From Harper’s Magazine to the Class of 2013: Remembering Earl Shorris

On May 26, 2012, Earl Shorris, founder of the Clemente Course in the Humanities, the program that inspired the Free Minds Project, died at age 75. Shorris first wrote about his “experimental” course for Harper’s Magazine in 1997. Originally offered on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, the Clemente Course model has traveled from New York to Austin, Chicago, Portland, Los Angeles, and as far away as Buenos Aires. Here, Dr. Sylvia Gale (SG), founding director of Free Minds, and Free Minds Director Vivé Griffith (VG) remember their first encounters with Shorris’s bold idea and chart its lineage to the applications for next year’s Free Minds class.

SG: I can still remember the charge I felt the first time I read Shorris’s essay in Harper’s. It was the winter of 1998. I had recently graduated from Reed College, and I was living in western Colorado, caretaking a friend’s adobe house and recovering from a severe back injury. I discovered the piece in a stack of old magazines and read it next to the picture windows at dusk. Shorris described the Clemente Course as an experiment to test his hypothesis that people could transform their lives by doing the kind of reflective thinking that would lead them towards autonomy—by engaging in the life of the mind. Reading about it in my quiet mountain hideaway, I felt literally electrified, buzzing with the sense that Shorris and his first group of students had traveled across an immense—yet bridgeable—divide.

VG: I like to imagine Sylvia and I reading that article simultaneously across our own divide, this one geographic. I encountered Shorris’s essay while teaching composition to freshman at the University of Cincinnati, where I was a graduate student in English. I was young and excited, and surprised to discover my students had to be dragged through a curriculum they considered little more than an inconvenient diversion on their way to careers in business and engineering. In a sly move, the head of the rhetoric department had filled our course reader with texts meant to challenge students to think of their education on broader terms. That’s where I first read Shorris. I don’t have any idea if the article left an impact on my students, but it certainly affected me. A decade after teaching it, I heard about a similar program being piloted in Austin, and I leapt to be involved.

SG: After my encounter with Shorris’s essay, I spent several years working in a series of nonprofit positions, always in service of increasing access to educational opportunities. Along the way, I followed the development of the Clemente Course, tracked it as it spread and replicated across the country, and continued to feel Shorris’s vision as a live current animating my own future. Eventually, that current propelled me to graduate school in a program in Rhetoric and Composition. In my very first week of school, I sat down with the forward-thinking founding director of the Humanities Institute at UT Austin, Dr. Evan Carton, and shared my big idea—to start an adult humanities course inspired by the Clemente Course, but locally inflected. The program, I envisioned, would invite people historically cut off from the life of the mind into direct relationship with it as part of—ideally, in conversation with—their practical, material realities. I knew from Shorris’s writings that people attracted to a course like this would have aspirations for real and practical change in their lives and in the world. I imagined creating a humanities course that would allow students to explore and deepen those aspirations. In 2006, four years after my first conversation with Carton, we launched the Free Minds Project.

VG: Free Minds is now entering its seventh year, and I see Shorris’s vision shot through the program, from presentations we make to potential applicants to the readings students give at graduation. Right now we’re accepting applications for our 2012-13 class, and soon we’ll be interviewing applicants. When recruiting for the first Clemente Course, Shorris told people, “You’ve been cheated. Rich people learn the humanities; you didn’t.” Each year I see this reality at play as I interview applicants. Inevitably there’s an applicant (or several) who looks at the books that I’ve spread across the table – The Republic, The Iliad, a poetry anthology, The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass—and bursts into tears. They are hungry for the worlds contained in those pages, worlds that until that moment seemed out of reach. Shorris understood that these worlds belong to everyone and that entering them can change lives.

SG:  After years spent anticipating the Free Minds Project as my someday-to-be-accomplished life’s work, the speed with which it took shape in Austin surprised even me. Upon laying the groundwork for the class with Carton, and then serving as its director for its inaugural year, I made the difficult decision to step aside from the class in order to finish my dissertation. Passing the class on to Vivé, who had her own compelling vision for animating Shorris’s idea, made that decision easier—but so did my sense that the big idea was still pulling me forward, to places and pathways I could not yet see. I was right.

In my current role as associate director of the Bonner Center for Civic Engagement at the University of Richmond, I think every day about what it means for this small liberal arts school to be an anchor institution in a dynamic city facing all the challenges of a mid-sized urban metropolis with a haunting past. What role do the liberal arts, as a philosophy and in practice, have in community and workforce development, in ending poverty, in racial reconciliation? These questions, of course, lead me right back to the divide—and the bridge—that Shorris charted.  The vision of a world in which the humanities are not a luxury for the amply supplied, but an indispensable tool for invention available to and belonging to all continues to propel my work.

VG: For Shorris, the driving force behind the Clemente Course was the question of how to build a pathway out of poverty. But our experience in Free Minds shows us that his model can also shape the way we think about educating adults, especially in an education system that is serving more and more students who were once considered “nontraditional.” A humanities seminar is an ideal gateway to the life of the mind. But it also raises critical questions about how we can best serve adults in the classroom. What if we engage ideas instead of information? What if we prioritize texts that allow people to set their own lives in a larger context? What if we emphasize the importance of intellectual community? What if we create an environment where the students’ earned wisdom is honored as essential to the conversation? Applications for the Class of 2013 are filling folders in the Free Minds office. Among the applicants are those who are hungry for the intellectual gifts available in the humanities, and others who are eager to take their first steps toward a college education. If Free Minds is able to send them along that path, we can credit the bold and fearless vision of Earl Shorris.

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