Charleston Clemente courses bring history, literature to the poor | Features | Charleston City Paper

Charleston Clemente courses bring history, literature to the poor 

A Liberal Education

Lester Pittman, a Trident Technical College history professor, discusses pre-Revolutionary America at a recent Clemente class

Jonathan Boncek

Lester Pittman, a Trident Technical College history professor, discusses pre-Revolutionary America at a recent Clemente class

On a Thursday night at Trident Tech's Palmer campus, history professor Lester Pittmann goes over the Seven Years War of 1754-1763 with his class. A simple map of the U.S. colonies is up on the board, and Professor Pittmann is asking his students to point out the major cities of the period. "New York," says student Victor Malvaraz. "Philadelphia," adds another. "Charleston," the class says as the teacher points to South Carolina.

"And what's something all these cities have in common?" Pittmann asks.

"They're all ports," Malvaraz says.

"Yes," says Pittmann. He explains the importance of ports in the 1700s, fielding questions about England's economic structure, the colonies' usefulness as resource mills, and whether greater communication between the colonies and the motherland would have postponed American independence. Then he gets to one of the class's major themes, something he and the students will revisit throughout the semester-long U.S. history course. "These cities had greater ties to the motherland, to England, than they did with each other," he says. "And that's important to think about when we discuss this question, how did we become one united people?"

That's a good question for any group of people to ponder, but it's especially meaningful in this particular classroom. The students, all adults, are split roughly 50-50 between African American and white. They come from a huge variety of backgrounds and circumstances, and will go home to widely different situations once class ends, if they have a home to go to. Some are homeless, some have struggled with addiction, some are just down on their luck, but they are all here for the same reason: to broaden their minds, and thereby broaden the worlds that they live in.

The students are taking part in the Charleston Clemente Course, a humanities program for people who are disadvantaged, homeless, or living in economic distress. The Clemente program was started in 1995 in New York by the late Earl Shorris, a writer who studied multi-generational poverty by interviewing hundreds of poor, homeless, and imprisoned people. As he wrote in the 1997 Harper's Magazine article "On the Uses of a Liberal Education," it was an interview with one particular female prisoner that inspired him to start the program. When he asked this prisoner why she thought people stayed poor, she answered, "'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, where they can learn the moral life of downtown.'" In other words, you have to allow people access to culture if you want to help people change their lives.

Dr. Mary Ann Kohli (above) says some of the best teaching she's ever done has been in her Clemente classes with students like Victor Malvaraz (below) - JONATHAN BONCEK
  • Jonathan Boncek
  • Dr. Mary Ann Kohli (above) says some of the best teaching she's ever done has been in her Clemente classes with students like Victor Malvaraz (below)

It's a counter-intuitive idea for many — surely, the way out of poverty has more to do with jobs and economic security than it does with seeing Shakespeare performed or studying art history. But Shorris believed that one of the most vital elements of working one's way out of poverty was the ability to self-reflect, which is what history, art, and literature — the humanities — teach us.

This idea resonated deeply with Dr. Mary Ann Kohli, a Trident Tech English instructor and director of the Charleston Clemente Course. She first heard about the Clemente program back in 2004 from a textbook representative. "We were talking about humanitarian projects and she was telling me about one that came out of New York that brought a free humanities class to homeless people. And I thought that was a wonderful idea," Kohli says. "I myself had just been in treatment the previous year for breast cancer. I had been through chemo and surgery and radiation and so I was cognizant of, you know, I guess that there is a terminal point in every person's life and you don't know with cancer whether it will come back or not. So I was wanting to make the time I had matter."

Kohli got in touch with Shorris to find out more about the program. That's when she learned about his pivotal conversation with that prisoner and how it changed his thinking about poverty. "Earl started thinking about his Ivy League education and how it always includes the humanities and critical thinking and he thought, well actually, the ability to think abstractly is what will get you out of poverty," she says. "It's not the rote, mechanical jobs where you don't think for yourself. It's in the ability to think for yourself, and think abstractly."

