Essay: English Literature -- Reading Response and Analysis

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English Literature -- Reading Response and Analysis

In his 1997 Harper's Magazine article, "On the uses of a liberal education as a weapon in the hands of the restless poor," Earl Shorris presents the argument that the common explanation for why poor people remain poor neglects a critical element. Generally, the article details the author's first-hand research in form of recruiting participants for, and then teaching a class in the Humanities for individuals from poor neighborhoods and circumstances in the New York Metropolitan area. He begins by tracing the origin of his change in belief and perception based on a conversation with an inmate at the Bedford Hills Correctional Facility in Westchester, a northern suburb of New York City. The rest of the article details the manner in which Shorris applied the lessons he learned from this inmate to develop a new program intended to help those of limited means to improve their situations. Specifically, Shorris suggests that there is a fundamental importance of a Liberal Arts education that emphasizes the Humanities in particular and that providing greater access to an introduction to and education in the Humanities is the key to helping those facing poverty improve their lives.

Understanding the Actual Causes of Poverty

Shorris argues that the factors traditionally associated with poverty as causative factors omit a crucial component: the political power that comes with the benefits of appreciating the Humanities. Shorris (p. 50) expresses his initial beliefs about poverty and the poor's lack of political power as follows:

"Numerous forces -- hunger, isolation, illness, landlords, police, abuse, neighbors, drugs, criminals, and racism, among many others -- exert themselves on the poor at all times and enclose them, making up a "surround of force" from which, it seems, they cannot escape. I had come to understand that this was what kept the poor from being political and that the absence of politics in their lives was what kept them poor. I don't mean "political" in the sense of voting in an election but in the way Thucydides used the word: to mean activity with other people at every level, from the family to the neighborhood to the broader community to the city-

state."

That was Shorris's point-of-view on the root causes of poverty in America before his first conversation with an inmate named Viniece Walker ("Nieci"). When he asked Nieci why she thought poor people stay poor, she responded that poor children lack sufficient access to alternatives to the street life such as exposure to the arts and to the cultural elements of their society that are consistent with morality and goodness in life. Further discussion and reflection led Shorris to conclude that Nieci was right: poor children rarely have the benefit of exposure to culture and the chance to study the Humanities (i.e. Art, Literature, Classic Philosophy, and History) that wealthier children typically receive. In addition to exposure from their greater access to museums and concerts through their parents, wealthier children tend to study the Humanities in college as well. Shorris concludes that, in combination, these experiences help wealthier individuals develop better critical thinking and reasoning skills and other skills that, as adults, enable them to interact with others in society in ways that benefit them. They have greater access to gainful employment and they enjoy greater political power as well.

Shorris decided to develop a Humanities course designed to address this specific problem by taking advantage of the existing resources available in New York City through the Roberto Clemente Family Guidance Center, Shorris obtained the necessary access to physical facilities and he then managed to convince several respected university educators to contribute their time to teach within the program. Shorris also eventually managed to recruit his first class of students by visiting various program centers in New York and pitching the program to larger groups of prospective participants. In principle, the goals of the Clemente course, as it came to be called, were to provide exposure to the Humanities to poor students so that they might reap some of the same benefits of that experience that normally requires enrolling as a freshman in a traditional college program that is not a realistic possibility for many poor students, whether for lack of funds or because they never completed high school. Shorris hoped that the program would help his students learn to think in ways consistent with the lessons of classic philosophy and come to appreciate the potential social and political potential associated with higher education.

The Clemente Course Students

When Shorris first met Abel Lomas, Lomas was a street-hardened orphan living on the streets after having been abandoned by his father and losing his mother to murder at the hands of his stepfather. In their first conversation, Lomas failed to understand why dealing drugs was something that was, in the larger societal sense, worse than being unable to provide for one's family. Shorris introduced Lomas to the basic principle of Kantian Utilitarianism and succeeded in helping Lomas realize why dealing drugs was, in at least some respects, worse than starving, or at least worse than having to find the next best solution to starving. Later, during the course, Lomas had expressed his appreciation for the fact that the Socratic Method allowed him a voice for his opinions. Ultimately, Lomas learned skills of logical reasoning that allowed him to demonstrate them by applying Aristotle's principles to a discussion during the class.

Samantha Smoot also seemed to benefit from the course. Initially, she expressed doubts about the usefulness of studying within the program, in the form of paraphrasing the comments of people in her neighborhood who had belittled her intentions. They told her that it was useless to try to better one's self through education since the white man would keep her down regardless of her efforts in that regard. From the way Shorris recounts the exchange, it seems that he believed that Samantha may have also believed that to some degree at the outset. By the end of the program, Samantha had clearly developed a genuine interest in the subject matter. She demonstrated that by her insistence in a more detailed explanation of the glyphs at the museum and also by her demeanor in the way that she said goodbye to everyone that night. Ultimately, Samantha also seemed to have been motivated to explore her innate intelligence for logical reasoning through the course, as evident by her contribution to class discussions and her interest in continuing the debate about an intellectual problem raised in the class with another classmate, David, after the class on the street.

When the program began, Hector Anderson never volunteered to contribute to class discussions, despite exhibiting intelligence when called on to answer questions. By the end of the program, he had come out of his shell and proudly displayed his creative abilities in a form or poetic expression of which he was clearly very proud. After the positive experience of sharing his art in the classroom environment, Hector began to become more involved in the course. In Shorris's opinion, Hector actually surpassed his classmates' performance eventually. By the conclusion of the program, Hector had opened up to Shorris and inquired about how best to continue pursuing a formal education.

Retrospective Review of the Value of the Clemente Course

In some respects, the Clemente Course seems to have confirmed the initial assumptions that led to its creation. In other respects, it may be more difficult to conclude that the value of the course necessarily relates to the study of the Humanities in particular. The experience of the students in the course seems to clearly demonstrate that the opportunity to study in a supportive environment and the exposure to more positive elements of their society could be tremendously beneficial to poor students who may not… [END OF PREVIEW]

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