Personal and Otherwise — March 19, 2013, 1:29 pm

Mr. Shorris Is Dreaming

Earl Shorris and The Art of Freedom

Earl Shorris was always in my classroom. He was there when my freshmen bristled at memorizing lines from The Aeneid. There, too, when a sophomore started crying after I refused to change a C-plus I’d given his essay about The Iliad. He had toiled the whole night on it, and thought his effort should have been better rewarded. Earl and I disagreed with him. Earl also showed up when I was unsure whether Martial’s puerile epigrams — “A bent huge nose, a monstrous cock to match” — ought to replace a day of plodding through the dependent clause. My students loved the dirty little poems, of course, just as Earl said they would.

Earl Shorris in Buenos Aires. Source: clementecourse.org

Earl Shorris in Buenos Aires. Source: clementecourse.org

I should say that I never met Shorris, a frequent contributor to Harper’s Magazine who passed away last June. But to endeavor to teach the touchstones of the Western canon, as I did, in a Brooklyn neighborhood we darkly deemed Baghdad, was to carry out the mission of the Clemente Course in the Humanities, his ambitious program of classical instruction for the poor. If you thought Homer belonged in Harlem as much as he did at Harvard, then you were fighting Earl’s war.

The Art of Freedom, Shorris’s final book, is the story of how he came to create the Clemente Course, which since its founding in 1995 has helped college professors instruct the poor in “literature, art history, moral philosophy, and American history.” The course — administered for the past thirteen years by Bard College in New York City — has always paid for students’ child care and transportation. It asks only that they show up and care. Today, those students are caring about Plato in eighteen cities across the United States and a number of locations around the world.

Shorris described how he came to found the course in a 1997 Harper’s article titled “On the Uses of a Liberal Education.” He had been visiting the Bedford Hills Correctional Facility, a maximum-security prison for women in upstate New York, when he met a particularly reflective inmate named Viniece Walker. Shorris asked Walker how she thought someone could avoid poverty — and, implicitly, sad fates like her own. She answered with a plainspoken certainty that only her own private depredations could have instilled: “You’ve got to teach the moral life of downtown to the children. And the way you do that, Earl, is by taking them downtown to plays, museums, concerts, lectures, where they can learn the moral life of downtown.” For the most consequential act of his life, Shorris would do exactly that.

The common archetype is of a reformer full in his youth of resplendent visions that lose luster with time, so that in his senescence he grows bitter, convinced that progress is an illusion. Shorris was a rejoinder to that trope. Born in Chicago and raised in New Mexico, he enrolled at the age of thirteen in the University of Chicago, where college president Robert Maynard Hutchins, in love with the Great Books, was preaching that “the best education for the best is the best education for us all.” From there, Shorris headed to Mexico, where he became (among other ventures) a bullfighter. Later yet, he went to work in advertising, climbing the ranks at N. W. Ayer & Sons. The image of the stocky Shorris mingling with the Don Drapers of the day seems to me incongruous, as it may have to him. Indeed, books like The Oppressed Middle: Politics of Middle Management (1981) and A Nation of Salesmen: The Tyranny of the Market and the Subversion of Culture (1994) show an exasperation with the late-stage capitalism whose servant Shorris had somehow become.

Viniece Walker changed all that, turning Shorris from a critic of American culture to a champion of those whom that culture had largely discarded. If that seems a little grandiose, that is nevertheless how Shorris saw his mission — to spread dignity “outward from the classroom.” The course he designed was for the most part traditional, starting with Plato’s Allegory of the Cave and covering, among others, Aristotle, Dante and Kant in a total of 110 hours of instruction, conducted for two hours twice weekly across 10 months. Much of the instruction was to be carried out using the Socratic method, meaning that students would be questioned intensely on their assumptions — not only about what they read, but how they lived. Such questioning was intended to allow students a reflective refuge from what Shorris called “the surround of force,” which “bound [the poor] to a busy and fruitless life of reaction.”

“The Art of Freedom” traces how this fledgling experiment, funded by the Roberto Clemente Foundation (which is how it got its name), became an international program of rigorous acculturation, one that earned Shorris the National Humanities Medal in 2000.  The book shows Shorris proselytizing endlessly for the values of the humanities, traversing the globe like the apostle Paul, as eager to spread his message in Darfur as in Utah. He saw himself as doing not God’s work, but that of Petrarch, the fourteenth-century scholar who studied the ancients in order “to learn what kind of soul, what strength of character, [one] might attain for himself.”

I think it is fair to say that you read Shorris — well, I read Shorris — not for the depth of his thought, but the intensity of his convictions. Never in The Art of Freedom does he deviate from his belief in what the humanities can and must do for the nation’s poor. As he plans a course for the refugees of Darfur, one of his fellow organizers muses, “Mr. Shorris is dreaming . . . he is not serious.” Not so, it turns out. Though Shorris himself never travelled to the Sudanese refugee camps, he closely monitored the progress of those students, heartened by the prospect of “faculty [who] were willing to risk teaching J. S. Mill’s ‘On Liberty’ in a country run by a dictator who would soon be indicted by the International Criminal Court.”

