From Everyday Heroes: 50 Americans Changing the World One Nonprofit at a Time by Katrina Fried/Photography ©2012 Paul Mobley

Professor of freedom

Earl Shorris, EX’54, established a free humanities course to help impoverished adults escape the “surround of force” that restricts their lives.

The idea came to him in prison. At work in the early 1990s on a book about poverty in America, Earl Shorris, EX’54, met an inmate named Viniece Walker. He asked her, “Why do you think people are poor?”

Walker’s answer, “Because they don’t have the moral life of downtown,” led to a conversation that teased out her belief in a cultural deficit that transcended money. Exposing the poor to plays, museums, concerts, and lectures, Walker suggested, could give them a larger view of the world and their place in it.

“What you mean is the humanities,” Shorris said.

“Yes, Earl,” Walker said, disdainfully in his retelling, “the humanities.”

He was chastened into action. Their exchange became the origin story of the Clemente Course in the Humanities, conceived as a corrective to the educational deprivations of poverty.

Open to adults with a household income of less than 150 percent of the poverty level, the free courses began in 1995 at Manhattan’s Roberto Clemente Family Guidance Center (hence the program’s name). Inspired by Walker, Shorris marshaled a college-level survey of history, philosophy, art, literature. He heeded the Robert Maynard Hutchins mantra that “the best education for the best is the best education for us all,” recruiting faculty over the years from Harvard, MIT, Columbia, and UChicago, among others. “He was emphatic on how he wanted nothing but the best for these courses,” says Bart Schultz, PhD’87, executive director of the Humanities Division’s Civic Knowledge Project, which helps support Clemente’s Chicago incarnation. “He wanted top-rated faculty. This wasn’t going to be a new sort of employment opportunity for graduate students.”

Amy Thomas Elder, AM’93, has directed Chicago’s Clemente program, called the Odyssey Project, since 2000. She and Shorris were kindred spirits and sparring partners. They shared a belief in the transformative power of education even as they argued over curriculum.

Shorris visited Thomas Elder before she started, preaching the Clemente gospel, its philosophy and expectations, and its jailhouse genesis. The concept for the course was “brilliant,” Thomas Elder says, but it required curricular flexibility that Shorris was at first hesitant to allow. She insisted that dictating content to accomplished professors—“Have you been at the University of Chicago lately?” she says with a laugh—would not fly. “Amy was right,” Shorris wrote in The Art of Freedom: Teaching the Humanities to the Poor (W. W. Norton, 2013). “Starting with Chicago, every course in every city and every country would begin with a struggle over the curriculum.”

Whatever the syllabus, the concept has been successful, with 22 courses currently operating in 12 states and Canada. There are also programs in Puerto Rico and Australia. More than 10,000 students have attended around the world, including courses that have been offered in Sudan, South Korea, Chile, and Mexico. In 2000 Shorris received the National Humanities Medal in recognition of their cultural impact.

Many of the students have gone on to higher education, although Shorris had an ambition at once simpler and grander: to instill a sense of freedom in people navigating what he called the “surround of force” that defines poverty. “You put 25 serious adults in a room with some great books and a teacher who wants to be there and it’s magic. It just always works. And profoundly,” Thomas Elder says. “It’s the most profound education happening.”

Judy Razo experienced such a transformation. She came to the United States from Guadalajara, Mexico, in 1985 as an 18-year-old, illiterate “even in my own language.” Now 45, Razo is on track to receive a psychology degree from Chicago’s Roosevelt University this summer with plans to go on to graduate school.

After completing a Spanish-language Odyssey Project course seven years ago, Razo wrote a thank-you letter to Shorris and the two became pen pals. By then he was ill with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. If he felt well enough, Razo told him, she would visit him in New York, and he soon extended an invitation.

