Selected Moments of the 20th Century

A work in progress edited by Daniel Schugurensky
Department of Adult Education, Community Development and Counselling Psychology,
The Ontario Institute for Studies in Education of the University of Toronto (OISE/UT)


 First class of the Clemente course: Humanities education for the poor

This year, in a classroom at the Roberto Clemente Family Guidance Center in the Lower East Side of New York City, Earl Shorris launched an initiative that in spite of the skepticism of many social service agencies, became a success: a course to teach humanities to the poor. The ‘impossible’ idea proposed by Shorris was to transform the lives of the poor through education in the humanities by offering tuition-free, college-level instruction to economically and educationally disadvantaged adult students. Only a few years later, courses based on the Clemente model were being taught in over 25 cities, including Vancouver, Seattle and the Yucatan in Mexico.

The Beginnings

When many voices in the United States and elsewhere were calling for more training and more vocational education for the poor, how did Shorris challenged the dominant paradigm and come up with the opposite proposal? According to his own account in a recent interview with Kristin O'Connell, his inspiration for this idea came from Viniece Walker, a female prisoner at a maximum security prison. When Shorris asked Viniece why people were poor, she said that it was because "they don't have the moral life of downtown," meaning plays, museums, concerts, lectures and all those things that sociologist Pierre Bourdieu would include as part of cultural capital. According to his own account, when Shorris ask Viniece if she meant the humanities, she looked at him as if he was some kind of cretin and said: "Yes, Earl, the humanities." On his way back to the city, Shorris made the connection between Nicie's idea and his own education, and the Clemente Course was ready to begin (O’Connell 2000).

The first Clemente course in New York had thirty students, recruited from settlement houses, drug rehabilitation programs, and neighborhood centers. Of those who entered the course, five had been in prison, three were homeless, and one, who was to die before the end of the year, suffered from AIDS. The only requirements for taking the course were a history of poverty and the ability to read a tabloid newspaper. Shorris recounts that “they were exactly the kind of people Allan Bloom had said were not fit for the humanities.” The course did not start with basic literacy; it began with Socrates, set theory, the drawings on the walls of the caves of Lascaux, natural law, and a sheaf of English poetry. Indeed, at the end of the orientation session, the first reading that Shorris passed out was Plato's Allegory of the Cave. suggested by Viniece Walker.

Expansion and growth

As mentioned previously, only a few years since its inception, the model of the Clemente course had been adopted and implemented by educational institutions in more than 25 cities in the USA, Canada, Mexico and France, often including instruction in five humanistic disciplines: literature, art history, moral philosophy, American history, and writing. In most cases, instructors are experienced college-level teachers. Classes meet regularly for several months (usually eight) at a community host site, and students receive free books, busfare, and childcare. Higher education institutions oversee the program and grant a certificate of achievement to all students who finish the course, and those who complete it at a high level of academic performance receive college credits. The work expected of students in the seminars is roughly equivalent to what would be expected of a student at a first-rate university.

The main pedagogical approach is the Socratic method, based on systematic questioning and dialogue. Among other sources, the philosophy of the Clemente Course was inspired by Jane Addam’s pioneering work in Hull House, by Hannah Arendt's propositions about the vita activa,. and from Robert Maynard Hutchins’ claim that "the best education for the best is the best education for all." The purpose of the course was “to teach the students to use their rational powers to think and to enjoy beauty, in order to bring out their innate humanity”, which should come before mastery of a specific technique.

Given its emphasis on Greek philosophy, and on what is generally described as ‘high culture’ or ‘liberal education’, it is not a surprise that when the Clemente course began to be ‘exported’, it was criticized for its Eurocentric character. However, Shorris notes that the content of the course varies according to the context. For instance, when the program expanded to Yucatan (Mexico), Shorris initially planned to teach only what he called the “world’s great literature.” Local Mayan scholars involved in setting up the Yucatan program, called “El Rescate” (the rescue) soon convinced him that he needed to adapt the program to meet local needs and the local culture; they insisted that local Mayan culture and history be included in the curriculum. Several months into the program, Shorris admitted that their approach was the correct one, for learning Maya high culture had the same effect on the students in the Yucatan as the teaching of the Greeks had had on students in New York. He also realized that by teaching only European culture there would be a continuation of colonialist attitudes and practices.

