The Liberal Reach

The Liberal Reach

Teaching Humanities to the Poor

We teach political philosophy to the exceptional students who manage to cross over Stanford University’s very high admissions bar. They read works by Plato, Aristotle, Mill, Kant, and Rawls, and in our experience they are shaken up frequently by their encounters with these and other thinkers. These students become more reflective about their values and newly aware of competing ways to live a life or to organize society. But can anyone take up these texts? Or should they be, as is increasingly the case nowadays, offered up only to a fortunate elite?

Three years ago we founded a program through Stanford’s School of Continuing Studies and Program in Ethics in Society that brings classes in philosophy and the humanities to groups of fifteen to twenty female addicts and ex-convicts who have been placed, most of them involuntarily, in a residential drug and alcohol treatment program. Classes in recovery, anger management, and parenting consume most of their day. The women are a diverse lot, ranging in age from twenty to sixty. Although they reflect the ethno-racial mix of the Bay Area, they are homogenous in two ways: they come from poverty, and they have had little if any formal education beyond the high school level. Some have not even attended high school. The facility is called Hope House, and its energetic director, Karen Francone, believes in raising both the level of daily, practical functioning and the level of hope of the women she serves. We receive support from Stanford that allows us to offer college credit to women who successfully complete our classes.

In developing our class, we drew on the experiences of others, especially the Clemente Course in the Humanities in New York City. Founded by Earl Shorris in 1995, the idea was to see whether laying the foundation for participation in economic and political life of society-by teaching analytical and conceptual skills, sharpening oral and written expression, and conveying forms of cultural and social capital often unavailable to the poor-could help the poor to understand and even step out of poverty. Shorris’s initial course has now been expanded to more than a dozen sites and is coordinated through Bard College. Our Hope House program differs from the Clemente Course in that we have tried to integrate it into the academic mission of Stanford. It is taught exclusively by Stanford faculty, and undergraduates serve as writing tutors and course assistants. Both Stanford faculty and students sometimes work as mentors to the Hope House women after they complete their recovery program. As a result, the course is a catalyst for discussions about how the purposes of the modern university relate to larger public concerns.

The Class

The core of our program is an encounter with classic texts and enduring ideas. In class, we focus on works that reflect on social justice, ranging from Plato and Kant to the Declaration of Independence and Mill. We pai...