Remembering Earl Shorris
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Earl Shorris, 75, Dies; Fought Poverty With Knowledge
Obituary printed with permission of the New York Times
By PAUL VITELLO
Earl Shorris, a social critic and author whose interviews with prison inmates for a book inspired him to start a now nationally recognized educational program that introduces the poor and the unschooled to Plato, Kant and Tolstoy, died on May 27 in New York. He was 75.
The cause was complications of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, his son Anthony said.
Mr. Shorris, who wrote a dozen books during the first 35 years of his career, many sharply critical of Western culture as sliding toward plutocracy and materialism, became best known in his final years for founding the Clemente Course in the Humanities. Established in 1995 with 25 students at the Roberto Clemente Family Guidance Center in the East Village of Manhattan, the program offers the disadvantaged a 10-month curriculum of philosophy, history, art, literature and logic. It earned Mr. Shorris the National Humanities Medal, presented to him in 2000 by President Bill Clinton.
Since 1995, the program has been introduced in about 20 cities around the country, as well as in Canada, Australia and Korea, according to administrators of the Bard College Clemente Course in the Humanities, which oversees the project. In groups of 20 to 30 students per course, several thousand have tackled the program’s rigorous readings and explications of Aristotle on logic, Plato on justice and Kant’s theory of morality. The program is free, and books, carfare and baby-sitting are provided.
In every outpost, the target audience is the same: the poor and unemployed, low-wage workers, ex-convicts, addicts and the homeless. By Mr. Shorris’s own account, the enterprise has scored many wins and many losses. Some students were inspired, some were not, some died of AIDS, and some — like Moise Koffi of the Bronx, who described himself as drifting toward poverty before taking the course 10 years ago at a community center in Poughkeepsie, N.Y. — went on to earn bachelor’s and graduate degrees.
While education policy has leaned in recent decades toward giving students work skills, Mr. Shorris’s idea was to teach what he considered the ultimate skills: reflection and critical thinking, as taught by the humanities. “If the multigenerational poor are to make the leap out of poverty, it will require a new kind of thinking — reflection,” he wrote in 1997. “And that is a beginning.” The study of the humanities, he said, is “in itself a redistribution of wealth.”
As a writer, beginning in the 1960s, Mr. Shorris produced a diverse body of work, including sociological examinations of the American way of employment and commerce, magazine journalism on the demise of the hippie counterculture of the 1960s, learned volumes on Latino history and identity, and social commentaries that appeared regularly in Harper’s Magazine and were broadcast on National Public Radio.
His novels were known for their dark humor. In one of his earliest, “The Boots of the Virgin” (1968), Mr. Shorris mined his brief career during the late 1950s as a bullfighter in Mexico to portray his antihero, Sol Feldman, a Jewish bullfighter of little talent known professionally as El Sol de Michigan.
In two books of nonfiction, “The Oppressed Middle: Politics of Middle Management” (1981) and “A Nation of Salesmen: The Tyranny of the Market and the Subversion of Culture” (1994), he drew on his work during the 1970s as an executive for the national advertising firm N. W. Ayer and Sons, where he handled the General Motors and American Telephone & Telegraph accounts. But he was not happy in advertising, he wrote, describing it as “not immoral, except as waste is immoral.”
It was while researching a book published in 1997, “New American Blues: A Journey Through Poverty to Democracy,” that Mr. Shorris happened upon the vocation that would occupy his last years. He was interviewing inmates at the Bedford Hills Correctional Facility for Women in Westchester County, N.Y., asking for their opinions on why poor people were poor. One inmate, Viniece Walker, told him it was because they lacked “the moral life of downtown” — meaning, she said, exposure to “plays, museums, concerts, lectures, you know.”
“You mean the humanities,” Mr. Shorris replied, surprised by her answer.
“Yes, Earl, the humanities,” she said.
