris before he died.  I was deeply moved by the fact that his greatest contribution came late in life, after he had achieved personal success as a social critic and writer.  It confirms the great truth I seek to live by—that it is “more blessed to give than it is to receive;” that in giving to others we experience the greatest joy life has to offer. The world is a much better place because of people like Earl Shorris.  May his work live on in the work of the dedicated teachers and administrators that continue the work of the Clemente Course in the Humanities.