SEATTLE — Journalist and author Earl Shorris believes the real difference between the haves and have-nots is political power.
“If you want real power, legitimate power, the kind that comes from the people and belongs to the people,” he says, “you must understand the politics.”
When Shorris speaks of politics, he uses the word polis, a Greek root meaning city or society. The polis he conjures when he writes and speaks encompasses the core values of Western civilization originating in classical Greece: democracy, free speech, individual rights and constitutional government.
To give political power to the poor, Shorris believes you must first make the poor members of the polis. That is, you must make them educated members of the social order and an active part of the democratic conversation in that social order. To translate this belief into action, he developed an eight-month program in New York City where poor and homeless students read and discuss Plato, Aristotle and Shakespeare, and study art, logic, poetry and history.
Shorris’ friend Jamie Inclan, who runs the Roberto Clemente Family Guidance Center on the lower east side of Manhattan, offered the physical space for the program. At the Clemente Center, Shorris set up a series of linked classes run over eight months, calling it the Clemente Course in Humanities. Over the span of four years, courses spread from Manhattan, Brooklyn and New Brunswick, New Jersey to Seattle, Washington, and north to Alaska, with planned classes in Mexico, British Columbia, Puerto Rico and France.
All sites replicate the Clemente Course in New York City, where classes rotate through a repeating sequence of literature, history, art history and philosophy. Since many students live at the very edge of physical, mental and financial health, this rotating pattern of courses permits them to be out for as long as two and a half weeks yet miss only one class in each subject.
In Seattle, structuring his program as close as possible to the Clemente Course in Manhattan, program director Lylle Bush selected students between the ages of 17 and 36, living at least 150 percent below the poverty level, who could read at least at the level of a tabloid newspaper.
Bush teaches the section on critical thinking and writing, then as director attends all of the other classes.
Before the start of his session, he sits listening to a young woman telling him she just lost her apartment and is living in her car. As the woman sobs nearly out of control, Bush listens empathetically, while maintaining a professional distance. At the scheduled time to begin class, she manages to get up and take a place with the group at the long connected rectangular tables.
Students live out on the streets, in shelters or transitional housing. Some are working poor, mothers who are working at Pizza Hut with three or four kids and no real economic hope; some have done time and some are living with AIDS.
These students look much like an ordinary university extension class of older students drinking coffee, and sitting around a table using Socratic dialogue to discuss classical problems and values. This scene contrasts starkly to their outside world, a world Shorris refers to as “a surround of force” that manipulates and makes life difficult for them.
“They’re human,” Shorris says, “and that’s something we forget about in this country, unfortunately, when we talk about poor people. We think that because they are poor, they are in some respect less human than we are. And once you say that, I call it a surround of force, a situation which makes life difficult for them, you begin to think of them in a different way. There is an innate humanity that comes out when they meet Plato and Aristotle, when they meet art, when they hear and think about poetry.
“We have people in the Bedford Hills Prison now who meet at night in a cellblock and they argue over William Blake instead of getting into fist fights or talk about sex or whatever. There are things that the poor can do because they’re human. The difference between rich and poor is that the poor don’t get the chance. We keep them poor; they don’t choose to be poor.”
Shorris’ critics argue that the evidence shows the major factor in keeping the poor down is lack of opportunity and income inequality in the country. Poverty, they argue, stems from a growing wage deterioration affecting millions of Americans. The poor suffer, not from a lack of political savvy, but from low-wage jobs, layoffs and sex and race discrimination.
These arguments are hard to refute, but so are some statistics coming out of the Clemente Course. Approximately two thirds of the students completing the class in the past four years have received college credit from Bard University in New York. Half of the Clemente graduates have gone on to community college or four-year colleges — an impressive success rate considering the poverty and difficult situations of students entering the course.
Shorris says that when the poor become part of the democratic conversation they will be a power to deal with, a power that could lead to change. Then we would rely on democracy, not charity, where the poor have the political power to lift themselves out of the negative surround force and begin to take charge of their lives.