The following year, Shorris encouraged the founders of the Mayan program to help a town in Alaska start the first Clemente program in Alaskan Native Humanities, taught in the Cup’ik language and accredited by the University of Alaska at Anchorage. While the pedagogical method of the Alaska course is similar in to the other 25 Clemente courses, it differs in terms of content. Indeed, like the Mayan program, it focuses on content that is relevant to the community it serves. This includes Alaskan native oral historical and literary traditions, Alaskan native dance, music and art as well as writing practice in the Cup’ik language. Shorris is now at work setting up programs in other Native American languages, as well as one to be taught in Spanish, rooted in local traditions, in Central Mexico.

Shorris has no problem with the blending of Greek and local cultural traditions in the Clemente course.  He believes that the Athenian model based on the humanities, reflective thinking, autonomy, democracy and active engagement in public life can survive the particularity of culture. He acknowledges that democracy is an idea that embraces many cultures and languages, and claims that “we are as different as snowflakes, as similar as snow”.


Can a course on the humanities make a difference for adult poor? If so, what type of difference can it make? Shorris is very optimistic in this regard.

He claims that “the multi-generational poor, because of their circumstances, are not able to participate in the political life at any level, from the family to the neighborhood to the polis. Life for them was exactly the opposite of the political life Pericles had described for the Athenians”. He further argues that the poor live in "a surround of force" that does not allow them the time to think reflectively.  Given this diagnosis, he asks the question of whether a practical-vocational education or a liberal education is more effective in helping them to break out of the ‘surround of force’ and in enabling them to enjoy the lives of citizens. He argues without hesitation that the humanities are more likely to make a lasting impact. Why is this so? Shorris claims that training teaches people to do things that have been done before, and is based on repetition. The humanities, instead, promote creativity and critical thinking, and lead to a ‘fuller life’. 

The impact of the Clemente course, then, can be explored in different areas. We can start by the most traditional ones, which focus on completion, graduation, enrollment in higher education and employment rates. In the first course, seventeen out of thirty students completed it. Fourteen earned credit from a prestigious liberal arts college in upstate New York that has become the administrative home of the course. Of those who completed the Clemente Course, nine are now attending four year colleges and one is in nursing school. All the rest are working, except for one who was fired from her job in a fast food restaurant for attempting to start a union (something that could be interpreted as a positive long term impact from a perspective that focuses on social engagement rather than on employment exclusively). A more recent course conducted through the University of British Columbia (UBC) in Vancouver boasts similar accomplishments. In its first three years, out of the seventy five students who started the course, sixty completed it.

Beyond graduation, further enrollment and employment figures, what type of impact does the Clemente course have on learning? Do people change as a result of taking the course? In this regard, Shorris notes that psychological pre- and post-testing shows statistically significant changes in the ability to think reflectively, to use negotiation in times of conflict, and to participate in community activities, three areas that are of particular importance to progressive educators. Shorris also claims that the course is changing the isolated, excluded poor into political people, although he does not abound too much on this. Then, there is the more intangible (but not less important) impact on general culture and aesthetics, what can be called the cultivation of the spirit. For Shorris, this is the most important contribution of the course, in the sense that it succeeds very well in providing an education that nurtures wisdom and appreciation of beauty. Learners start to read poetry, visit museums, and try to think rationally about the world. For the most part, says Shorris, they are able of leaving their unexamined lives behind, and build a new identity as full-fledged citizens.

The Clemente model is an interesting and admirable educational attempt to make a positive difference in the lives of poor adult populations. It is not a magic solution to all the problems and challenges faced by poor adults in their daily lives, but it constitutes a well-intentioned and serious effort that deserves support and merits further evaluations of its impact.

References and links to some Clemente courses in North America

Shorris, Earl (2000). Riches for the Poor: The Clemente Course in the Humanities. New York, W.W. Norton and Company.

Mattson, Kevin (2002). Teaching Democracy: Reflections on the Clemente Course in the Humanities, Higher Education, and Democracy.

Plato and poetry for the poor: Vancouver program [Humanities 101] (2000, July 15). National Post, pp. B1-B2.

Bard College, New York:

University of Notre Dame:

UBC, Vancouver:

Centre de la Raza, Seattle:

Cherokee Heritage Center, Oklahoma:

Prepared by DS

Citation: Schugurensky, Daniel (2002). 1995: First class of the Clemente course: Humanities education for the poor. In Daniel Schugurensky (Ed.), History of Education: Selected Moments of the 20th Century [online]. Available:  (date accessed).

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