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As a weapon in the hands of the restless poor.
June 21, 2012 5:07 PM   Subscribe

After an inquisitive prison inmate challenged his notions of poverty and its solutions, Earl Shorris embarked on a project to share the humanities with poor students in New York City. In this article for Harper's Magazine, he remembers his struggles and triumphs with funding, material, and the students. As income inequality in the US continues to rise, other well known figures have different ideas. Shorris died recently this year, and obituaries appeared in The New York Times, The Daily News and The Nation. A full archive of his articles for Harper's can be found here.
posted by sophist (10 comments total) 30 users marked this as a favorite

 
I read both Shorris' article and Stiglitz's (both of those are good links, by the way, thanks). Maybe I'm misreading your post, but I don't necessarily see how the one way of thinking opposes the other. Shorris realizes the value of education in the humanities to create engaged thinkers, 'political' actors as he says. Stiglitz is appealing to the elite to say that unless there are people with a stake in the system then it's doomed to stagnation and failure. Both of them seem to reach similar conclusions: if society is unequal, then it's bad for everyone.
posted by codacorolla at 6:11 PM on June 21, 2012


Thanks for posting this! Shorris's article had a big impact on how I regard my work in teaching the humanities.
posted by smrtsch at 6:36 PM on June 21, 2012


I adore the Harper's article, which I have never seen before. It actually made me teary. I teach philosophy at a community college that serves primarily urban and rural poor students. So I get asked a lot:

"Why should they care about fourteenth-century Italian painting or truth tables or the death of Socrates?"

And this essay is so ... true to what I do. Even down to asking them the same questions at orientation and graduation, to see how far they've come. (I ask: Who are you? What is truth? What do you know for sure? Who do you want to be?)

I think one reason I'm good at it is that since my natural habitat is the law, I connect a lot of the "dead" philosophical ideas to current controversies in the law, and over the five years I've been teaching, I've been able to narrow and refine that to questions that matter a lot to my students: abortion, prison, mental illness, patriotism, loyalty to family, free will. (I think the other reason I connect well with my students is that I haaaaaaated philosophy when I first did it at 18, so I'm super-sympathetic when they don't get it and I don't think it necessarily comes naturally, which I think most philosophy profs DO, because if you go into teaching philosophy it's usually because you GET IT from the time you're 15 or so. I didn't get it until I was like 25.) The incredible HUNGER they have for philosophy is overwhelming, once you make it clear that they can talk hick or talk street and that experiences they've had in their lives are just as valid and interesting and worthy of philosophical pondering as anyone else's. I mean, it's almost mind-boggling to me that someone would suggest that a low-literacy inner-city gang member WOULDN'T want to discuss philosophy because 80% of them are DYING to discuss philosophy, if someone will take them seriously and listen to them. (Okay, 80% of those who manage to enroll themselves in community college.) My students have incredible thoughts about their lives, about life and death, about morality, thoughts that no suburban-derived Ivy-League super-keener (like I was!) is going to have bumped into at age 18. This hunger to understand and be understood, to know humanity, to know oneself, it's universal. It's not a function of privilege.

And I make them all read Descartes's Meditations on First Philosophy, start to finish, every semester, and then take tests and write papers on it. If you make them hungry, give them a taste of Plato and Socrates and Mill and Rawls and Hume, you can haul even slow readers through Descartes.

In my first lecture I tell them that liberal arts is the education needed to be free, to be a citizen of a democracy. I tell them about Thomas Jefferson and the University of Virginia. I tell them about free universal public education. I tell them to vote, that they suck for not voting. I tell them I ran for office, that some jerk has to be in charge and that jerk could be them. I tell them Socrates knows more about modern America than any talking head on cable TV. I tell them I won't take off points for spelling or grammar as long as I can understand the idea they're putting across. I tell them philosophy is their birthright as Americans.

It's just such a privilege for me to teach Plato's Apology every semester, and it's such an incredible privilege to teach it to the student population I teach. I mean, unless you've done it, you can not even understand how incredible it is to get to share Socrates with such voraciously yearning minds. It seriously compares to giving birth for being right up there in the breathtakingly transcendent.

I mean, Socrates, yo.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 7:09 PM on June 21, 2012 [22 favorites]


Yeah, looking back on it, the Stiglitz article doesn't have much place in this post. I should have just done a more thorough job on some of Shorris's work. They were just two articles that stood out to me this week on a similar topic. And thanks for sharing McGee, there is a strong tendency today (I am guilty of it myself) of dismissing the humanities, but stuff like this reminds me why it is truly important and how blessed I was to have great teachers myself.
posted by sophist at 7:15 PM on June 21, 2012


That's a really fascinating article.

I think poverty in the US is often times as much cultural as it is financial. A lot of people grow up in a middle class home with the life skills to navigate 'middle class' American society. But if you grow up in a poor home with with parents who didn't learn those lessons themselves, surrounded by other kids who don't know those things you'll never get that cultural knowledge.

Now, obviously teaching people the humanities won't give them that knowledge directly but it could help foster a desire to learn and to value education for it's own sake which is probably a key component of 'middle class' values.
I mean, it's almost mind-boggling to me that someone would suggest that a low-literacy inner-city gang member WOULDN'T want to discuss philosophy because 80% of them are DYING to discuss philosophy, if someone will take them seriously and listen to them.
I think a key thing is just the fact that people are actually engaging with them and listening to them and their ideas, and validating their intellect. You could also argue that many people in their situation might not be interested, but they aren't the ones who would even sign up for the class they recruited the students through social workers and the like, so probably the students who got selected were ones that the social workers thought showed promise.

