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Earl Shorris has a Great Idea!

The second public discussion in the Poverty, Promise, and Possibility series was another huge success, with National Humanities Medalist and Clemente Course in the Humanities founder Earl Shorris delivering a new plan to adapt the highly successful Clemente Course model for use in disadvantaged urban high schools. For more info on this exciting new project to deploy the humanities in active and practical antipoverty efforts, see the attached materials.

5 responses so far

5 Responses to “Earl Shorris has a Great Idea!”

  1. rschultz says:

    Julie Jung says:
    October 22, 2010 at 5:56 pm (Edit)

    SSA tweeted Earl Shorris’s “Poverty and the Humanities” discussion yesterday: http://twitter.com/UChicagoSSA.

  2. rschultz says:

    Clemente High School Humanities
    After fifteen years of experience with the Clemente Course in the Humanities, known in Chicago as the Odyssey Course, the question has been raised several times in different cities about the possibility of using the methods of the Clemente Course to teach high school students in low performing schools, especially in areas where the majority of students come from impoverished areas. For the purposes of this discussion, I will use the definition of poverty developed in 1997 as a result of visiting American families of all races and religions in urban and rural areas in the north, south, east, and west.
    This definition is based on the notion of a surround, as in the military tactic or the tactic used by original Americans to kill the buffalo. In both instances, the troops or animals caught in the surround are unable to adequately defend themselves, and instead strike out in every direction, often wounding each other even as their adversaries destroy them. In the surround both people and animals are largely helpless, hurried by exigent circumstances, able only to react, rarely, if ever, to reflect.
    The forces that surround the poor are many. Ten minutes in a poor neighborhood will enable an observer to see many of them: poor housing, filth, guns, drugs, gangs, threatening graffiti, bad neighbors, racism, constant advertising, disease, inadequate services, malnutrition. And after a time, one becomes aware of the bitter force of helpers (the social workers, parole officers, and so on who are intended to help but actually wound), hopelessness, bad neighbors, family violence, brutal police, lack of money, and unsuccessful education.
    The forces differ from place to place. In the Las Vias section of Cuernavaca, Mexico, our students lived in houses without windows, because the houses were made of cardboard, which cannot support the weight of a window. In Charleston, South Carolina, many of our students are African American, including Gullah speakers. Racism there is so severe it is described as “the wall.” In the Las Tunas section of Buenos Aires there is no running water and no sewer system. In Sudan –where we teach, when we can, the Darfuri internally displaced persons — murder, rape, disease, and the tragic deaths of children, are among the many forces in the surround. In Alaska, along the Bering Sea, in the tiny, isolated villages, there is simply no hope.
    These forces that create the surround are not each of them poverty, the surround itself is what makes people poor. Not lack of money. The surround: the unrelenting congeries of force that drives reflection from the culture and leaves people so busy reacting to the various forces they cannot see their way out of their situation, except in all too many instances by meeting force with violence.
    For all that we wish to change the surround, to revise the world, the task is enormous. No society has yet been able to eliminate all the forces of the surround from all the people. Perhaps one day…. But not soon, surely not soon enough. This has been the response of the Clemente Course to the surround: If we cannot change the surround, we must change the people.
    Over the past 15 years, on a small scale, but growing, in many countries, on five continents, we have proved time and again, with people whose lives have been imprisoned in poverty, people who have spent decades, often generations inside the surround of force, that there is a true counterforce, the humanities.
    To participate in changing the people, however, requires holding as self-evident the truth the founding fathers could not accept: that the poor differ from the rich by circumstance and not by nature. For the founders, slaves, natives, and the indentured were less than equal by nature. The founders were wrong. Once we become aware of their enormous blunder, we can think differently about the people inside the surround.
    By studying the humanities, engaging in maieutic dialogue, following the methods of Socrates, without the devastating aporetic blow that comes at the end of a Socratic argument , people can be changed. To be more precise, people can change themselves. The method of teaching the humanities to the poor is not to force learning upon them, to batter them with simplicities, but to offer the humanities in dialogue, to elicit the change in the students from the students as they understand it, as they create this change for themselves, their fellow students, and their professors. The method of the Clemente Course is not a lecture, it is an offering.
