A prolific author and founder of the Clemente Course in the Humanities, a free program designed to teach reflective thinking to the disadvantaged, tells stories about the students and teachers touched by the experience.
Inspired almost 20 years ago by a prison inmate’s remark that the poor needed “a moral alternative to the street,” Shorris (The Politics of Heaven: America in Fearful Times, 2007, etc.) established the Clemente Course, using the ideas of the great books to pierce what he clunkily terms “the surround of force” that bears down on the impoverished, keeping them from fully exercising their citizenship. Here, he offers a field report on the progress and spread of Clemente and its variants in Alaska, Wisconsin, Washington, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Utah, Australia, Korea, Canada and Sudan. All courses employ first-class teachers, all use the Socratic method, and while the curriculum may vary, the motivating idea abides: that philosophy, history, art history, literature and logic belong to everyone and that they inspire the critical thinking necessary for the poor to move from lives of reaction to reflection to civic freedom. Although he generously praises fellow teachers and especially the students who have overcome so much, Shorris asserts his progressive bona fides throughout and barely suppresses his ego beneath a bumbling-professor pose. Nor, other than a couple of thin studies, does he offer any more than anecdotal evidence about Clemente’s efficacy. There’s no arguing with the individual success stories, with the dedication of the instructors, or with the earnestness of the enterprise, but whether a heavy dose of Plato and Kant, Keats and Coleridge, Botticelli and Renoir is the answer to poverty remains problematic. Shorris died last June but not before receiving a National Humanities Medal for his work and surely not without the thanks of thousands of low-income people now equipped to continue their educations.
To ask and answer the question “What would Socrates do?” may not cure the pathologies of poverty, but Shorris insists it’s a necessary exercise for the poor to begin to free themselves.