Earl Shorris seeks to make trouble.

An older picture of the humanities advocate.

“I want to ask all of you to join me in making trouble,” declared National Humanities medal winner Earl Shorris during a lunchtime session at the University of Chicago’s School of Service Administration last Thursday.”The mission here is to make the poor dangerous.”

The balding, bespectacled would-be troublemaker’s weapon to fight poverty: the humanities.

Having taken his method of combating what he called the “surround of force”-by that he means the range of elements in poor communities that have the effect of dulling residents’ humanity-around the globe, Shorris said he wants for the first time to place his curriculum in a high school.

A South Side Chicago high school, to be precise.

Shorris said he’s worked with 12,000 students in five continents, adding that his curriculum enables them to “exercise their own innate humanity at the highest level.”  Studying the humanities helps people expand their horizons and be more reflective, he said.

Shorris talked about a four-year curriculum and a collaboration between university professors and Chicago Teacher’s Union members.  First-year readings and artwork he mentioned included Plato’s Allegory of a Cave, The Apology by Crito and artwork from Benin.

Shorris combined avuncular charm-he repeatedly asked people who made statements he found appealing, “Will you work with me?”-with a native New Yorker’s feistiness.  At moments he seemed dogmatic and to be implying that no one in Chicago to date has ever taught the humanities.  On the one hand, he said that the professors would be paid because they were not performing acts of charity, while on the other hand he boasted about how inexpensive his courses would be.

On a more philosophical level, while Shorris’ point that it’s cheaper to educate people than to fix the conditions that create the ‘surround of force’ may be true, that fact  should not signal the end of that goal

Still, to me there was something appealing about a firm insistence on the humanities’ importance and liberating potential.  I didn’t leave the lecture convinced that Shorris’ vision was the right way to go, but I did want to take another look at the Allegory of the Cave and to follow his progress.


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