Bon Voyage

I saw one of my all-time favorite students last Friday afternoon. She took my Introduction to Humanities course in an accelerated evening section nearly three years ago, and I've only seen her a few times since. I did, however, write about her once before on this blog (Leaning In). She is so bright and wonderful. I would love to have a room full of students just like her.  Anyway, the rest of the faculty and I were standing in academic attire--robes and funny hats--waiting to enter the field house for Honors Convocation. Suddenly there she was. I made some remark about how she couldn't be graduating already, and she said she was. Then she said, "After I graduate, I'm going to Europe for a few months. It was your class that really made me want to go."

My class? Really? The one where I made you, a bright and intellectually curious African American woman, read Homer, Plato, Seneca, Augustine and Dante? The one that you were ready to quit after the first night but instead gave it a try and ended up writing insightfully about Hector, Achilles and the fragility and beauty of human life? If I recall, that was the course in which one of your classmates--an adult Bosnian immigrant--said she usually sold back her books at the end of each semester but thought she just might hang on to the Iliad and read it again.

No, it can't be. Everyone knows these tired old eurocentric male "classics" are no longer relevant to the lives our students lead today, especially to minorities and women. They need something that affirms their individual identity and speaks in their voice.

Tell that to the folks who run the Clemente Courses, an academic program designed for people living at or just above the federal poverty-level. The curriculum is comprised of Humanities courses in literature, poetry, painting, moral philosophy, architecture, and U.S. history. The program emphasizes masterpieces in each field and the great works of the Western tradition, but voices from non-Western traditions are not ignored. Students who complete the courses say things like this:
It's been a life-changing experience. I just got back from the bookstore, where I bought the books I've decided to read this summer. Wuthering Heights, Walden, Siddhartha, Dubliners, Aristotle's Poetics. And Walt Whitman has become my favorite poet, and I was never interested in poetry before. I thought art history was going to be dull, but I loved it. I went to the Chuck Close exhibit three times on my own, and I'm really looking forward to the Impressionist show. Reading Marcus Aurelius has changed how I deal with other people. I have more compassion and patience; I remind myself to stop talking and listen, trying not to be vexed by the little things. You hear about the thirst for knowledge. Well I've had a sip of clear water, and now I'm thirsting for a lot more.
To be honest, it wasn't my course and it certainly wasn't me that opened up new possibilities for my former student. I wish I could take credit for it, but I can't. That credit goes to Mssrs. Homer, Plato and Dante, and to Amber and her wonderful mind. I was just lucky to be around when a door opened.

Bon Voyage, Amber!


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