Shorris wasn’t blind to what it meant for an urbane American to travel the world, telling people about the supremacy of Western civilization. Certainly, he was more attuned to cultural difference than another product of Chicago, Saul Bellow, who wondered with unseemly condescension at the end of his career, “Who is the Tolstoy of the Zulus?” When Shorris asked such questions, he actually sought the answer, aware as he was that “beauty answered to many names.” Struggling with how to bridge the divide between Western culture and the aboriginal traditions of the Arctic, for example, he concludes that the Yupiit concept of yua is “a version of [Kant’s] categorical imperative.” 

Lately, education reform has become an especially gruesome business, with stakeholders — to borrow a dreary term from the world of policy — waging pitched battles over teacher evaluations, standardized tests, how much salt our kids should have in their lunches, whether they should learn Spanish or Mandarin. The advocates of charter schools have their own slick documentaries, as do, inevitably, the teachers’ unions. Shorris had no interest in this autocratic morass. In his book, he calls the crusading duo of New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg and his longtime schools chancellor, Joel Klein, “a catastrophe,” while more broadly blasting the “hustlers and helpers” who have ruined public education by trying so earnestly to fix it.

The Art of Freedom ends on an inspiring note, with Shorris, in the last stages of his fight with lymphoma, starting his first Clemente Course for a high school, in a Chicago neighborhood sapped by the social cancers Shorris had dedicated his life to combating. There were signs at once disheartening and inspiring. But inspiration rarely comes as easily as Hollywood might want us to believe. Shorris’s work was the work of generations upon generations. Buffeted by waves of cynicism, we must, as Whitman once said, “keep encouraged.” Earl would have wanted it that way.

Share
Single Page

Get access to 168 years of
Harper’s for only $45.99

United States Canada

CATEGORIES

THE CURRENT ISSUE

January 2019

Machine Politics

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Polar Light

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Donald Trump Is a Good President

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Resistances

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Long Shot

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

view Table Content

FEATURED ON HARPERS.ORG

Article
Machine Politics·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“The Goliath of totalitarianism will be brought down by the David of the microchip,” Ronald Reagan said in 1989. He was speaking to a thousand British notables in London’s historic Guildhall, several months before the fall of the Berlin Wall. Reagan proclaimed that the world was on the precipice of “a new era in human history,” one that would bring “peace and freedom for all.” Communism was crumbling, just as fascism had before it. Liberal democracies would soon encircle the globe, thanks to the innovations of Silicon Valley. “I believe,” he said, “that more than armies, more than diplomacy, more than the best intentions of democratic nations, the communications revolution will be the greatest force for the advancement of human freedom the world has ever seen.”

At the time, most everyone thought Reagan was right. The twentieth century had been dominated by media that delivered the same material to millions of people at the same time—radio and newspapers, movies and television. These were the kinds of one-to-many, top-down mass media that Orwell’s Big Brother had used to stay in power. Now, however, Americans were catching sight of the internet. They believed that it would do what earlier media could not: it would allow people to speak for themselves, directly to one another, around the world. “True personalization is now upon us,” wrote MIT professor Nicholas Negroponte in his 1995 bestseller Being Digital. Corporations, industries, and even whole nations would soon be transformed as centralized authorities were demolished. Hierarchies would dissolve and peer-to-peer collaborations would take their place. “Like a force of nature,” wrote Negroponte, “the digital age cannot be denied or stopped.”

Illustration (detail) by Lincoln Agnew
Article
Long Shot·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Ihave had many names, but as a sniper I went by Azad, which means “free” or “freedom” in Kurdish. I had been fighting for sixteen months in Kurdish territory in northern Syria when in April 2015 I was asked to leave my position on the eastern front, close to the Turkish border, and join an advance on our southwestern one. Eight months earlier, we had been down to our last few hundred yards, and, outnumbered five to one, had made a last stand in Kobanî. In January, after more than four months of fighting street-to-street and room-by-room, we recaptured the town and reversed what was, until then, an unstoppable jihadi tide. In the battles since, we had pushed ­ISIS far enough in every direction that crossing our territory was no longer a short dash through the streets but a five-hour drive across open country. As we set out to the north, I could make out the snowy peaks in southern Turkey where they say Noah once beached his ark. Below them, rolling toward us, were the wide, grassy valleys and pine forests of Mesopotamia, the land between the Euphrates and the Tigris where our people have lived for twelve thousand years.

The story of my people is filled with bitter ironies. The Kurds are one of the world’s oldest peoples and, as pioneers of agriculture, were once among its most advanced. Though the rest of the world now largely overlooks that it was Kurds who were among the first to create a civilization, the evidence is there. In 1995, German archaeologists began excavating a temple at Göbekli Tepe in northern Kurdistan. They found a structure flanked by stone pillars carved with bulls, foxes, and cranes, which they dated to around 10,000 bce. At the end of the last Ice Age, and seven thousand years before the erection of Stonehenge or the pyramids at Giza, my ancestors were living together as shamans, artists, farmers, and engineers.

