Clemente Course Brought Humanities Classes to those in Economic Distress

In this installment of 40 Years of Washington Stories, we look at The Clemente Course, which brought college-level humanities classes to lower-income students.

Humanities Washington Clemente Course graduates and tutors in Spring 2000. The course offered college-level humanities classes to low-income individuals.

Humanities Washington Clemente Course graduates and tutors in Spring 2000. The course offered college-level humanities classes to low-income individuals.

Humanities Washington is celebrating our 40th anniversary with 40 Years of Washington Stories. Each week on Spark, we’ll offer a snapshot from our past, sharing forty years of stories that have helped shape the humanities in Washington state.

For those facing the myriad struggles of life in poverty, college-level humanities courses might seem like an unattainable extravagance. The Clemente Courses were designed by American writer and social critic Earl Shorris in 1995 to prove that this was not the case. By providing transportation, childcare and other logistical support, Shorris believed that people living close to the poverty line could benefit enormously from a rigorous course in the humanities, taught by top-caliber college professors. Students received transferable credit from Bard College. The course takes its name from the Roberto Clemente Family Guidance Center in Lower Manhattan, where the first set of classes were held.

In 1997, the Clemente Course came to Seattle by way of Humanities Washington. Lyall Bush, then-program director for Humanities Washington, recruited several University of Washington and community college professors to serve as faculty for the project. Courses were taught in US history, art history, moral philosophy and literature, and held at El Centro De La Raza and the Seattle Mental Health Institute. The Seattle Clemente Courses graduated four years of students, some of whom were granted college credit by Bard College, some of whom went on to two and four year degree programs, and all of whom gained previously inaccessible exposure to the humanities.

The Seattle Clemente Course ended in 2002, but in 2007, the annual Humanities Washington Award was given to Lela Hilton, who founded and still runs the first rural Clemente Course in Jefferson County, Washington. In a 2002 discussion with Bush, Hilton said the course helped students “uncover a hunger to be more engaged, to understand the system better, [and] to criticize it with some authority.”

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