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.

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The few white boys in our town could ball. Breakaway layups, nothing-but-the-bottom-of-the-net free throws, buzzer-beater fadeaways. They slept with basketballs in their beds and told us about their dreams. We tried not to stare at the diamond studs in their ears as they talked about winning imaginary games in overtime or seeing blurry scoreboards. It don’t matter if I can see the score anyway, I finna play my hardest regardless, Brent Zalesky said once, squinting his eyes in the sunlight. Brent Zalesky lived in the Crest. He didn’t flinch at the sound of gunshots, he received detentions weekly, and he ganked tapes and CDs from Wherehouse with the clunky security devices still attached. Brent Zalesky knew how to get them off, armed only with pliers and a Bic lighter. This was 1996, and he never got caught. He took music requests and we’d find surprises in our lockers at school. We loved him for this. We loved his buzzed blond hair, his stainless-steel chain necklace, his jawline, his position. Brent Zalesky played point guard. All the boys on the team respected him. They called him Z.

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