History

The Clemente Course in the Humanities

The Humanities Program was inspired by the Clemente Course in the Humanities, which was founded by American writer and cultural critic Earl Shorris in 1995 in New York City. Through the Clemente Course, Shorris taught the humanities to adults living in poverty and helped to engage them with the broader political community. In his book, Riches for the Poor: The Clemente Course in the Humanities, Shorris writes, “To live in poverty . . . is to live according to the rules of force, which push people out of the free space of public life into the private concerns of mere survival” (32). Shorris proposes that studying the humanities can allow the “multigenerational poor” to “recreate themselves.” Thus, Shorris and others understand the Clemente Course model and its focus on critical thinking and dialogue, as an avenue into politics and, hopefully, out of poverty. Variations of the Clemente Course have been instituted at universities across the United States and Canada. In October 2008, a Radical Humanities Symposium hosted by the University of Calgary brought together representatives from nine such programs across Canada, including the University of Alberta. 

The Humanities Program at the University of Alberta

In 2004, a small group initiated a Humanities program at the University of Alberta. They built partnerships with community organizations and held classes at the John Howard Society (JHS) and in the Boyle Street Community Services Centre. This initial course at the JHS ran as part of the organization’s Alternative Education program and was focused on Native Studies. The classes at Boyle Street were largely centered participatory learning and projects, such as a photography course. In 2005, the program was financially supported by the Alberta Public Interest and Research Group (APIRG). But in 2005, the Humanities Program was discontinued. 

After a three-year hiatus, with the support of the Community Service-Learning (CSL) Program at the University of Alberta, the Humanities Program was renewed with a seven-week pilot course in Native Studies that ran in the summer of 2008. The second phase of the pilot project was a semester-long survey of the humanities , which ran from September to December, 2008. Since then, the Humanities Program has continued to offer courses each term.

Starting in Fall 2016, due to demand, the Humanities Program will be piloting a weekly on-campus seminar series, in addition to our lecture series.

How the Humanities Program Differs from the Clemente Course

It is important to note that the current incarnation of the Humanities Program at the University of Alberta differs from the Clemente Course in a two crucial ways: 1. in curriculum, and 2. in location. Although the Clemente Course has no core curriculum, Shorris insists that the classics (Plato, Aristotle, and other key thinkers in the Western philosophical and literary canon) are foundational to “empowering the poor” and are therefore foundational to the Clemente Course. The Humanities Program at the University of Alberta has had a much more flexible curriculum that draws on the areas of expertise of our instructors. The other key variation between Humanities 101 and the Clemente Course isthat our program has prerequisites, an application process, and literacy requirements.