The way people talk about and think about the poor in US society is seriously messed up. If you tried to argue that the government should actually pay for classes like this (there are certainly enough qualified humanities majors who need jobs in this country!) people would get outraged and say that it's not what the poor need, they need job training and so on - yet those same people would almost certainly try to teach their own kids about culture and history.
posted by delmoi at 7:27 PM on June 21, 2012


This hunger to understand and be understood, to know humanity, to know oneself, it's universal. It's not a function of privilege.

and:

I mean, it's almost mind-boggling to me that someone would suggest that a low-literacy inner-city gang member WOULDN'T want to discuss philosophy because 80% of them are DYING to discuss philosophy, if someone will take them seriously and listen to them.

Absolutely. I conduct hands-on contemporary art workshops with juveniles, many (most?) of them gang members, within an inner-city maximum security detention center. The hunger for self-knowledge, discovery, and expression many of them have is sometimes so intense and extreme that I sometimes feel like a life guard trying to save a panicking drowning person. I'd like to describe it as a gratifying thing to be able to do, but the desperation makes the experience a little too complicated and fraught to use simple words like rewarding or fulfilling.
posted by stagewhisper at 7:43 PM on June 21, 2012 [2 favorites]


The way people talk about and think about the poor in US society is seriously messed up. If you tried to argue that the government should actually pay for classes like this (there are certainly enough qualified humanities majors who need jobs in this country!) people would get outraged and say that it's not what the poor need, they need job training and so on - yet those same people would almost certainly try to teach their own kids about culture and history.

No kidding. I had an argument with someone the other day who was asserting that collective bargaining isn't necessary, full stop, because employees in every industry already have sufficient protection from exploitation in the form of labor laws. You can imagine how she responded (I waited a few hours so that she would forget the context) when I outlined the parameters of an employment arrangement that only just barely passed legal muster and asked her how she would feel about taking that job. You can also imagine how many bosses she's had. (Hint: it's a number fewer than one.)
posted by invitapriore at 7:46 PM on June 21, 2012 [3 favorites]


That said: I think the idea that this will help with income inequality is interesting. At first blush, it seems incorrect Knowing the humanities won't help you make more money in today's society. That doesn't mean it's not worthwhile, you can argue (as Bertrand Russell, along with lots of other people did) that philosophy and the humanities are in and of themselves good things that make life better.

You could also argue that, even if they don't make more money they will be able to think more clearly about how to live their lives in a way that causes fewer problems. There was the anecdote in the story, about the student who called him after getting into a fight at work, and then took a step back and asked himself how Socrates would handle it -- and figured he probably wouldn't spend time worrying about the petty issues they were arguing about.

Ultimately, a more politically aware population might be better able to articulate itself and it's demands and get a fairer deal. But who knows if that's practical.

And of course a huge part of the problem with political debate in this country is that it's totally disconnected from history. People argue over complete BS and political "theories" thought up for that election by people's who's day jobs is corporate PR. If people had a more deep understanding of the history of political thought, as well as an ability to take a step back from arguments and see how they are being manipulated, that would probably help a lot - but who knows if that's a realistic possibility.
posted by delmoi at 8:48 PM on June 21, 2012


I read the book in question over a decade ago. I highly recommend it. As far as teaching the humanities, that was my goal as a homeschooling parent. I defined it as "learning to live with the inescapable, inconvenient fact of your own humanity" (though, really, that includes the nuisance of dealing with other people as well). Originally, they were called "liberal arts" because they were viwed as liberating (freeing, empowering). It is a shame the term "liberal arts" has such a bad reputation these days.
posted by Michele in California at 9:57 PM on June 21, 2012


This reminds me of "The Black Jacobins", a history of the successful Haitian slave revolt in the 18th century, and its leader Toussaint L'Ouverture, a former slave. At the time, Haiti belonged to the French, who did not think that the revolutionary ideals of liberty and equality applied to their black slaves. But L'Ouverture disagreed -- his great innovation was to organize a slave revolt against the French under the banner of their most cherished ideals. The slave army, facing the French soldiers sent to put down the rebellion, went into battle singing the songs of the French Revolution.

That's what I think of when I hear the phrase "as a weapon in the hands of the restless poor." It is not that the Haitian slaves absorbed the culture of their masters, and were granted freedom because they learned how to be French. The French didn't really know or appreciate their own ideals, it was the slaves who truly understood -- it meant liberation for them too.

I think this gets closer to why the humanities are vital to the poor. Delmoi's interpretation is profoundly condescending -- I'm sorry, but it has to be said. The middle classes are, as a rule, craven conformists. They adopt the liberal arts in a cynical way, as "classy" cultural signifiers that are ultimately meaningless, but are useful for sucking up to the elites, lording it over the poor. This is the typical approach of the average white, privileged Ivy League student, who can learn more about genuine cultural appreciation from stagewhisper's gangmembers than the other way around.
posted by AlsoMike at 1:00 PM on June 22, 2012 [2 favorites]


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