    If you will accept the evidence of the thousands of students who have now enjoyed the Clemente Course around the world, then it will be worthwhile to think of how to implement it here in Chicago for students in high schools in communities where failure is destiny.
    Beginning in the first year of high school, for one period every day a class of students who have been recruited for the Clemente Course in the Humanities will study the humanities using our version of the Socratic Method, in a class led by a university professor.
    There are five sections taught in the Clemente Course, following the guidance of Petrarch, who set out the scheme during the Renaissance in Italy. These are Literature, Art History, Philosophy, History, and Logic or Critical Thinking, by which we mean composition.
    I suggest a four year curriculum at the end of which the students who have completed the nearly seven hundred hours of college level humanities study will be as well or better prepared to seek to continue studying at the nation’s most prestigious four-year colleges as any students graduating from any high school in the United States.
    Do I mean to suggest transferring the University of Chicago Lab School to another neighborhood? That would be fine, but I am suggesting something quite different, a Greek notion that conforms to the ideas of the Mexica Great Speakers, the Queen Mothers of what is now Ghana, the Confucians; in short, the way of the world at its best for students in a Chicago high school.
    How can it work?
    The university professor is accompanied in the classroom by the regular classroom teacher who makes certain that the course does not violate any of the protocols of the institution. The classroom teacher also maintains continuity with the school, helps to maintain discipline, and generally keeps the course a part of the high school. No one is displaced by the course. The liaison function of the classroom teacher is a real function.
    The class schedule can be arranged so that the High School Humanities do not displace any part of the regular curriculum; i.e. a study hall or an unscheduled period can be used for the class.
    At the end of the first year, the students will move on to a second year of the curriculum and a new class will come in to take up the first year of study. At the end of the second year, the class will move on to new studies; the new first year class will move up, and there will be a new entering class. And so on, through the fourth year.
    After two or more years, the classroom teacher will, if she or he chooses, become sufficiently familiar with the material and the teaching method to replace the college professor. There should, of course, be some reward to the classroom teacher for taking on this unique assignment. The classroom teacher should never be asked to teach a course for which she or he is not suited.
    A university professor, perhaps a dean or associate dean or someone like Amy Thomas-Elder, who has years of experience in managing Clemente/Odyssey course, should be assigned to monitor classes at regular intervals to maintain the quality of instruction.
    Class size: Similar to the usual class size at the high school, perhaps 25. I would suggest that there also be 5 to 10 auditors, students who can take the places of dropouts, a system similar to the alternates used on a jury. It is more than likely that these five to ten will all become regular students before 4 years have gone by. The auditor suggestion is simply to keep the size of the discussion group manageable. As the auditors are moved into the class they will be asked to participate in the dialogue.
    Cost: Perhaps $4,000 per professor ($20,000), another $4,000 to a supervisor; books – to be kept by the students — $3,000; misc. $3,000. $30,000 total. Or $1,000 per student per year — $4,000 over four years.
    The second year cost for two classes would be $60,000 up to a maximum of $120,000 when all four years are taught.
    As the classroom teachers become proficient, the number of High School Humanities classes within the institution could be increased to two or more without significant increases in the cost.
    Are the costs too low and the expectations for student retention too high? Yes.
    Two assumptions, however, are correct: 1) poor people are no less intelligent on average than rich people — the humanities curriculum is suitable for students in a high school in a poor community; 2) the humanities provide an effective counterforce to the forces arrayed against the poor.
    Now to the curriculum:
    Only original texts are assigned, although a standard U.S. history text, an English grammar, an art history text in the appropriate year, and a dictionary should be provided to each student. All classes are taught using the Clemente variant of the Socratic Method, with the exception of art history for which the professor will use a mix of lecture and dialogue.
    Year One: The Light Year
    In this year, students read
    Plato: The Allegory of the Cave
    Cicero: Res Publica, Book 4 On Education (selection)
    Plato, The Apology (selection)
    Plato: The Republic (selection)
    Aristotle: The Nicomachean Ethics
    On Sophrosune
    On Happiness (selections)
    Hesiod: Theogony (selections)
    Homer: Odyssey – Book 9, Polyphemus
    Jefferson: Declaration of Independence
    Locke: Second Treatise (selections)
    Sojourner Truth: Ain’t I A Woman
    FDR: Four Freedoms
    Cave at Lascaux
    Terracotta Army
    Bell Idol
    Every fifth day is given over to writing

