"Moral Life of Downtown"

Earl Shorris was an essayist and social critic who began one of the first programs to bring literature to the poor and uneducated. Shorris died a few weeks ago and for anyone interested in the possibility of changing lives through literature, this represents a great loss.

While he was interviewing inmates for a book he was writing on poverty, he routinely asked them why poor people became poor. In response, one woman answered because they never learned “the moral life of downtown.” When Shorris asked her what she meant, she replied, “plays, museums, concerts, lectures, you know.”

Shorris concluded from these words that what they lacked wasn’t money, but education, education in the humanities. As a result he began developing the Clemente Course in the Humanities designed for economically and educationally disadvantaged individuals that was offered without cost. The participants studied four subjects: literature, art history, moral philosophy, and American History.

I was drawn to Shorris’ course, like others I’ve written about here, because of my interest in the effects of reading literature. The curriculum of most of these programs is based on Shorris’ course and almost all are intended to reach the poor, unemployed, low wage workers, addicts, the homeless and prisoners. Can you imagine groups that might be more resistant and as unlikely to benefit from such a course as these?

How successful is the course in achieving this goal? Gathering evidence to answer this question is not easy. It is often difficult to track down participants, many of whom lead chaotic lives with no permanent address or phone number. Shorris reports a preliminary evaluation in the Appendix to his first book, New American Blues: A Journey through Poverty to Democracy.

Only half (55%) of the students were able to complete the course the first time he offered it, leaving a sample of seventeen individuals for the pre- and post-course assessment. The findings indicated there were modest gains in the student’s self-esteem and use of cognitive strategies.

But most of the change scores were not significant, and absent comparative data from a group of individuals who were not able to participate in the course or were enrolled in an alternative program, it is difficult to know what to make of these findings.

The Clemente Course is currently being taught in over twenty cities in this country, as well as several foreign countries. Anecdotal evidence from students who have taken these courses and others like it, has been uniformly positive.

A student who spoke at the Spring 2006 graduation ceremony of a similar course (Humanity in Perspective) I evaluated for the Oregon Council of Humanities gave this account.

My classmates and I answered an invitation to come and learn. Twice a week for 2 semesters we gathered together to discuss some of history’s great minds and ideas. We read and discussed the Greek Philosophers and dramatists…the foundations of Democracy in America…the Transcendentalists and contemporary writers…issues of slavery, prejudice, women’s right, civil rights, human rights.

We wrote papers and formulated thesis arguments. These things alone would constitute an interesting educational experience. But this is not all we learned. We learned that these were not just texts to be read, but ideas to live by. We learned about the power of words to harm or to help. We learned how to listen, and how and when to speak up. We learned that our ideas and our opinions are important. We learned that each of us can make a difference in our lives, in our community, in the world. We learned these things not only from these texts and from our teachers, but from each other.

Others commented:

During this class, our minds were freed. That is something that will always be with us, and, trust me, it can never be taken away.

The course was the only positive in this whole bad prison experience.

The class is what people need to want to learn and be better people. I know I am because of it.

Reports like these make it clear how much the thousands of students who have taken courses based on Shorris’ conception owe to him.