On a walk around Central Park, she bought soft pretzels to feed the pigeons (“his idea,” Razo says). While they sat on a bench, sipped coffee, and talked about Mexico, Shorris idly noshed on the pigeons’ snack. When she realized they were gone, Razo blurted, “You ate the fucking pretzels!” Shorris spit out his coffee and for the next several minutes they were lost in a cascade of laughter, compounded by Shorris trying—and failing—to lift Razo off the grass, where she had fallen in hysterics.

If his vision was single-minded, Shorris always had a gleam in his eye. His eclectic interests led him to Mexico as a journalist—and sometime bullfighter—after leaving the College. His 1968 novel, The Boots of the Virgin (Delacorte Press), featured a hapless toreador named Sol Feldman, known as “El Sol.”

Settling in San Francisco with his wife, Sylvia, and two young sons, Shorris relished the 1960s countercultural spirit. His son James remembers going to a Grateful Dead concert with his dad at age 6 or 7, and how Shorris would pick up hitchhikers while driving him to school “because he loved to talk to people.”

They loved talking to him too, drawn to his ability to forge connections across racial, social, and political divides with warmth and good humor. “He was rather Santa Claus–like,” Schultz says. “He was just a radiant personality.”

More than anything else, Shorris radiated intellectual energy, constantly evangelizing for education in all its forms. “All the time. Literally all the time,” James Shorris says. “He talked about it all the time.” If he used a word one of his sons didn’t know, James adds, they marched to the dictionary to look up its definition “and its roots and etymology.”

For Shorris, the virtue of learning as an end in itself extended to everyone. “What he liked from the start was the more radical side, the more democratic side of the Hutchins experiment,” Schultz says. “Although he could sometimes sound like it, he was never as insistent as Mortimer Adler in making a list of the 100 greatest books or something like that. He was much, much more multicultural and the Clemente Courses really reflected that.”

The courses have become multigenerational too. In 2011 he prodded a reluctant Thomas Elder into establishing a Chicago high school program.

Around the same time Schultz introduced him to Dovetta McKee, the University’s director of special programs and college preparation. “Earl, in his inimitable fashion, walked through the door with this big bright smile on his face,” McKee recalls, “and he said, ‘I feel the connection right away.’” Within 24 hours Shorris had swept her into the fold, introducing her at an organizing committee meeting as a “partner” in the high school project. McKee was soon the committee chair.

Another immediate devotee of his personality and philosophy, McKee nevertheless had moments of doubt, about the Chicago Public Schools bureaucracy and her own overcrowded schedule compromising the program. In person and later in daily phone and e-mail communications that continued even while he went through chemotherapy, Shorris infused her with his optimism.

McKee still draws on the memory of those conversations—“What would Earl say?”—to inspire herself in administering the course at Chicago’s Harlan Community Academy, now in its third year. “He was always very willing to come out and sort of hypnotize people into seeing things his way, convincing people that this was something that they could and should do,” McKee says. “That was Earl.”

He wouldn’t take “can’t” for an answer. Philosophy, for example, didn’t translate to high school students as far as Thomas Elder was concerned. She made her case to Shorris, who suggested she read them a quote in Plato’s Euthydemus about how philosophical knowledge is necessary for success. “I found this passage in the Euthydemus and I took it in there,” she says, “and it was the worst class I have ever tried to teach anyone, ever, anywhere.”

Again she pleaded impossibility. Shorris, still undergoing chemotherapy, intervened, flying to Chicago to make his case to the class. “He was really sick,” Thomas Elder says, “but he was not going to hear that these 14-year-olds couldn’t do philosophy the way he wanted them to do it.” His personal appeal, she adds, “got everybody all fired up.”

Months before his death in 2012, so weak he had trouble walking, Shorris could not be talked out of another trip, this one to Puerto Rico to help establish a Clemente Course there. “He felt it was his mission,” James Shorris says.

A mission that could be summed up in a passage from The Art of Freedom about one graduate’s ultimate lesson. Her professors, Earl Shorris wrote, “taught her to love freedom, which is the end of education and the hope of democracy.”