Book Review: Teaching Socrates to Prisoners
Seeking answers to the toughest questions about poverty in the United States, writer Earl Shorris, had looked everywhere. One resounding answer came from his conversation with a woman in a maximum-security prison: The difference between rich and poor is 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 came 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 him aNational Humanities Medal for founding the Clemente Course in the Humanities, thereby changed the lives of thousands of people stuck in poverty. Now Shorris has written (“The Art of Freedom: Teaching Humanities to the Poor,” W. W. Norton and Company; February 18, 2013, hardcover, 320 pages) 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 others think have none.
A Portal of Escape
The center of every course is now, in every language and culture, 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 in humanities 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 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 a society that had ravaged these people.
He insisted the courses be taught by capable professors from esteemed universities, figured how to entice them into doing it, and found the money to pay them and support each course with the help of the local folks who believed in what he was establishing. Each course differed slightly, as determined by the professors teaching.
Students must go through an interview process after responding to advertisements and word of mouth in their neighborhoods. The course paid their transportation, child care, food, books, and necessary materials but in return they had to study, read, and think harder than they ever imagined possible. Not all make it through the program that can last for four years, but an amazing number successfully continue 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 that college is only one indication of a successful life. College may contribute to happiness; but a healthy family, steady employment, a stable home, the enjoyment of music, art, literature, and participation in their community are equal measures of happiness most students have experienced. 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.” Nevertheless, college is easier to measure than 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 reside in it. It is a story more in the field of education need to hear.
Image by Kristin Dos Santos.