U.S. Intellectual History Blog

The Clemente Course Wins a National Humanities Medal

Yesterday, the National Endowment for the Humanities announced the winners of the 2014 National Humanities Medals.[1] In addition to the nine medals awarded to individual awardees – including the historians Vicki Ruiz and Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham and the chef Alice Waters – the tenth medal went to the Clemente Course in the Humanities. Founded two decades ago by the late Earl Shorris (himself the recipient of a 2000 National Humanities Medal) and named after the Roberto Clemente Family Guidance Center in New York, where the first of the Clemente Courses was offered, the Clemente Course seeks to provide a free, liberal arts education to low-income, non-traditional students. Anyone over 18-years old, with an income of 150 per cent of the poverty line or less, able to read a tabloid newspaper, and willing to promise to complete the course could enroll (originally, students had to be no more than 35-years old, but the maximum age has since been dropped). The Clemente Course consists of five classes: philosophy, literature, art history, American history, and critical thinking and writing. With a strong emphasis on reading primary sources, the Clemente Course is built on the premise that an engagement with the humanities can give its students “a sense of self, to see the world and themselves differently.” “People who know the humanities,” Shorris believed, “become good citizens, become active, not acted upon.” Over 10,000 students have now taken the Clemente Course. And thirty Clemente Courses will be starting up around the country this fall.

The Clemente Course is of interest to U.S. intellectual historians for at least two reasons.

First, it occupies an interesting position in late twentieth-century U.S. intellectual history. As my fellow USIH blogger (and current S-USIH Publications Committee Chair) Tim Lacy suggests in his book The Dream of a Democratic Culture: Mortimer J. Adler and the Great Books Idea, Shorris’s Clemente Course is a liberal outgrowth of Adler’s Great Books idea. Shorris had been exposed to Adler’s Great Books curriculum as an undergraduate at the University of Chicago in the late 1940s and early 1950s, around the same time as that better-known late twentieth-century advocate of the Great Books, Allan Bloom. But Shorris’s commitment to the democratizing potential of reading the canon stood in stark contrast to Bloom’s esoteric, Straussian vision of the role of the Great Books. Indeed, in the last years of his life, Shorris became a very public critic of the Straussians. By 1995, the Great Books were one of the chief academic battlegrounds in the culture wars. At least in the public imagination, the Great Books curriculum had come to be seen as essentially conservative. The Clemente Course was a reminder that this was not necessarily the case.

Twenty years later, however, the Clemente Course is, I think, interesting to us in a slightly different way. Now, at some remove from the ’80s and ’90s culture wars, it seems more obvious that Adler’s canon (and similar “old-fashioned” lists of Great Books) can be profitably read by students for other than conservative ends. But just as the initial success of the Clemente Course suggested interesting things about the culture wars, its ongoing success has interesting things to tell us about our current, if often overhyped, “crisis in the humanities.” Much of the discussion of this supposed crisis is deeply intertwined with the larger, more concrete and material crisis in higher education. As a college education is more and more seen – by students, their families, policymakers, and administrators – as first and foremost an individual economic investment, the humanities have come to be frequently criticized for their impracticality. With the costs of college education shifting from the public to individual students, who emerge from college bearing enormous student-loan debts, the tendency to understand a college education as no more or less than an investment in one’s future earning potential is understandable, if deeply unfortunate. Humanists argue, not unreasonably, that employers value the writing and thinking skills that one learns studying subjects like history or literature. But I fear that defenses of the humanities based on a narrowly economistic understanding of the purposes of education are ultimately doomed to failure.

In the context of this conversation about the place of humanities in the early twenty-first century, the ongoing success of the Clemente Course is a powerful argument that education in general – and humanistic education in particular – can be about more than just human capital formation. And that such a non-economistic vision of education can be not merely not elitist, but even deeply democratic. Not coincidentally, what allows the Clemente Course to work in this way is its funding mechanism: it is entirely free to its students. From a practical perspective this may be the most valuable lesson that we academic humanists can learn from the Clemente Course. One key to cutting the Gordian knot of the so-called crisis in the humanities is radically altering the funding mechanism of higher education and returning to an understanding of education as a social, rather than an individual, good.

[1] The Medals, which have been awarded annually since 1996 are, for reasons that are not entirely clear, are always awarded in the middle of the year following their date. So the 2014 Medals have only now been announced.

4 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Thanks for the shout-out, Ben. I agree with almost every word in this post.

    I argue that Shorris absorbed the mid-century liberalism *already present* in the great books idea, or model of education, when he found it as a student (despite the Straussian version that eventually obtained footing at U of C). Adler was a part of the liberalism inherent in the great books education model—a liberalism evident in many doings of Adler and Hutchins in the period. And then Shorris brought that version back to life in 1995.

    What’s ironic, to me, is that by the time Shorris brought back that older great books liberalism strain, Adler had transformed himself into something of a great books reactionary curmudgeon. That change began in him around 1990, due to his perception of the effects of multiculturalism on great books education models. His work on the second edition of Britannica’s *Great Books* set ruined a flexibility that had been evident up through the late 1980s. I digress.

    To me, Shorris is something of a humanities hero. I’m pleased to see his invention recognized by the NEH. – TL

  2. Thanks. This is a very important point. I especially like the way Raymond Williams linked democracy and education back in the early 1960s, in some ways anticipating Freiri’s work later in the decade.

  3. This is a deeply inspiring story that speaks to the power of the humanistic endeavor, Great Books and beyond. The fact that Shorris decided to keep the name of Roberto Clemente is telling; it represents a memorialization of the anti-racist, community-oriented moral ethics of the Afro-Puerto Rican baseball idol (not coincidentally, Clemente befriended King during MLK’s trips to Puerto Rico).

    Reading about the offerings of the Clemente Course I also find intriguing that they include a”Spanish-language course and courses focused on the language and culture of a particular Native American people” (from the link in the post). I wonder if these type of courses were offered from the beginning; the teaching of Spanish exemplifies the best of what the multicultural turn offered us (yes, I am one of those people who believes everybody in the US should take Spanish classes from elementary school and onward).

    • I too love the title of Shorris’s course. Very telling. And I just love, in general, how he adroitly updated Adler’s mid-century liberalism. It’s a cosmopolitan endeavor these days—albeit a human-species, universalist style of cosmopolitanism (despite its respect for pluralism).

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