Term Paper: Earl Shorris' Article in the Hands of a Restless Poor

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Liberal Eduation for the Poor

It is not enough to teach a man a specialty. Through it he may become a kind of useful machine, but not a harmoniously developed personality. It is essential that the student acquire an understanding of and a lively feeling for values. He must acquire a vivid sense of the beautiful and of the morally good. He must learn to understand the motives of human beings, their illusions and their sufferings, in order to acquire a proper relationship to individual fellow men and to the community. These precious things are conveyed to the younger generation through personal contact with those who teach, not -- or at least not in the main -- through text books. It is this that primarily constitutes and preserves culture. This is what I have in mind when I recommend the "humanities" as important, not just dry specialized knowledge in the fields of history and philosophy. Overemphasis on the competitive system and premature specialization on the ground of immediate usefulness kill the spirit on which all cultural life depends, specialized knowledge included.

Albert Einstein

Despite the fact that such scholars as Albert Einstein recognized the value of the humanities, the global emphasis on technological advancements is changing the process of Western education. In colleges and universities, there has been a decline in humanities graduates since the 1980s. In addition, due to programs such as No Child Left Behind (NCLB), the decline in humanities is also being seen in elementary- to high-school-level. As schools struggle to meet the requirements of NCLB in reading, writing and math, time on content learning is significantly declining. This decreased emphasis on liberal arts, humanities and social studies is happening throughout all schools, but recent research indicates that learning for students in poverty is most striking. Stanley Romanstein, president and CEO of the Minnesota Humanities Center, warns that nless corrected, NCLB will lead to two educational systems: one for the middle class and affluent with the humanities and liberal arts and one for the poor stressing the technical skills of reading, writing and math, with less study on literature, cultures, history, the arts and music.

Wilder Research Center study of Minnesota Humanities Center program found that students who are offered strong humanities programs score higher than their peers in both math and reading assessments. In nine high-poverty elementary and preschools in Minneapolis studies demonstrated that students at every grade who receive enhanced humanities study attain statistically significant gains in math and reading scores.

Given this background, it is very interesting to read Earl Shorris' article "On the uses of a liberal eduation. As a weapon in the hands of the restless poor." When he decided to conduct his studies on the humanities, he did not realize how close he was to forecasting the future.

When Shorris was working on a book about American poverty and had interviewed approximately 600 people. He found that the poor are continually faced by many forces, such as hunger, isolation, illness, landlords, police, abuse, neighbors, drugs, criminals, and racism, which enclose them, making up a "surround of force" from which they cannot escape. He also found that poor remain in this position because they are kept from being political, or have the absence of politics in their lives. He does not mean political in the sense of voting, but rather as Thucydides intended the word to be used: "activity with other people at every level, from the family to the neighborhood to the broader community to the city-state" (Shorris, 1997).

His concept about the poor was jolted when talking with Vienice Walker at the Bedford Hills Correctional Facility. Viniece came to Bedford Hills at the age of 20 as a high school dropout and a graduate of crackhouses, Harlem and domestic brutality. She reads at the level of a sophomore in college. When asked how can the poor break through their barriers, she responded "You've got to teach the moral life of downtown to the children. And the way you do that, Earl, is by taking them downtown to plays, museums, concerts, lectures, where they can learn the 'moral life of downtown.'" This will provide a "moral alternative to the street." No one can step directly from the circumstances of poverty into the public world. There needs to be another step first -- the study of the humanities. If as Shorris states the political life is the way out of poverty, the humanities offer a gateway or escape route. "But to open this avenue to reflection and politics a major distinction between the preparation for the life of the rich and the life of the poor had to be eliminated" (ibid.)

Based on this conversation, Shorris developed a course covering the humanities. He called upon well-known scholars: Columbia Professor, novelist and New York Times Book Review Assistant Editor Charles Simmons to teach poetry from simple poems, Housman, to Latin poetry; Grace Glueck, an art news critic for the New York Times, to begin with cave paintings and end in the late twentieth century; and MIT grad Timothy

Koranda, to discuss mathematical logic. Shorris planned to teach the American history from the Magna Carta to documents of the Civil War and a political philosophy class (ibid).

It was more difficult to get students. After one failure, he met with a very varied group of skeptical individuals. He was very straightforward when telling them about the class and their commitment: "You've been cheated," he said. "Rich people learn the humanities; you didn't. The humanities are a foundation for getting along in the world, for thinking, for learning to reflect on the world instead of just reacting to whatever force is turned against you." He added, "I think that is the real difference between the haves and have-nots in this country. If you want real power, legitimate power, the kind that comes from the people and belongs to the people, you must understand politics. The humanities will help." The students needed to put all their effort toward learning and read and think about the same kinds of ideas you would encounter in a first-year course at Harvard or Yale or Oxford." They were committed to come regardless of weather or personal situations (ibid).

Shorris' Clemente Course in the Humanities ended a second year in June 1997. Twenty-eight new students enrolled; fourteen graduated. A year after graduation, ten of the first sixteen Clemente Course graduates were attending four-year colleges or going to nursing school; four of them had received full scholarships to Bard College. The other graduates were attending community college or working fulltime. Except for one: she had been fired from her job in a fast-food restaurant for trying to start a union (ibid).

Just as important, the class provided a means for the students to learn and talk about their new knowledge. A quiet student recited his poetry to an awe-inspired class, a two-some argued about answer to a logic question, a woman recommended adding Plato's "Allegory of the Cave," and a man who was normally filled with anger recognized another way to express it. With only $2,000 a student, Shorris was able to help a handful of students move out of the "surround of force" and into the public world. How much would have cost for each of these individuals if they had not made this step and had to rely on public assistance or ended up imprisoned? Sadly, however, there are some individuals who are too poor to even try to step.

In an interview with Shorris with the Massachusetts Foundation of the Humanities (O'Connell, 2000), he was asked about the fact that his course is very "Eurocentric." He realized that there was controversy about this, but never by the students. The course emphasizes the Greeks, as their work has lasted and influenced everything that followed because of its quality. Their art encouraged people to think reflectively and question the status quo. "Our students deserve nothing less. If we were to deny them these conversations with the great ideas and give them instead a curriculum based on race or gender, we would be cheating them." However, Shorris has also developed a similar course in Yucatan and Alaska that instead focuses on the cultural traditions of the Native American peoples.

It is interesting that the article by Mark Edmundson (1997) on the bored college students follows this one by Shorris. Edmundson's article is the epitome of what occurs when individuals are not challenged to think and develop their own views on life, but rather to follow status quo. After their class, Shorris' students used their cognitive abilities more than most of these college students in Edmundson's class, despite the fact that they had so much more education and opportunity in life. Perhaps that is the problem. Edmundson's students are not enclosed and have barriers similar to the poor, so they do not have similar impetus, drive.

In his interview Shorris concludes regarding the value of the humanities:

Let's apply that practicality to a… [END OF PREVIEW]

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