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Bard Features

Clemente Course in the Humanities: Tenacity and Transformation

Marina van Zuylen (left) presents a certificate to Clemente graduate Rita Reyes.
Photo by Pete Mauney ’93, MFA ’00
In the Bardian

The Bard College Clemente Course in the Humanities graduation ceremony, held in early summer, offered testimony to the transformative power of education, as 16 students—ages 16 to 79—crossed the proscenium of Olin Hall to celebrate a milestone that most of them thought would never occur. One graduate, Leah June, 25, had dropped out of Dominican College during her freshman year for health reasons and later also had to withdraw from a community college. She found her way back to school last fall, when her mother gave her information on Bard’s Clemente Course, a one-year college seminar for students who previously had been unable to further their education due to poverty or other circumstances. The curriculum consists of readings in philosophy, literature, art history, and history conducted over two semesters.

During her brief speech at the ceremony, June praised her fellow students and her teachers, faltering a few times as she became overwhelmed by emotion; however, summoning great determination, she completed her talk, and handed out a single red rose to each Clemente instructor in Olin Hall on behalf of the entire class.

For many Clemente students, the course is a turning point at which they develop the confidence to pursue a college degree and the conviction that education offers a path to a different and better life. June says that the course offered a perfect setting in which to tackle big ideas. “The diversity of our group and the intimacy of the class made the course worthwhile—no one felt stupid or judged—and the professors came to class prepared and energized,” she says. “Antigone was my favorite reading because I could relate to what Antigone was feeling. The story goes deeper than her defiance of the king.” June credits the course with changing her plans. She wants to pursue a bachelor’s degree in special education and a master’s degree in speech pathology, and plans to work with special-needs children.

To help enable participants’ access to education, the Bard Clemente Courses are free for students; books are distributed at no charge and any child-care and transportation costs are covered. To be accepted into the program, students typically must be able to read a newspaper in English and belong to a household whose total income falls within the program’s poverty guidelines. Upon completion of the course, students receive a certificate and six college credits from Bard, which they can transfer to any college or university. In addition, Library of America gives a free volume of poetry, American Poetry: The Twentieth Century, Volume Two: E. E. Cummings to May Swenson, to every Clemente Course graduate. For many of them, the course is life-changing.

The Clemente Course was the brainchild of Earl Shorris, a renowned writer and social activist, who died on May 27 in New York City, at age 75. At 13, Shorris attended the University of Chicago on a full scholarship, but he didn’t finish. He worked as a newspaper reporter, writer, advertising executive, even as a bullfighter in Mexico, but he never lost his passion for the “great books” that he had studied at Chicago and his belief in the power of the humanities to impart to students a particularly valuable type of critical thinking, or “reflection.”

His New York Times obituary, written by Paul Vitello, recounts how the idea for the course was born:

It was while researching a book published in 1997, New American Blues: A Journey through Poverty to Democracy, that Mr. Shorris happened upon the vocation that would occupy his last years. He was interviewing inmates at the Bedford Hills Correctional Facility for Women in Westchester County, New York, asking for their opinions on why poor people were poor. One inmate, Viniece Walker, told him it was because they lacked “the moral life of downtown” — meaning, she said, exposure to “plays, museums, concerts, lectures, you know.”

“You mean the humanities,” Mr. Shorris replied, surprised by her answer.

“Yes, Earl, the humanities,” she said.

Ms. Walker’s words triggered an epiphany of sorts, Mr. Shorris wrote in a 1997 Harper’s essay: Poverty was an absence of reflection and beauty, not an absence of money.

Thus inspired, Shorris began the Clemente Course in 1995 with 25 students at the Roberto Clemente Family Guidance Center in Manhattan’s East Village. Seeking help in maintaining and expanding the program, Shorris contacted Bard President Leon Botstein through a connection from the University of Chicago (where Botstein also had been an undergraduate). The opportunity to present low-income populations with a classical liberal arts education aligned quite well with Botstein’s vision of educational access for all, and so through his efforts and the work of Stuart Levine, then dean of the College, and Robert Martin, vice president for academic affairs, Bard became the home institution for the program in 1998. Martin remembers, “The clinching moment for me was when Earl told me about a Clemente student who, after being harassed, was ready to beat somebody up but then changed his mind because he wondered, ‘What would Socrates have done?’” The College hired Martin Kempner, then an assistant professor of philosophy at Rutgers, to serve as the national director of the Clemente Course.