    Many of these works will be read more fully in later years.

    Second Year
    Two classes each week on philosophy
    Two classes each week on literature
    One class each week devoted to writing
    Third Year
    Two classes each week on history
    One class each week on art history (contextualized with readings)
    One class each week on world literature
    One class each week devoted to writing
    Fourth Year
    One class each week devoted to English literature
    One class each week devoted to philosophy
    One class each week devoted to critical thinking/logic
    One class each week devoted to political theory
    One class each week devoted to social criticism

    The presumption is that at the conclusion of four years the successful student of the High School Humanities will be prepared to enter one of the most selective colleges in the country.
    We will undoubtedly make mistakes during the first four years. Recruiting will be difficult, teaching will be more difficult for the professors than learning will be for the students.
    At the end of six years, after three classes have graduated, a judgment about the success or failure of the project will not be difficult.

    Objections and Some Responses
    It is too expensive. It is not. The cost per student is low, and the system proposed has a cost reduction component built-in.
    The idea that poor kids can do this is just do-gooder nonsense; if the poor were smart, they wouldn’t be poor. We have evidence to the contrary, not only with young people, but with people who have lived within the surround for many decades. The problems of younger and older people are different, but both are possessed of human capabilities. Externalities change from place to place, but internally there is very little variation.
    No one will pay for this. Raising money to educate the poor at a very high level has always been difficult. Nonetheless, the Clemente Course (Odyssey or Yaaveskaniryaraq or Alta Culture Maya or Venture) goes on. Chicago now has the chance to demonstrate another possibility. Teaching the Maya and the Cup’ik were new ventures far more exotic that teaching in a Chicago high school. The humanities exist everywhere and provide a counterforce to the surround of force whenever given a chance.
    It would be more useful to train these students for jobs. Training is generally a way to keep people poor or nearly poor. Societies train the poor in order to be able to use them. Kant tells us that we are not means, but ends. The Clemente Course students all discover that they are ends in themselves. They gain dignity.
    Doesn’t this assume that current high school teachers can’t teach? No. The Clemente High School Humanities Course has a different curriculum, takes only one period a day, and prepares high school teachers to begin teaching this curriculum. It is both a matter of depth of work in the field and of the excitement of having a college professor in the classroom to differentiate this from other efforts by the high school. It is the hope that the Clemente High School Course will spread throughout the system, raising the level of education for students who have been deprived by living in the surround of force.
    So it’s just a gimmick. No doubt some people will see it that way, but the teachers will know better. The success or failure of the course depends on how the current high school teachers accept it. There are two assumptions that have to be considered here: 1)poor people are as capable of learning as rich people; 2)teachers want to teach, are capable of teaching, and are willing to enter into a new program to help them achieve the goals of their chosen profession. As the current high school teachers begin to a more active role in the program it will become clear that teachers in public schools are smarter, better educated, and more able than the public generally understands. The ultimate aim of the Clemente High School Humanities Course is to help return public school education to the glory it knew in the past; it is not to replace public school education. One must keep in mind that this is only one period a day. The Clemente High School Humanities Course assumes quality education during the rest of the school day, otherwise it cannot succeed; students must bring skills in math, science, and language as well as the humanities to their next stage of education.
    Won’t this separate these students from the rest of the student body? And won’t it expose these students to ridicule, bullying, and even danger? If it were a program for all the classes attended by these students, it would certainly distinguish them from the rest of the student body, but it is only one period a day; the rest of the day would be shared with the other students in the school. Of course, any distinguishing characteristic is a risk. Teachers will have to be alert to any risk posed to these students.

  3. Priti Ahuja says:

    Hi Bart,

    I attended the seminar yesterday by Earl Shorris, and left with a great amount of admiration for the Clemente Course and also inspiration to help bring it to a younger population in Chicago.

    Today, I met a gentleman named Kevin Hough who is a teacher and service learning coordinator at Roberto Clemente Community Academy High School in west Chicago. Obviously, the name of the school first attracted me to speak with Mr. Hough, but as I learned more, I realized that the school could possibly be a very good fit for the Clemente Course. The school is very change-minded. They recently instituted a program called “culture of calm,” which Mr. Hough mentioned when I spoke with him about the “surround of force” that Earl Shorris described.

    I spoke with Amy about this, and she suggested that we send Mr. Hough a copy of yesterday’s lecture and see if he may be available for the conference call on Monday. Would you mind sending me a copy, so that I can forward to Mr Hough?

    Please be in touch if there is anything else I can help with. In the meantime, I will do some research on the turnaround schools I mentioned as well.


  4. Dear Bart,

    Last night’s conversation with Earl Shorris was fantastic! Thank you
    so much for putting this particular series of great conversations
    together! On the train home, I wondered if perhaps the Chicago
    Humanities Festival might be a good collaborator. As you may already
    know, the Festival organizes a series of programs for Chicago high
    school teachers called Classics in Context. The program involves
    Festival staff working with a few partner humanities organizations
    like the Franke Institute for the Humanities, the Kaplan Humanities
    Institute at Northwestern, the Center for Latin American Studies at U
    of C, the De Paul Humanities center etc. to join forces and have
    scholars from the centers (universities) present on a classic text
    that relates to the Festival’s annual theme. Teachers read the books
    in advance and come to the event to hear one or two university
    scholars present on the text. In the afternoon, a curriculum
    specialist has participated in an afternoon discussion about adapting
    the text for the classroom. Teachers earn CPU credits for attending
    these events and we also give them lunch. The conversation is always
    a good one with both the university faculty and high school teachers
    walking away with new insights into classic texts. It strikes me that
    this format works really well as a model for university scholars and
    high school teachers working together. We always have between 40 and
    60 teachers at each event which is really good for a Saturday in
    February. Anyway, I thought I would offer the model and the
    suggestion of the Chicago Humanities Festival as a potential
    collaborator or at least a source of information.

    All the best,

    Mai Vukcevich

    Assistant Director
    Center for Disciplinary Innovation &
    Franke Institute for the Humanities

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