The Newsletter of the Northwest Branch of the Theosophical Society
June 2013 – Vol. 16 Issue 4
What would help people pull themselves out of poverty? Writer Earl Shorris investigated poverty for many years and concluded that what he called the surround of force – factors such as poverty, violence, isolation, hunger, abuse, illness, drugs, poor schools, bad housing, crowding, brutal police, and low expectations – enforce the status quo. These forces keep people so busy reacting that they have no time or energy to reflect, analyze or take action to change themselves or their environment. An inmate at a maximum security prison gave him a key: the poor lack “downtown culture,” knowledge of the humanities and the confidence and ability to reflect that such knowledge brings. So in 1995 he decided to teach the humanities to the poor. His Clemente Course, begun in both a prison and a family guidance center in New York, has since spread widely across the US and internationally.
His posthumous book, The Art of Freedom (2013), tells the human story behind several of these projects which redress “this major distinction between the preparation for the life of the rich and the life of the poor.” Students are adults who are offered transportation fare, childcare, books, supplies and a meal. The basis of the course is a rigorous curriculum of literature, philosophy, history, art history, and logic, taught by the Socratic method by highly qualified staff, often professors from the finest universities. Most courses start with Plato’s “Allegory of the Cave” (text below).
Teaching through questioning and dialogue has proved vital. One of the original students observed that it was the first time anyone had ever paid attention to their opinions. A student in rural Washington said that it “made me feel very empowered and self-motivated to learn. Having the teachers be really interested in what I was getting out the different subjects and different assignments was so different than my experience through public school…. There’s a much bigger picture going on and … it’s helped me to relate to others who have a different experience of life.” A third student said: “The problem with practical instruction is that the role of giver and receiver never changes.… In the humanities, however, the role of giver and receiver is constantly shifting. Whoever is speaking at the time becomes the giver. This can be a very empowering and validating experience for people in low income situations like us. We are used to being seen as the receiver and are rarely valued for our life experience or our opinions. Being able to share something of ourselves and being validated for this can change our minds about who we are and this change will manifest throughout our lives.”
At first the founders thought courses elsewhere would be franchises controlled from the center, but right away it became clear that each place would be different, though remaining rigorous, Socratic, and taught by experts. Courses around the world include the local culture’s humanities. Early on, programs were begun for Maya and Náhuatl speakers in Mexico, incorporating indigenous language and culture along with the Western program, for “every language is a world, even if the world no longer exists except as it is contained in language.” A similar approach is taken for tribes in Oklahoma and Alaska since “the loss of language and culture led to problems more damaging than mere unhappiness. The original peoples had been the victims of physical genocide followed by … enforced removals, compulsory boarding schools, punishment for speaking their own language, race hatred, and killing poverty. These deprivations stole the sense of being complete persons.” Bilingual and bicultural courses help restore participants’ sense of self and are particularly important as elders die off and with them the language, and old stories begin to be lost or confused in the retelling.
The course in Dafur/Sudan included Fur language and culture, and though local professors were skeptical of the Socratic method at first, they found, as one wrote, that it “tends to urge the minds of the students to look within [their] heritage to bring out the essence through an intelligent, thrilling dialogue.” It provides “real tools that assist them to understand reality and the mode of relationships between different parties in addition to being able to discuss the virtues and shortcomings of that reality.” One student remarked: “We have learned to be aggressive, daring, clear, should not give in easily, and discuss logically.”
The Clemente Course has shown that “fine professors could educate a self-selected group of adults living in poverty. The humanities could pierce the structure of the surround of force that held people down and killed them.” Many students who complete Clemente Courses go on to fulltime employment, two- and four-year colleges, or professional or technical schools. All graduates affect the lives of their families and neighborhoods. As one graduate said: “I’ve been homeless, in the battered women's center, AA, welfare, everything. These agencies taught me how to survive, and I’m proud of that. But Clemente showed me that there is more than just survival: that I have a future out there just like anyone, and I can do more than survive. I saw a new horizon that I didn’t even know was there before. So one day I'm going to be a lawyer.” People everywhere, of every group, have the potential to achieve a productive, reflective and engaged life if given the opportunity and expectation, and treated with respect.
