Review: The Art of Freedom: Teaching the Humanities to the Poor

Book cover to The Art of Freedom by Earl Shorris
The Art of Freedom: Teaching the Humanities to the Poor by Earl Shorris
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

There are things I really like about this book. The author makes a compelling argument of taking the time and resources to actively engage with poor (and often those also marginalized by their identity) with the humanities, specifically through the Clemente course program. More importantly, he has spent his life setting up such programs in so many different parts of the world; from Alaska to Mexico to Chicago to South Korean to Darfur. To hear the ways in which the humanities impact the daily lives of people and help them further explore and articulate their place in the world is so powerful. I am entirely appreciative of Shorris' work and willingness to do this work and share his experiences. It validates so much of what many educators of the liberal arts have said for generations. So that's the part that I really liked. However, there are two aspects that make this book hard to fully appreciate or give it more than 2 stars. The first is that while he often praises and recognizes the efforts of the students in attendance or the ones that succeed, he also come across as a bit too elitist and disregarding of those that aren't fully in his circle and way of doing things (unless, of course, they eventually convince him of the value of their way). It's hard to pinpoint but it just pops up when he discusses others at times and his emphasis on the importance of status of the educators. Secondly, and more challenging, is his objectification of women. It seems strange that this book was not better edited in this regard. Nearly every woman that he discusses is usually talked about in their level of attractiveness. Some he muses are beautiful and could be models (with racialize and ethnocentralize views that almost seem to indicate that he is surprised to find these people of color both beautiful and intelligent). At other times, he comments on women being fat and unattractive. He does occasionally make similar comments about men but not nearly at the same rate and overall, it's irrelevant to the actual purpose of the book (at least, one would hope and assume). The result is that he has written a hagiography of the humanities and its impact to turn poor folks into critical thinkers while offering a book that feels at times less able to do that same critical thinking and more focused on him.

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