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The Liberal Reach: Teaching Humanities to the Poor

Posted: 2004-04-06

Why teach the humanities to a bunch of junkies? Two Stanford professors provide powerful answers to this question.

"No one ever asked me my opinion before," one woman said to us, "and if they had, they would never have followed that by asking me why."

This article comes from Dissent, Winter 2004.


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 pair these texts with short stories and plays that illuminate particular issues such as gender inequality, the morality of war, and the obligations we owe to strangers. We run the class as a seminar, just as we would on campus, where students have to grapple with the texts themselves, discuss with each other their ideas, and are always asked to defend any conclusions they draw. Instead of expecting the Hope House women to defer to our "established authority" as professors, we encourage a dialogue that implicitly recognizes the equality of all inquirers, assumes that we are all subject to error, and expects that we all have something to contribute. This teaching method engages everyone in a process of critical conversation in which each person has to examine and justify her own beliefs.

We can only offer a glimpse at what has occurred in our classes. The liberal arts resonated with the women of Hope House. More than that, the links they perceived between the texts and their lives brought new insights not just to them but to the professors and undergraduates working with them.

Take, for example, how Hope House women responded to Ursula K. Le Guin's short story "The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas." This utopian (or dystopian) parable tells of a hypothetical town in which the citizens are supremely happy. Their happiness, however, is founded on and dependent upon the suffering of a young child, who is kept in rags and imprisoned in a basement. Every year, at a ceremony celebrating the town's founding, the citizens may visit the child. The child initially implores the passing people for help but eventually becomes passive and silent. Aiding or freeing the child will cost the town its supreme happiness. So although all are horrified by what they see, most resign themselves to it. Every year some walk away and are never seen again: hence the title of the story.

Among our Stanford students, discussion immediately centers on those who walk away. Are these voluntary exiles heroes, because they refuse to continue living in Omelas? Are they cowards who assuage their own consciences but leave the child behind in misery? Our Stanford students identify with the town's citizens and ask, "Would we walk away? Are the exiles right to leave?" But no Stanford student has ever done what the women in Hope House did spontaneously-take up the perspective of the child in the basement. One of the women had herself been locked in a closet as a child by her father for long periods of time. All of the women could identify with a child who was "written off," abandoned, and left in poverty-and having identified with the child, they wondered if sacrificing oneself for the supreme happiness of others was a good thing. Would they be willing to make such a sacrifice? Our students at Stanford conducted their inquiry against an unarticulated background assumption, in which the common viewpoint was of the town member. The women at Hope House looked at things with very different assumptions. (In fact, we had to work to help them see that there were perspectives to consider other than that of the child.) Some argued that sacrificing themselves for the happiness of others would be a noble thing. Hope House students asked, "What obligates one person to another? Is there something admirable in a Christ-like sacrifice for others? How can we understand the psychology of the child who ceases to protest?"

Consider how Hope House students responded to Plato's Republic. They were struck especially by Plato's famous parable of a cave, in which prisoners are chained so that they perceive only shadows of the real world on the wall before them. They take the shadows for reality and are so accustomed to the darkness that they fear having to turn to the real world, to the light-to the sun. In our experience, no Stanford student has ever read this as a metaphor for addiction, but that is how the Hope House students saw it. For them, Plato's cave depicted the tyranny and blindness of drugs and provided an explanation for why it's easier to remain enslaved. This led in class to a conversation about the internal and external sources of self-delusion. Stanford students tend not to see themselves chained in the cave; the Hope House women identified with people who can see only shadows-who only wish to see shadows.

The women also drew on their life experiences when we discussed the ring of Gyges, another important passage in the Republic. Gyges wins both his queen and his realm by means of a ring that makes him invisible. An invisible person, Plato tells us, won't necessarily be virtuous. Following Plato, the women asked whether we would have any reason to act justly if we had the ring of Gyges and were invisible to detection. Most of the women thought that acting unjustly undermines your "relationship with yourself" and leads to guilt and low self-esteem. They recreated Socrates' reasoning: injustice leads to a "dis-ordered soul." However, some of the Hope House women resisted such "goody two shoes" conclusions and argued that without punishment people grab what they want.

A third example of how the Hope House students connected with famous texts centers on one of the oldest philosophical questions: is it ever justified to tell a lie? We read a small part of Kant's famous treatment of this question in the Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals along with an essay by Adrienne Rich called "Women and Honor: Notes on Lying." Although we'd discussed the justifiability of "white lies," just as we do with Stanford students, we found ourselves also asking more difficult (and larger) questions about whether deliberate lies about substantial matters can be justified. One woman suddenly shot her hand in the air and insisted that lying was not only sometimes excusable, but sometimes an obligation. She then explained how she had come to be at Hope House. She was riding in a car with a close friend when the police pulled the car over. Her friend had drugs with him and already had two prior convictions. Were the police to find them, it would be her friend's "third strike," and the result would be an automatic life sentence. In order to protect her friend, she falsely claimed the drugs were hers and took the rap, leading to jail and then to Hope House.