Fighters of the YJA-STAR, the women’s force in the PKK, Sinjar, Iraq, November 2015 (detail)
Article
Polar Light·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

To get oriented here is difficult. The light is flat because the sky is overcast. The sun’s weak rays create only a few anemic shadows by which to judge scale and distance. Far-off objects like mountain peaks have crisp edges because the atmosphere itself is as transparent as first-water diamonds, but the mountains are not nearly as close as they seem. It’s about negative-twelve degrees Fahrenheit, but the wind is relatively calm, moving over the snow distractedly, like an animal scampering.

[caption id="attachment_271890" align="aligncenter" width="690"]True-color satellite image of Earth centered on the South Pole during winter solstice © Planet Observer/Universal Images Group/Getty Images. True-color satellite image of Earth centered on the South Pole during winter solstice © Planet Observer/Universal Images Group/Getty Images.[/caption]

Four of the six people living here are in their tents now, next to their cookstoves, two by two, warming up and preparing their suppers. I’m the fifth of the group, almost motionless at the moment, a hundred yards south of the tent cluster, kneeling on a patch of bluish ice in the midst of a great expanse of white. I’m trying to discern a small object entombed there a few inches below the surface. Against the porcelain whites of this gently sloping landscape, I must appear starkly apparent in my cobalt blue parka and wind pants. I shift slowly right and left, lean slightly forward, then settle back, trying to get the fluxless sunlight to reveal more of the shape and texture of the object.

A multiple-exposure photograph (detail) taken every hour from 1:30 pm on December 8, 1965, to 10:10 am on December 9, 1965, showing the sun in its orbit above the South Pole, Amundsen–Scott South Pole Station © Georg Gerster/Panos Pictures
Article
Donald Trump Is a Good President·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

In all sincerity, I like Americans a lot; I’ve met many lovely people in the United States, and I empathize with the shame many Americans (and not only “New York intellectuals”) feel at having such an appalling clown for a leader.

However, I have to ask—and I know what I’m requesting isn’t easy for you—that you consider things for a moment from a non-American point of view. I don’t mean “from a French point of view,” which would be asking too much; let’s say, “from the point of view of the rest of the world.”On the numerous occasions when I’ve been questioned about Donald Trump’s election, I’ve replied that I don’t give a shit. France isn’t Wyoming or Arkansas. France is an independent country, more or less, and will become totally independent once again when the European Union is dissolved (the sooner, the better).

Illustration (detail) by Ricardo Martínez
Article
Resistances·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The prepositions you’re most likely to encounter after the title of a poem are “for” or “to” and sometimes “after”—“for my daughter”; “to Bobby”; “after Pound”; etc. They signify dedication, address, homage, imitation. In the recent poems of Fred Moten, we encounter “with,” a preposition that denotes accompaniment. The little difference makes a big difference, emphasizing collaboration over the economy of the gift, suggesting that the poet and his company are fellow travelers, in the same time zone, alongside each other in the present tense of composition. (Given Moten’s acclaimed critical work on jazz, the “with” is immediately evocative of musical performance, e.g., “Miles Davis with Sonny Rollins.”) Not all “withs” are the same—there is a different intimacy in the poem “fifty little springs,” which is “with aviva,” Moten’s wife’s Hebrew name (which means springtime), than there is in “resistances,” which is “with” a critic and an artist, interlocutors of Moten’s. (The poem “13. southern pear trees” has no preposition after the title, but is excerpted from another responding to the work of Zoe Leonard, and so is still a work of fellowship.) The scale of that “with” can be small (“with aviva, as if we were all alone”) or vast (“with everybody we don’t know”), but either way the poem becomes an instance of alongsidedness instead of belatedness; the poems request, with that subtle prepositional shift, that we think of ourselves as participants in the production of meaning and not mere recipients of someone else’s eloquence.

“Untitled,” 1989, by Zoe Leonard © Zoe Leonard (detail)

Estimated number of times in the Fall of 1990 that George Bush told a joke about his dog asking for a wine list with her Alpo:

10

French researchers reported that 52 percent of young women exposed to Francis Cabrel’s ballad “Je l’aime à mourir” gave their phone numbers to an average-looking young man who hit on them, whereas only 28 percent of those exposed to Vincent Delerm’s “L’heure du thé” did so.

Migrant children were teargassed; carbon dioxide levels have reached three to five million year high; missionary killed by remote tribe

Subscribe to the Weekly Review newsletter. Don’t worry, we won’t sell your email address!

HARPER’S FINEST

Happiness Is a Worn Gun

By

Illustration by Stan Fellows

Illustration by Stan Fellows

“Nowadays, most states let just about anybody who wants a concealed-handgun permit have one; in seventeen states, you don’t even have to be a resident. Nobody knows exactly how many Americans carry guns, because not all states release their numbers, and even if they did, not all permit holders carry all the time. But it’s safe to assume that as many as 6 million Americans are walking around with firearms under their clothes.”

Subscribe Today