Be Safe, Stay Engaged

The Art of Freedom: Teaching Humanities to the Poor

Announcing the release of Earl Shorris' The Art of Freedom: Teaching Humanities to the Poor

The Art of Freedom
Teaching the Humanities to the Poor

By Earl Shorris

Find it in our Bookstore

The Art of Freedom by Earl Shorris

"In the fierce resolve of Clemente champions and in the surging hopes of their intellectually starved students, readers see the world-changing power of humane knowledge."


"To read The Art of Freedom is to learn what should be the first and fundamental purpose of an American education. More instructive than any academic analysis or government policy paper, Earl Shorris's book furnishes both the how and the why to empower the nation's public schools." —Lewis Lapham, editor, Lapham's Quarterly

"Earl Shorris was the most authentic and radical of educators: he thought the poor were human, entitled to know as much as anyone else. Told with verve and humor, this memoir might inspire a revolution."

–John R. MacArthur, president and publisher, Harper's

"Earl Shorris was one of a kind and his story should inspire us all."

–Victor Navasky, publisher emeritus, The Nation

What is the root of poverty? Is there any one answer to this complex question? Social critic and author Earl Shorris's quest for an answer began in a maximum-security prison and led to a surprisingly simple answer: what separates the rich from the poor is the humanities. His investigation into poverty would lead to the founding of the program known as the Clemente Course in the Humanities. In THE ART OF FREEDOM: Teaching the Humanities to the Poor [W. W. Norton & Company; February 18, 2013; hardcover], Shorris tells the stories of the students, teachers, and planners involved in the Clemente Course and how it not only elevates people from poverty but also could potentially change the face of the education system. This is Shorris's final book and is the inspiring story of the Clemente Course through his words.

In 1995, during a visit to a maximum-security prison just north of New York City, Shorris asked an inmate why she believed that people were poor. Her response surprised him with its insight and simplicity: the humanities. This simple interaction led Shorris to question the role of the humanities—as the inmate termed it, "the moral life of downtown"—in shaping reflective, successful citizens. How could attending lectures, museums, concerts, and plays and learning art history, literature, and logic change someone's economic standing? Shorris took this idea and, with a faculty of friends, began teaching the great works of literature and philosophy—from Plato to Kant, from Cervantes to García Márquez—at the college level to dropouts, immigrants, and ex-prisoners at the Roberto Clemente Family Guidance Center in New York.

As Shorris taught low-income and disadvantaged individuals the great works of western culture, he watched as they changed and grew. As he writes in the Introduction, these students came "heroically out of a surround of force, at the edge of hopelessness, to the beauty and clarity of reflective thinking. They and their children are proof that poverty is not a necessary condition of human life." From that first class came two dentists, a nurse, two PhDs, a fashion designer, a drug counselor, and other successes.

Over the next seventeen years the course helped countless people, expanding to nearly twenty U.S. cities and several foreign countries, including Korea, Australia, Canada, and Mexico. In 2000 President Clinton awarded Shorris a National Humanities Medal for his founding of the Clemente Course. Now Shorris has written the stories of those who teach and those who study the humanities—a tribute to the courage of people rising from unspeakable poverty to engage in dialogue with professors from great universities around the world.

In 2011, Shorris came to the conclusion that the humanities should also be taught to young people as well and that a local high school in Chicago would be a good place to start. With a dedicated group of college professors, high school teachers, and administrators, the Clemente Course began again, this time in a Harlan Academy High School freshman classroom on the South Side of Chicago. A new challenge has begun—to see if the Clemente Course will continue to succeed with young students, especially those struggling in our nation's toughest and most violent high schools.

A remarkable and inspiring book, THE ART OF FREEDOM closes on a note of hope—education in the humanities will continue on and will provide an escape from poverty for those who seek it.


Earl Shorris (1936–2012), is the author of many works of both fiction and nonfiction including Latinos, Under the Fifth Sun, In the Language of Kings, and Riches for the Poor. He was awarded a National Humanities Medal by President Clinton for his founding of the Clemente Course in the Humanities®, Inc.

AUTHOR: Earl Shorris
ISBN: 978-0-393-08127-5

PUBLICATION DATE: February 18, 2013
PAGE COUNT: 304 pages

PRICE: $27.95 hardcover

← Return to Newsroom
© The Clemente Course in the Humanities℠, Inc. - All Rights Reserved. | Funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities | Website design Totera Web Systems