Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Charleston Clemente Course at Trident

By David Zidlick

I have found that life is not always fair, and life is not always equal. But one trait mankind has always shared is the desire to prevail against life’s challenges. There have always been those who refused to quit, who refused to stop trying. Poverty, homelessness or a life isolated from the opportunities of a formal education can be among the most difficult challenges one can face. I faced these challenges myself. “Book learning” did not seem as immediately practical as the “school of hard knocks,” but I learned through the Clemente Course that the skills learned in school are invaluable. Those skills not only helped me meet my basic needs, but they gave me the tools to advance my life.

The idea for the Clemente Course began in 1995 in New York. Earl Shorris, in conjunction with Bard College, created a college-level course for people disadvantaged by poverty as well as those who have been out of school for some time. To someone who has never come face-to-face with these types of obstacles, the grinding struggle to simply survive is difficult to picture. The way forward seems hopelessly difficult and too full of hurdles. Shorris hoped that studying the Humanities (Art, Literature, Philosophy and History) would help provide the skills needed to move forward. The name of this course is The Clemente Course for the Humanities. The course was named for Roberto Clemente, who was not only a legendary baseball player, but also a dedicated humanitarian until his death in 1972 when his plane went down while attempting to bring relief supplies to earthquake devastated Nicaragua.

The Clemente course grew out of research for a book on poverty, its sources and the effects these challenges had on people’s lives. During Shorris’ research, a realization dawned, largely inspired by the people he interviewed. The ability to see problems from a distance, in a philosophical light, was a skill many disadvantaged people had not learned. As an inmate in a correctional institute, who was pursuing her college degree while there, said, "You've got to teach the moral life of downtown to the children. And the way you do that, Earl, is by taking them downtown to plays, museums, concerts, lectures, where they can learn the moral life of downtown."

It is a skill many people take for granted as part of school and growing up. But for others, the immediate needs of something to eat, a place to lay their heads, medical care and making it to the bus stop on time does not leave much room for philosophical pondering. Yet, it is a perspective that can help a person break the bonds of poverty and move forward to a more successful and positive life.

Trident Technical College launched its innovative Charleston Clemente Course in January of 2005. The only Clemente Course in South Carolina, it was launched thanks to the vision and hard work of Dr. Mary Ann Kohli, an English professor at Trident Technical College.

As a graduate of the first semester of Clemente, and currently enrolled in the second semester, I know first-hand the benefits offered to its students. Having spent most of last year homeless, I dealt with the shock of simply surviving and looking for work.  Returning to school was the last thing on my mind. Shortly after I moved into a shelter, a buddy mentioned Clemente and suggested I take it with him. It was the best thing that could have happened.

In addition to free tuition, a very welcome meal, books and a bus pass without which getting to class would be impossible for many, I experienced a boost in self-esteem and a growing belief in my ability to succeed.

Now I am back in school and pursuing my major. Clemente opened the door to pursue my interests in English and writing for the first time in decades.  While studying Plato, Shakespeare and the Chinese Dao de Jing was daunting, it awakened thought processes almost paralyzed by circumstance. Likewise, re-learning American history, much of which I admit I had forgotten, has reconnected me with our country, what inspired its formation and the process by which it runs. The Clemente Course provides skills which go far beyond the classroom. 


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