LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:
Twenty years ago, a writer in New York City decided the poorest members of society should have the same access as wealthier people to learning just for the sake of learning. Beth Fertig, of member station WNYC, visited a program in Harlem that does just that.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Can you live a good life in a society where people are doing different things?
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Of course, within your own...
BETH FERTIG, BYLINE: Visiting a Clemente course is like watching a bunch of passionate freshmen staying up all night in their dorm debating an assignment.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Let's look because we're on a search.
FERTIG: 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.
RENEE MITCHELL: I was so freaking nervous because I felt so dumb, you know, and I felt like I was too old. I'm out there like (laughter).
FERTIG: Mitchell is a secretary who came to the class last fall. It's held at a Harlem social services agency. The Clemente course is for low-income adults to study philosophy, history and art. Mitchell thought it could help her get a college degree and earn more money, but she recalls how hard it was when she tried to write her first philosophy paper.
MITCHELL: Remember when I kept saying I couldn't do it?
DAVID KITTAY: Yeah, I remember that.
FERTIG: That's her philosophy teacher David Kittay, who 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.
STARLING LAWRENCE: His solution to poverty was to encourage a life of - insofar as it was possible - a life of reflection. 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.
FERTIG: 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, more than half of whom 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 they get it.
KITTAY: It's amazing. There's so much wisdom, and when we study philosophy and literature, that's about wisdom.
MITCHELL: Yes, like, I never even knew of these people like Descartes and Kant.
FERTIG: Mitchell says it was eye-opening.
MITCHELL: Just to read about people like - even Socrates, of course, I've heard of him, but just reading about all of these great thinkers, 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.
FERTIG: You hear that a lot at Clemente. Vanessa Koritsi says she sees how history, like great works of literature, connects to what's going on today.
VANESSA KORITSI: 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 - whatever - was the same life happening.
FERTIG: 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.
KORITSI: I can't worry with expenses. I got this far as I am, so I can't assume why it can't be done. I know it can be done and I know there are ways of getting assistance.
FERTIG: Kittay was so impressed by Koritsi's 40-page essay about Plato's Cave that he is 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 here in New York, even if college ultimately isn't for everyone.
KITTAY: We have a lot of people this year and last year who may not desire to go on with, you know - and seek a college education.
FERTIG: And that's OK, he says, because the primary goal is just to expose them to the power of learning. For NPR News, I'm Beth Fertig in New York.
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