Spring 2004 - Volume 7 Number 2
Riches for the Poor: The Clemente Course in the Humanities
New York: Norton, 1997 / Revised Paperback Edition, 2000
Earl Shorris was actively reseaching and writing on poverty in the early 1990s, but Riches for the Poor was not the comprehensive study that he intended to complete; when finished, it was not so much a planned destination as a discovery. Though Shorris continues his effort to comprehend evolutions and implications of "poverty" in the contemporary global economy, his revised work ultimately says and accomplishes a great deal more than he originally foresaw. The project was already in its third year when Shorris, an author and contributing editor at Harpers, visited a maximum-security prison for women north of New York City. Through conversations with long-time prisoner Viniece Walker, he completely reconceptualized his vision of poverty in America. Newly stripped of abstract theories about the poor as developed from history and philosophy books, Riches remembers the discovery and development of what is now called The Clemente Course in the Humanities.
Living with little or no money is merely a symptom of a more sinister face of poverty, and Shorris is interested in attending to those social forces that repress the intellect and the spirit. Aspects of culture ranging from racism, police corruption, violence, and drug addiction complicate and compromise political activism. The result, a lack of political citizenship, fuels the cycle of poverty. Shorris understands the word "political" to exceed generic notions of voting; instead, it connotes activity at every social level beginning with the self and emanating outward to the family, community, and city-state level. Bedford Hills Prison inmate Viniece Walker is credited with suggesting that, "a moral alternative to the street" is at once the catalyst for inciting activism and the only stay against poverty. As Shorris writes, "She did not speak of jobs or money, not then or ever during the years we have talked about poverty in America." Riches for the Poor chronicles this epiphany to begin, and later traces the conception and implementation of a course of study in the humanities: a moral alternative to the street.
After Shorris experimented with variations of a program he hoped to answer poverty with, one that shelters the mind and not the body, Bard College made the determination to sponsor "Clemente" and even to award university credit for it. The course would span eight months and include five modules simultaneously taught according to the Socratic method. These were to include Literature, Moral Philosophy, Art History, History, and Writing. As the book explains, logistical obstacles proved as difficult to overcome as academic hurdles. Accessible and un-intimidating location, transportation, childcare, and food were among the many practical challenges. Mistakes and oversights occurred early, but Earl Shorris and Bard College finally realized a sustained directive in the Humanities specifically for the disenfranchised. Incarnations and evolutions, some called Clemente and some bearing other names, soon began to spring up all over the United States, and later in Canada and Mexico. The book acknowledges many of these, including the ones in Seattle and Vancouver. Shorris also considers and anticipates reasons for prospective opposition: "Since no one will help them, the poor have no alternative but to learn politics. It is the way out of poverty, and into successful, self-governing life, based upon reflection and the ability to negotiate a safe path between the polar opposites of liberty and order. But to learn politics may also be a way for the poor to become dangerous at last." This recipe for inciting social change on a systemic level is not a theory, but a fact now proven in a number of international locations. As such, Riches for the Poor does more than simply provoke thought.
Clay Armstrong teaches English at Malaspina University-College in Nanaimo, British Columbia.
• The views expressed by the authors are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of The College Quarterly or of Seneca College.
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