Ms. Walker’s words triggered an epiphany of sorts, Mr. Shorris wrote in a 1997 Harper’s essay: Poverty was an absence of reflection and beauty, not an absence of money. It was comparable to the experience of people chained to the wall of the cave in Plato’s Allegory of the Cave, he said: They see shadows on the walls, and assume that is all there is in the world. At the first Clemente Course meeting, “I passed out their reading assignment. Of course, it was the Allegory of the Cave,” he wrote.
Earl Shorris was born in Chicago on June 25, 1936, the son Samuel and Betty Shorris, and moved to El Paso as a child with his family. His father worked in the insurance business. At 13, Mr. Shorris was admitted on a full scholarship to the University of Chicago, where he was deeply influenced by the so-called Great Books model of higher education introduced in the 1940s by the university’s longtime president, Robert Maynard Hutchins. He left before graduating, however, and worked as a newspaper reporter and freelance writer — with a stint bullfighting in Juarez, across the border from El Paso, during his early 20s — before settling with his wife, Sylvia, in San Francisco.
Besides his wife and his son Anthony, Mr. Shorris is survived by another son, James; a sister, Mary Jean Roberts; and four grandchildren.
The Clemente Course “changed the direction of my life,” said Mr. Koffi, an immigrant from Ivory Coast. “I was in darkness, like the man in the story of the cave, and my mind was opened.”
June 1, 2012
I have just learned of Earl's death. On behalf of the faculty and students at
Weber State University Ogden, Utah Clemente/Venture project, we extend our deepest sympathy to the family and thank you for allowing us to experience and share his vision. Earl's true measure of a life well lived is reflected in the lives he has changed all over the world. He never believed that poverty and lack of resources is an automatic platform to giving up dignity and thus making a contribution in life. I believe this is what ultimately drove him to create this program because he inherently understood that knowledge transcends these conditions. That understanding the world through literature, art, music and culture makes you rich in spirit and compels one to a deeper relationship with humanity; thus a meaningful clarity of our struggles toward who we are and our place in the human condition. Through Earl’s vision, faculty and students in Utah join with others all over the world in paying tribute to a truly gifted man. As for me personally, I have lost a dear friend. We traveled together in Brazil and spent quality time in Utah and I am grateful that he took the time to visit our programs here and left a legacy for us to carry on. Thanks Earl, you will always be in our hearts and works!
Forrest (Ogden, Utah)
June 3, 2012
Without Earl Shorris there would be no Halifax Humanities Programme. Through his writing he inspired our founder here, Gary Thorne, and through meeting him years ago in San Francisco, he inspired me to work to bring humanities courses to those that belonged in the academy of learners but were not going to find their path there in the usual ways. As soon as he found out we were making efforts in Halifax his emails started - supporting us, arguing with us, laughing with us, granting us an ever-wider vision. He visited us as he did a number of programmes in Canada. He led a seminar in our programme that the students and faculty speak of to this day. Earl pushed and critiqued and read and demanded clarity about what we were attempting. What he made clear above all in our contacts right up to his passing was his care and, really, his remarkable unabashed love.
Angus Johnston (Halifax, NS, Canada)
June 3, 2012
The world has lost a champion of hope with the passing of Earl Shorris, and Clemente students in Utah (where we call the course "Venture") have lost a dear and trusted ally. When Earl came here last spring for their graduation, students covered him in leis. The flowers symbolized their gratitude and love but also their renewed hope for their own future. Over and over, they thanked him for bringing radical, positive change into their lives.
Although we will keenly miss his warmth and wisdom, we know that Earl Shorris will live a very, very long time because the idea behind Clemente won't die. More than anyone in the modern world, Earl knew that the study of the humanities has enormous power to, as one student here put it, reconfigure "my maps of self, community and possibility." Earl knew it and he proved it with the least likely of populations--those who are poor, whose lives have been undermined by war, domestic violence, ill health, rotten living conditions, and, maybe the most mundane of all threats to the human spirit, low expectations.
