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What would Socrates do?

Naomi Schaefer Riley reviewed The Art of Freedom by the late Earl Shorris in the Wall Street Journal earlier this week. The review and, by the sound of it, the book are not to be missed. As with the controversy over Bowdoin College and our engagement with our alma mater, the subject is our need for true liberal education. Riley writes:

Almost two decades ago, Earl Shorris, a novelist and journalist, told the editor at his publishing house that he wanted to write a book about poverty in America. The editor, to his credit, said that he didn’t want just another book describing the problem. He wanted a solution. So Shorris, who had attended the University of Chicago on a scholarship many years before and who was greatly influenced by its Great Books curriculum, hit upon the idea of teaching the core texts of Western civilization to people living in poverty, whose school experience had scanted the canon or skipped it entirely. His Eureka moment came when he was visiting a prison and conducting interviews for another book he was planning to write.

He asked one of the women at New York’s Bedford Hills maximum-security prison why she thought the poor were poor. “Because they don’t have the moral life of downtown,” she replied. “What do you mean by the moral life?” Shorris asked. “You got to begin with the children . . . ,” she said. “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.” He asked whether she meant the humanities. Looking at him as if he were, as he puts it, “the stupidest man on earth,” she replied: “Yes, Earl, the humanities.”

Poverty, Shorris concluded, was a condition that required more than jobs or money to put right. So he set out to offer the “moral life” as well. Beginning with a class of 25 or so students found through a social-service agency in New York, Shorris—along with a few professors he had recruited—taught literature, art history and philosophy. The first classes included readings in Plato, Aristotle, Thucydides and Sophocles.

Thus was born the Clemente Course in the Humanities, which is now the recipient of broad philanthropic support. It is offered to the poor in more than 20 cities around the United States, as well as in other countries, from South Korea to Canada. “The Art of Freedom” is a narrative of the program’s founding experience as well as a meditation on the Western classics and their effects on readers. The book, sadly, appears posthumously. Shorris died last year at the age of 75.

Please read the whole thing.

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