Her confession sparked a long discussion about whether or not her lie was justified and about the nature of obligations among friends. Some of the women insisted that even if lying was acceptable in this particular circumstance, she had also treated herself unjustly. Others argued that her friend was obligated-should have been "man enough"-to tell the truth. Finally, our student said that though she thought telling lies was usually hard to justify, an unjust context complicated matters. The three strikes law made lying acceptable in some way and perhaps required her lie. Her small injustice was preferable to the larger one, in her view, of incarcerating her friend for life for a small crime. The distinctions among telling lies to people for personal gain, damaging interpersonal trust, and lying in order to resist legal injustice became the center of the debate and led to a short discussion of civil disobedience. To reach this point in a Stanford classroom, we typically resort to the example of the German who is harboring a Jew and is visited by the Gestapo. At Hope House, the women generated the same lesson from the cauldron of their own experiences.

Lessons at Hope House

Hope House revealed to us, the professors, the great potential the humanities have to bridge divides of class and race. These women experienced joy and self-confidence by participating in a democratic community of inquiry. "No one ever asked me my opinion before," one woman said to us, "and if they had, they would never have followed that by asking me why." "I was on the phone last night for an hour telling my daughter about Socrates," said another woman. "I always thought that I was a 'special ed' student-I never dreamed I could read and understand Plato." The liberal arts can--as the origin of their name from the Latin liberalis, to be free, suggests--help to liberate people and open new ways of grasping the world.

Is it banal to say that all of us are philosophers? What we, and other faculty who have taught at Hope House, continue to see is the precariousness of that idea. It is only true if we make it true; but we can continue to make it false, by denying the tools of reflection, the experience of beauty, and the love of wisdom to poor people. It is sad but not surprising that these women--poor, addicts, ex-convicts all--were amazed that they could read and argue about difficult and abstract texts that concern abiding moral and political questions. One woman expressed it this way: "I am part of the human race. I have the capabilities of everyone else if I put my mind to it. This class made it come true for me."

We have begun follow up to find out how the women who have taken our classes fare afterward. These women face substantial hurdles when they leave Hope House, and the national statistics on re-incarceration are grim. Hope House, however, does far better than the national average, with some 70 percent of the women remaining drug free and out of prison. Ideally, these women would stay clean and also be stimulated by our course to reconnect with education. A few of them have gone on to take other classes through Stanford's Continuing Studies program. We also know that our class gives them a new sense of confidence in themselves and their futures because they explicitly say so when they talk about their struggles with addiction. They talk about Plato's cave and "turning the eye of the soul to the light" as a necessary step to recovery. They also express a new self-confidence as a result of having completed a college-level class.

The Value of the Humanities

The liberal arts are in steep decline. Today all students-even the most elite-are subject to a standards movement in the public schools that means, in most cases, never ending multiple-choice assessments. Even when some students are lucky enough to have access to a liberal arts education, fewer and fewer are taking advantage of it. The number of liberal arts majors has dropped precipitously in the past generation. In this context, a radical way to defend the humanities is to start off with their value to the poor.

"Why teach the humanities to a bunch of junkies?" we have been asked. "You're just liberal do-gooders who think that what's interesting to you-philosophy-will be interesting to everyone." "This is a way to make you professors feel better about your own consciences; I doubt it does anything good for your students." It's easy to be cynical about programs like the Hope House Scholars or the Clemente Course. It is also easy to be skeptical of the motives behind those of us who teach in them.

It's unlikely that we will ever be able to quantify what the humanities teach people. Long-term, hard, direct evidence of success-lower recidivism rates at Hope House or better job placement as a result of our course-is not likely to be found. We simply don't know whether our course has these causal effects, even if they could be documented through statistics.

So, is the Hope House Scholars Program a wasted effort? Just a vanity project for elite professors? We harbor no illusion that education alone can eradicate poverty. But we also believe that the value-and power-of a liberal arts education is overlooked in debates about poverty. "I feel like a butterfly drawn from a cocoon," reported one of our students at the end of the course. Programs like Hope House help her escape and imagine herself as a participant in civic life. One Stanford student told us that tutoring at Hope House was her most profound educational experience as an undergraduate. It seems that through the humanities, the most elite and the most marginal segments of our society can teach something to each other.

Debra Satz is associate professor of philosophy and director of the Ethics in Society Program at Stanford University. Her research focuses on the ethical limits of the market and the meaning of equality in different contexts. She has recently published papers on child labor markets and on the international reach of justice.

Rob Reich is assistant professor of political science and Ethics in Society at Stanford University. He is the author of Bridging Liberalism and Multiculturalism in American Education.

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