Who is this US academic who taught humanities to disadvantaged citizens?
April 18, 2019 4:39 AM   Subscribe

Several years ago I heard a podcast episode about a US academic who set up a free community program to teach humanities subjects to uneducated or unemployed people in his area. My sketchy recollections include: Initially his idea was treated with derision ('Poor people don't need the arts, they need real life skills' etc) but after a crash course in subjects like philosophy, many of his students were able to improve their lives in unexpected and profound ways, and all found employment - except for one who was fired after trying to set up an employee's union. What was this program, who ran it, and what podcast did I hear about it on?

At the time (maybe as long as 10 years ago) I was listening to things like This American Life, Wiretap with Jonathan Goldstein and a few other podcasts, but I've spent some time searching through the episode descriptions of these and I can't find any matches.
I've been thinking of this story on and off for years now - it was a fascinating case study on the value of the arts, and in particular how so-called 'elitist' subjects like philosophy, history etc made a huge practical difference to people's lives thanks to this rogue professor who believed in taking them out of the hallowed halls of academia.
I'd love to read more about this course and its effects. Please help me track it down!
posted by archy to Media & Arts (6 answers total) 23 users marked this as a favorite
I can't answer the question offhand, but if this is the thing I'm thinking of, I read about it, and seem to recall that at some point one of his students is having an interpersonal problem (at work?) and asks himself "what would Plato do?" (or some famous philosopher). Does that ring any bells with you?

My searches on that basis aren't turning up anything yet.
posted by inexorably_forward at 5:55 AM on April 18, 2019 [1 favorite]

Best answer: This sounds like the Clemente Course in the Humanities. Harper’s Magazine ran a long piece on it in September 1997 called “On the Uses of a Liberal Education: II. As a weapon in the hands of the restless poor.” An amazing story I remember well twenty-two years later.

A book about the course came out in 2013, “The Art of Freedom: Teaching the Humanities to the Poor” by Earl Shorris.
posted by Harvey Jerkwater at 7:27 AM on April 18, 2019 [7 favorites]

Best answer: "As a weapon in the hands of the restless poor" by Earl Shorris is the article Harvey Jerkwater is mentioning. And inexorably_forward is thinking of this program too: “Mr. Shores, I asked myself, ‘What would Socrates do?’”
posted by brainwane at 8:51 AM on April 18, 2019 [2 favorites]

posted by brainwane at 8:53 AM on April 18, 2019 [2 favorites]

Thanks, brainwane, it was a pleasure to read that again.
posted by inexorably_forward at 5:27 PM on April 18, 2019 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: Thank you all. I was a regular reader of Harpers around that time so I suspect that’s where I found it - and my brain must have cross-wired to remember it as a podcast.

It was wonderful to re-read it (and now safely bookmark it too). Your help is very much appreciated.
posted by archy at 5:33 PM on April 19, 2019

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