So Kohli went about setting up the course at Trident Tech, launching the first class in January 2005 with a grant from the S.C. Humanities Council. She found (and continues to find) her students through various social service agencies like homeless and women's shelters, the Veterans' Administration, and food banks. Students don't need a GED to be eligible, although they do need to pass a verbal placement test and complete an application both for Trident Tech and for the Clemente course. As director, Kohli is responsible for raising the funds each year to cover all expenses, which she usually does through fundraisers.

Victor Malvaraz - JONATHAN BONCEK
  • Jonathan Boncek
  • Victor Malvaraz

The class is divided into two semesters, the first covering U.S. history and art history and the second covering literature, philosophy, and writing. There's no tuition, and students receive a full meal each class as well as free books and a bus pass, and they're each paired with a mentor. There are lots of field trips too, like to the Dock Street Theatre, the Gibbes Museum, and the Charleston Museum.

And these aren't fluffy, just-for-the-fun-of-it classes. They're regular college-level courses, so students receive grades and must pass the first course in order to move on to the second one.

That can be a real challenge for many participants, especially the ones who have little other structure or security in their lives. "It's taught in the Socratic method where you ask questions and you ask the students to think for themselves," Kohli says. "I've got a handful of students that are actually living on the street now, which presents its challenges. A lot of our students are coming from Crisis Ministries, and they face a variety of challenges and for them to sit down and, you know, in the literature and philosophy read parts of The Republic or Sophocles' Antigone — that's a challenge and a stretch for them."

For Kohli, whom her students describe as someone who lives and breathes kindness and generosity, it can be difficult to not want to give even more. But like all professionals who work with the poor or the abused, she's had to learn to maintain those boundaries. "I can offer them sort of an academic leg-up, and I can offer them support. And another thing [this course] offers is self-esteem. Our students come out feeling they have earned what they've gotten."

What they've gotten by the end of a Clemente course is not only self-esteem, personal growth, and a feeling of community — as well as a great deal of knowledge — but also college credit. Kohli says that the national average for Clemente course completion is 50 percent, and her course meets that or better each year. Of those who graduate from the Charleston course, 50 percent of those go on to take more college courses either at Trident or at other institutes of higher learning. One former student who was living on the street and HIV positive now has her Master's degree from the University of South Carolina. Another whom Kohli keeps in touch with is currently working to save up the last $2,000 she needs to enroll in the College of Charleston, where she's already been accepted.

Then there are people like Peggy (who requested her last name not be used). Peggy, a single mother who's faced a long string of tough breaks, took the Clemente courses in 2009 and has stayed involved with the program. Currently, she's Kohli's work-study student and is working on getting her associate degree at Trident. "Lots of people think that if you're in these classes you're either a drunk or a prostitute," she says. "And that's just not true, not to say these classes aren't for [those people]. If people want to change their lives you've got to let them. This is just for people who need a community." The class works, she continues, because of Kohli. "Once you come here, she's your friend for life," Peggy says. "I think that's why programs fail — because it's like oh, there are these poor disadvantaged people and then there's us, you know, up here. Dr. Kohli just sees all of us as 'us.'"

Another important aspect of the Clemente classes is the validation they provide. So many Clemente students are used to being ignored, degraded, or written off. "People don't know how smart people are that are in shelters, because they get categorized and generalized as somehow lacking," Kohli says. But as one will find from sitting in on a class, these poor or homeless students are often just as curious and well-informed as anyone else. In these classes, if nowhere else in their lives, they're taken seriously. "People listen to each other here," says Peggy. "Clemente promotes values I believe in. The professors encourage you to look at other people's way of thinking."

And that's the essence of what the humanities offer, whether it's seeing a play or reading an ancient text or visiting a museum exhibition — the chance to learn empathy, to escape and gain perspective on our own problems, and to discover the differences among people around the world. "You know, when you're poor you don't have money to do relaxing things, you can't go to a spa, or on vacation. You're stuck in your situation every day," Peggy says. "Going to the theater, going to plays — that changes people. People need to be exposed to a beautiful world. What you learn is that even if your own world is full of people fighting, of meanness, that there's another way."


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