Since its founding, more than 5,000 students worldwide have completed the course, in places as far flung as Canada, Australia, and Korea. Bard’s own Clemente Course has granted more than 1,600 certificates to students. It has been taught in more than 20 cities across the nation, in such places as Chicago; Washington, D.C.; Queens, New York; Holyoke, Massachusetts; and most recently in Kingston, New York. Its distinct focus on education as a building block of social equity has earned the Clemente Course coverage from the New York Times, Philadelphia Inquirer, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, and other prominent news outlets. In 2000, President Clinton awarded Shorris the National Humanities Medal for his efforts at bringing education to people who would typically be considered unlikely students.

However, even the unlikeliest students have the capacity to surprise and inspire, themselves as well as others. The Clemente participants who held the stage for their commencement in Olin Hall profoundly impressed the audience of family members, Bard faculty, friends, coworkers, and the mayor of Kingston, Shayne Gallo, who delivered the commencement address. Most of the 16 students comprising the Kingston Clemente Class of 2012 hailed from Ulster County, across the Hudson River from Bard. From October to May, the students met two evenings each week at the Kingston Library, which provided a classroom free of charge. The students, a diverse group of white, Latino, and African American women and men—some with jobs, some without, some with high school diplomas and some not—had at least one thing in common: Despite missing out on earlier opportunities to pursue a college education, each now had the desire to tackle the most challenging, yet most gratifying, works of the Western canon.

“Aristotle talked about real leisure as free thinking, when you have time to think deep thoughts,” says Marina van Zuylen, professor of French and comparative literature at Bard, who is the national academic director of the Bard Clemente Course and codirector of Bard’s local Clemente program with David Shein, Bard’s dean of studies and visiting assistant professor of philosophy. “This course is high-powered leisure time, which is new for these students. They think incredibly hard in this class, and they are just as engaged as full-time undergraduates. Many of them come in thinking they have had failed lives, but all of them possess a profound interest in learning. They bring a different life experience to class.”

Readings for the Bard Clemente Course in Kingston included Sophocles’ Antigone, Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Plato’s Republic, Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Illych, and Martin Luther King’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail.” “Earl Shorris wanted Clemente students to learn from the academy’s best professors, faculty who wouldn’t oversimplify these books or teach at a lower level,” says van Zuylen. “David Shein and I selected some of Bard’s most rigorous professors—such as Susan Merriam in art history and Christian Crouch in history— as well as Duff Allen (MFA ’97), a writer and teacher at Kingston High School, to discuss these subjects as though the ideas were alive and their best friends. The discussions got extremely intense. The students really put their lives on the table as they started to make connections to the readings, and everything became existentially charged. It’s amazing to see them enter this realm of ideas and get comfortable and confident with these texts. It has a profound impact on their self-esteem and their self-worth.”

Clemente graduate Marge Knox, 56, was elated to walk across the Olin Hall stage to receive her certificate and see multiple generations of her family in the audience applauding her accomplishment. Not only were her son, daughter, grandchildren, and a great-grandchild there, but nephews, a niece, and her bosses and colleagues from the Resource Center for Accessible Living in Kingston, where she works. During the ceremony, Knox offered these words to the audience: “I encourage you all to get out of your comfort zone, to get around people who aren’t skin or kin to you and learn from them. The material we covered in this course opened my mind, stimulated thoughts, and stretched my imagination. Learning is a great thing because it makes you use muscles you didn’t even know you had. It teaches tolerance and it promotes conviction in your own beliefs.” Having already earned an associate’s degree before the Clemente Course, Knox hopes to continue on to earn a B.A.

After the ceremony, van Zuylen remarked, “I’m the luckiest person alive. I get to teach these students literature and get them to start thinking about big ideas. I see them change in extraordinary ways. As they are transformed by ideas, they never fail to transform me.”

Read the fall 2012 issue of the Bardian:

Post Date: 12-26-2012