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Lifted up by liberal arts

Dropouts, the homeless, new immigrants find a special humanities course enriches their lives and can open the door to college

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It's a bleak Monday evening in February and a thick, damp snow is falling on the streets of New York City's East Village. The few pedestrians appear to be making rapid tracks for home.

But inside the Roberto Clemente Community Center, no one is rushing. Instead, about 18 eager seekers are clustered around a long table, searching Plato's "Republic" in contemplation of the question "Why be moral?"

Melting snow is still dripping off their jackets, but their faces are a picture of concentration.

These students are the beneficiaries of a program with a quixotic goal: to transform society by bringing the liberal arts to those without financial means. Enrollees in the Bard College Clemente Course in the Humanities include dropouts, former inmates, homeless people, new immigrants.

Offered in 12 US cities, it focuses on the "great books," the Western canon of culture, philosophy, and literature.

The curriculum is a bit out of step with the pragmatic approach prevailing in many realms of higher education, where students (and parents) want to see a direct correlation between education and earning power.

But Clemente's founder, New York

author Earl Shorris, believes this traditional core of knowledge is exactly what's needed to help expand mental horizons, sharpen thinking skills, and promote greater reflection. He calculated that strengthening the inner lives of individuals would also be a means of improving their outward conditions.

"This is for people who for one reason or another have been shut out of the educational system," says Robert Martin, associate dean of Bard College in Annandale-on-Hudson, N.Y. For the students, many of whom are encountering Plato and Shakespeare and Dante for the first time - the course "is about a door opening," he says.

Take Francisco Correa, an immigrant from Mexico who says he had always dreamed of becoming well educated but didn't see the means of pursuing that goal until he found this class. "You're getting double here," he says. "It opens the door to college, but it also enriches your personal life."

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