When we talk about higher education for the poor, we often mean community colleges and getting a degree in order to make more money. But 20 years ago, a writer in New York City decided that the poorest members of society should have the same access as wealthier people to learning, just for the sake of learning.
I visited one of these programs — called a Clemente course — in Harlem on a Thursday night.
"Can you live in a good life in a society where people are doing different things?" asks the teacher. "Of course," replies a student.
Sitting in on a Clemente course is like watching a bunch of passionate freshman staying up all night in their dorm debating an assignment.
But rather than a room full of teenagers, the students ranged in age from mid-20s to their 70s. They have to be low-income to attend and they are all interviewed before being accepted.
Among the nearly 30 students in this class, there's a rape survivor who says she suffers from panic attacks. There's a former inmate who's now a prison reform advocate. And there are several working mothers like Renee Mitchell.
"I was so freaking nervous," Mitchell says, "because I felt so dumb. You know, I felt like I was too old."
Mitchell is a secretary who came to this class, held at a Harlem social service agency, last fall. The Clemente course is for low-income adults wishing to study philosophy, history and art. She thought it could help her get a college degree, and earn more money. But Mitchell recalls how hard it was when she tried to write her first philosophy paper.
"Remember when I kept saying I couldn't do it?" Mitchell asks her philosophy teacher, David Kittay.
"I remember," he says, laughing.
Kittay also teaches religion at Columbia University. He started this particular course in Harlem, after reading an obituary for Clemente's founder, Earl Shorris, who died three years ago. Starling Lawrence, of the publishing company W.W. Norton, was his editor.
"His solution to poverty was to encourage a life of, insofar as it was possible, a life of reflection," says Lawrence. "He said if you are armed with that, if you can deal with the things that life throws at you, then you can handle those things."
The Clemente course is now in 24 sites in the United States, plus several other countries. Lawrence still serves as its president. Those who finish can earn six credits for college. Clemente's leaders say 10,000 people have attended over the past 20 years and more than half of them have completed it. Each course is independently run. The Harlem one partners with Bard College.
Kittay says a lot of his students struggled at first, but eventually they get it. "It's amazing," he says. "There's so much wisdom. And when we study philosophy and literature, that's about wisdom."
"Yes," says Mitchell, "like I never even knew about these people like Descartes and Kant."
For her, it was eye-opening.
"Just to read about, people like, even Socrates, of course I've heard of him, but just reading about all of these great thinkers," Mitchell says, "it made me feel like I missed something, realizing that there's different ways to think about something that I thought about all the time."
You hear that a lot at Clemente. Another student, Vanessa Koritsi, says she sees how history, like great works of literature, connects to what's going on today.
"What we experienced, now, they were doing the same thing, thinking the same thoughts, having the same issues, whether it's politics, whether it's gender, whether it's war," Koritsi says. "Whatever, it was the same life happening."
Until a few years ago, Koritsi was an undocumented immigrant working odd jobs in the restaurant industry. But she was granted asylum because of the persecution she faced back home in Trinidad and Tobago. Koritsi is transgender. She's now living in a homeless shelter while figuring out her next steps. For the first time, she's yearning to go to college.
"I can't worry with expenses. I got this far, as I am," Koritsi says. "It can be done, and there are ways of getting assistance."
Kittay was so impressed by Koritsi's 40-page essay about Plato's Cave that he's trying to help her get into Columbia. But he freely acknowledges other Clemente students have trouble with academic writing, which is why he brought in some tutors. He's now fundraising to expand the program in New York, even if college ultimately isn't for everyone.
"We have a lot of people this year and last year who may not desire to go on with and seek a college education," Kittay says.
And that's OK, he says, because the primary goal is to just expose them to the power of learning.