SOCRATES: Here is a parable to illustrate the degrees in which our nature is enlightened or unenlightened: Imagine the condition of people living in a cavernous chamber underground, with an entrance open to the light and a long passage all down the cave. Here they have been from childhood, chained by the leg and neck, so that they cannot move and can only see what is in front of them, because the chains will not let them turn their heads. At some distance higher up is the light of a fire burning behind them; and between the prisoners and the fire there is a raised track, like the screen at a puppet show, over which they show the puppets. Behind this parapet imagine persons carrying various artificial objects, including figures of men and animals, which project above it. If the prisoners could talk to one another, wouldn’t they suppose that their words referred only to those passing shadows which they saw? In every way, they would recognize as reality nothing but the shadows of those artificial objects.
Consider what would happen if their release from the chains and the healing of their unwisdom should come about in this way. Suppose one of them set free and forced suddenly to stand up, turn his head, and walk with eyes lifted to the light; all these movements would be painful, and he would be too dazzled to make out the objects whose shadows he had been used to see. What do you think he would say if someone told him that what he had formerly seen was meaningless illusion, but now, being somewhat nearer to reality and turned towards more real objects, he was getting a truer view? Suppose further that he were shown the various objects and were made to say what each of them was. Would he not be perplexed and believe the objects now shown him to be not so real as the shadows he formerly saw? And if he were forced to look at the firelight itself, wouldn’t his eyes ache, so that he would try to escape and turn back to the things which he could see distinctly, convinced that they really were clearer than these other objects now shown to him?
And suppose he were dragged forcibly up the steep and rugged ascent and not let go until he was out in the sunlight, would he not suffer pain and vexation at such treatment and, when he had come out into the light, find his eyes so full of its radiance that he could not see a single one of the things that he was now told were real? He would need, then, to grow accustomed before he could see things in that upper world. At first it would be easiest to make out shadows, and then the images of people and things reflected in water, and later on the things themselves. After that, it would be easier to watch the heavenly bodies and the sky itself by night, looking at the light of the moon and stars rather than the sun and the sun’s light in the daytime. Last of all he would be able to look at the sun and contemplate its nature as it is in itself in its own domain. And now he would begin to draw the conclusion that it is the sun that produces the seasons and the course of the year and controls everything in the visible world, and moreover is in a way the cause of all that he and his companions used to see.
Then if he called to mind his fellow prisoners and what passed for wisdom in his former dwelling place, he would surely think himself happy in the change and be sorry for them. Would he not endure anything rather than go back to his old beliefs and live in the old way? Now imagine what would happen if he went down again to take his former seat in the Cave. Coming suddenly out of the sunlight, his eyes would be filled with darkness. He might be required once more to deliver his opinion on those shadows, in competition with the prisoners who had never been released, while his eyesight was still dim and unsteady; and it might take some time to become used to the darkness. They would laugh at him and say that he had gone up only to come back with his sight ruined; it was worth no one’s while even to attempt the ascent. If they could lay hands on the man who was trying to set them free and lead them up, they would kill him.
The prison dwelling corresponds to the region revealed to us through sight, and the firelight within it to the power of the sun. The ascent to the upper world stands for the upward journey of the soul into the region of the intelligible. This, at any rate, is how it appears to me. In the world of knowledge, the last thing to be perceived and only with great difficulty is the idea of Goodness. Once it is perceived, the conclusion must follow that, for all things, this is the cause of whatever is right and good; in the visible world it gives birth to light and to the lord of light, while it is itself sovereign in the intelligible world and the parent of intelligence and truth. Without having had a vision of it no one can act with wisdom either in his own life or in matters of state.