Magazine article U.S. Catholic

Reading Socrates on the Streets: The Great Books Can Inform and Inspire People from All Walks of Life-Even Those Who Find Themselves Staying in a Homeless Shelter

Magazine article U.S. Catholic

Reading Socrates on the Streets: The Great Books Can Inform and Inspire People from All Walks of Life-Even Those Who Find Themselves Staying in a Homeless Shelter

Article excerpt

The Hebrew word for the poor is anawim, which in the Hebrew Bible literally means "little breaths." Thinking of the poor as "little breaths" calls attention as much to a lack of power and influence as it does to a lack of material goods. Donald Trump once declared bankruptcy, but Donald Trump never lacked influence. He was never poor.

Today, knowledge is power. Many private and Catholic universities are wealthy institutions sustained by large endowments and ample tuition revenues. This is certainly the case at the University of Notre Dame, where we have taught for three decades in the Program of Liberal Studies, the university's freestanding undergraduate Great Books department. The great books movement began at Columbia University in the 1920s as a way to open university walls to people who had neither the time nor the resources to be traditional students. Convinced that working men and women would benefit from the challenges posed by great works in the arts, humanities, and social sciences, the founders of the movement developed a curriculum to be offered in evening seminars to those who otherwise would not have access to university instruction.

One direct response to poverty is to help the anawim find their breath and their voice. To enable the poor to breathe and speak for themselves is to participate in the ongoing creative activity of God. Education is all about breath and words. Education leads to power. From our earliest years at Notre Dame, we were inspired by the founding vision of breaking down university walls, but it took the humbling example of our students' commitment to volunteer work while at school and, in gratifyingly many cases, for a dedicated year or two after graduation to spur us, or embarrass us, into action.

At just the right moment, we discovered Earl Shorris' account in his 1997 New American Blues: A Journey Through Poverty to Democracy (W. W. Norton) of a for-credit series of courses, taught by university professors at Columbia and elsewhere, to New York City's poorest. With more than enough reasons to forge ahead, in 1998 we began a series of great books seminars at South Bend's Center for the Homeless.

Because the life circumstances of guests of the center often change quickly and are unpredictable, we decided to offer a sequence of three eight-week units, with credit to be awarded at the completion of the course. We organized the units thematically beginning with "Justice and Tyranny," moving to "Self-Discovery," and concluding with "God and Nature." The reading lists were as challenging as those we assigned to our own rigorously selected undergraduates. Our homeless students read, among others, Homer, Sophocles, Euripides, Plato, Augustine, Aquinas, Petrarch, Machiavelli, Montaigne, Shakespeare, Milton, Melville, Frederick Douglass, Virginia Woolf, Martin Luther King Jr., Wallace Stevens, Flannery O'Connor, and Naguib Mahfouz.

In our great books seminars, professors neither lecture nor tell our students what the books mean; instead, we are fellow students who help our classes develop their own informed readings. Students gain confidence as they gain competence. Most of our students at the center never expected to sit in a university classroom. The learning curve is steep, but most of the time they ascend it rapidly and eagerly.

Our students regularly call attention to the energy that comes from intellectual engagement and self-examination. The value of this course for students is not so much about the particular content of the course but rather the sustenance of the spirit. In proving their competence to others, our students also prove it to themselves. Experiencing homelessness or losing one's job and one's family is a terrible blow to one's sense of self-esteem. Succeeding with such a challenging curriculum helps our students gain confidence. The seminar context of the class gives the students an opportunity to develop their skills of interpretation and expression. …

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