The Liberal Arts And Poverty

The late Earl Shorris writes in Harper’s magazine of an interview he had with a female inmate in the Bedford Hills Correctional Facility in New York City:

It is considered bad form in prison to speak of a person’s crime, and I will follow that precise etiquette here. I can tell you that Viniece Walker came to Bedford Hills when she was twenty years old, a high school dropout who read at the level of a college sophomore, a graduate of crackhouses, the streets of Harlem, and a long alliance with a brutal man. On the surface Viniece has remained as tough as she was on the street. She speaks bluntly, and even though she is HIV positive and the virus has progressed during her time in prison, she still swaggers as she walks down the long prison corridors. While in prison, Niecie, as she is known to her friends, completed her high school requirements and began to pursue a college degree (psychology is the only major offered at Bedford Hills, but Niecie also took a special interest in philosophy). She became a counselor to women with a history of family violence and a comforter to those with AIDS.

Only the deaths of other women cause her to stumble in the midst of her swaggering step, to spend days alone with the remorse that drives her to seek redemption. She goes through life as if she had been imagined by Dostoevsky, but even more complex than his fictions, alive, a person, a fair-skinned and freckled African- American woman, and in prison. It was she who responded to my sudden question, “Why do you think people are poor?”

We had never met before. The conversation around us focused on the abuse of women. Niecie’s eyes were perfectly opaque—hostile, prison eyes. Her mouth was set in the beginning of a sneer.

“You got to begin with the children,” she said, speaking rapidly, clipping out the street sounds as they came into her speech.

She paused long enough to let the change of direction take effect, then resumed the rapid, rhythmless speech. “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.”

I smiled at her, misunderstanding, thinking I was indulging her. “And then they won’t be poor anymore?”

She read every nuance of my response, and answered angrily, “And they won’t be poor no more.”

“What you mean is—”

“What I mean is what I said—a moral alternative to the street.”

Based on this interview, he designed a class attempting to teach inner-city kids the humanities. In the first lesson, he said this:

Having failed in the South Bronx, I resolved to approach these prospective students differently. “You’ve been cheated,” I said. “Rich people learn the humanities; you didn’t. The humanities are a foundation for getting along in the world, for thinking, for learning to reflect on the world instead of just reacting to whatever force is turned against you. I think the humanities are one of the ways to become political, and I don’t mean political in the sense of voting in an election but in the broad sense.” I told them Thucydides’ definition of politics.

“Rich people know politics in that sense. They know how to negotiate instead of using force. They know how to use politics to get along, to get power. It doesn’t mean that rich people are good and poor people are bad. It simply means that rich people know a more effective method for living in this society.

“Do all rich people, or people who are in the middle, know the humanities? Not a chance. But some do. And it helps. It helps to live better and enjoy life more. Will the humanities make you rich? Yes. Absolutely. But not in terms of money. In terms of life.

“Rich people learn the humanities in private schools and expensive universities. And that’s one of the ways in which they learn the political life. I think that is the real difference between the haves and have-nots in this country. If you want real power, legitimate power, the kind that comes from the people and belongs to the people, you must understand politics. The humanities will help.

I know this is not the first time we’ve heard this story; it has been the plot of a few feel-good movies. But it is nevertheless both remarkable and encouraging that the greatest treasures of human civilization can still have a redemptive effect on people. (And if you want to read the specifics, do check out the whole article, and the book that will be published next year related to the subject: The Art of Freedom: Teaching the Humanities to the Poor.)