From Utah, we send Sylvia our deepest sympathy and our thanks for the countless ways and times she shared him with us and with so many other places around the world. We will never forget Earl Shorris. He will be remembered every time Kant, Plato, Shakespeare, or Martin Luther King, Jr. is discussed in a Clemente classroom. His spirit will thrive every time a student says, as one did recently, "This has been a life changer for me."
Jean Cheney (Salt Lake City, Utah)
June 6, 2012
I am saddened to learn of Earl Shorris's death, but comforted in knowing that one legacy he leaves is the Clemente Course in Ballarat Australia. The Ballarat community has been inspired by Earl Shorris and the transformational opportunities for people made possible through the Clemente Course. Seven institutions in Ballarat have worked together since 2008 to provide the Clemente Course for Ballarat citizens. As a result, many people's lives have been connected and enriched and Ballarat is a better city because of the Clemente Course. Long may this legacy of Earl Shorris flourish in Ballarat and beyond.
Ann Gervasoni (Ballarat, Victoria, Australia)
June 9, 2012
I'll never forget the moment the Clemente Course became a national program. I, in Seattle, was talking to Earl about being a speaker for the national meeting of humanities councils when he very casually asked me if I thought Washington State would be a good place to start a course. I said yes, and from that moment on it was a national program. I always admired his belief in the power of the program and his openness and drive to expand it in so many different settings. What an amazing man who gave so much to the world!
Linda Capell (Seattle, WA)
June 11, 2012
Dear, Dear Mr Shorris,
I’ve done OK in my 63 years. I’ve been to 30± countries, all 50 states, performed with some of the greatest musicians in the world (famous & not so famous). I dropped out of the 10th grade several times, then for good and joined the Navy – 1965.
Now, now I want to learn. I have cerebral atrophy – 45 years of alcohol. I have been enrolled in the Clementé Course in Port Townsend, Washington, supervised by Lela Hilton, for 4 months.
I’m learning to study. I’ve never taken the initiative to study. I thank you sir for this great gift of simply encouraging me to learn, proactively, finally. You know how it’s done.
Artis (Port Townsend, WA)
June 20, 2012
I can still remember the charge I felt the first time I read Shorris's essay in Harper's. It was the winter of 1998. I had recently graduated from Reed College, and I was living in western Colorado, caretaking a friend's adobe house and recovering from a severe back injury. I discovered the piece in a stack of old magazines and read it next to the picture windows at dusk. Shorris described the Clemente Course as an experiment to test his hypothesis that people could transform their lives by doing the kind of reflective thinking that would lead them towards autonomy--by engaging in the life of the mind. Reading about it in my quiet mountain hideaway, I felt literally electrified, buzzing with the sense that Shorris and his first group of students had traveled across an immense--yet bridgeable--divide.
Silvia Gale (Austin, TX)
June 20, 2012
I like to imagine Sylvia and I reading that article simultaneously across our own divide, this one geographic. I encountered Shorris's essay while teaching composition to freshman at the University of Cincinnati, where I was a graduate student in English. I was young and excited, and surprised to discover my students had to be dragged through a curriculum they considered little more than an inconvenient diversion on their way to careers in business and engineering. In a sly move, the head of the rhetoric department had filled our course reader with texts meant to challenge students to think of their education on broader terms. That's where I first read Shorris. I don't have any idea if the article left an impact on my students, but it certainly affected me. A decade after teaching it, I heard about a similar program being piloted in Austin, and I leapt to be involved.
Vivé Griffith (Austin, TX)
July 9, 2012
"The board of Halifax Humanities 101 extends condolences to the family and friends of Earl Shorris and to his many colleagues in the Clemente Program in the Humanities. Earl was instrumental in getting Halifax Humanities off the ground 8 years ago, both as the inspiration to those who started the program in Halifax, and in giving personal advice and direction as they worked on the pilot project. Earl was always supportive of our efforts here in Halifax, visited us once and taught a class, and always retained a kind and friendly interest in how we were doing. His legacy of educational opportunities for the underprivileged in the US, Canada and around the world is a wonderful testament to a man of vision and compassion."
Mary Lu Redden (Halifax, NS)