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A community Partnership

A Community Partnership

Westminster and the Utah Humanities Council’s Bold Venture 

by Jean Cheney, PhD, and Bridget M. Newell, PhD

All eyes are on Barbra. As she studies the essay on the table before her, she looks over to me, then to her classmates. She speaks slowly, deliberately. “I didn’t like this essay,” she begins. “I don’t think Ed Abbey is being honest. He contradicts himself. He’s arrogant. He thinks everyone wants to do what he’s doing—float down a river. He loves the solitary life, but not everyone is like him.”

Dot Richeda Makes a PointWe’re reading the Abbey essay at the request of another student, Lisa, who takes up the challenge. “I think he’s right on,” she says. “He’s describing how he feels while he’s on the river, how awesome it is. And he’s angry that they’re going to dam that canyon. He’s really angry at the stupidity, that they
aren’t caring about what is being lost.”

Arms go up around the table and the class takes it from there, some supporting Abbey’s contention that when Glen Canyon was dammed an irreplaceable treasure was lost, others arguing that Abbey is short-sighted, unaware of needs besides those of nature lovers. I act as referee, occasionally asking for clarification or support for a claim. But for the most part, the class debates the value of Ed Abbey’s perspective among themselves, sometimes heatedly. Barbra watches in awe. This is all new to her, a passionate but civil debate: About an idea. About a piece of writing. People challenging her opinions, but not her, not who she is. People arguing their truth but listening, too. Asking questions. Is this what people do in college?

“We’ve been waiting for you, Bridget!” Dot exclaims. Steve smiles, “Yeah, we’re ready!” On the first day, the students’ questions came from all sides. Last semester’s classes and professors had hooked them. They were eager, engaged, inquisitive. They welcomed me to their world and couldn’t wait to begin. After an hour of rapid-fire questions about philosophy, I asked if they wanted a break—most had come after a full day’s work. “No! Keep going!”

On the last day and every day in between, the energy persisted, sometimes in explosive bursts, sometimes in contagious episodes. Occasionally, it was indignant: “What does it matter if god is male? Why ask that question?” Often students responded with humor: “What kind of—uh person—was Descartes to not know whether he was dreaming?

As we discussed Plato’s Allegory of the Cave on the last day, I hoped they would “get it.” Philosophy is hard. It challenges us to face the possibility that we don’t know what we think we know. It can take the ground out from under us. But at the same time it reveals the power of our minds, elevating us to a place we didn’t know existed.

We return to the cave for the others, but they think we’re stumbling in the dark…

“Yeah, it’s like trying to talk to someone who only wants to discuss lipstick and makeup. I don’t want to discuss that. But they won’t listen or talk when I bring up philosophy.”

“I use a completely different language when I speak to my friends and family. I can’t be my new self
with them.”

“My children were outside the cave. Now I am too, and we can talk.”

They got it. And I didn’t want it to end.
These are glimpses into The Venture Course in the Humanities, a year-long, college-level course in literature, art history, critical writing, history, and philosophy. Five professors collaborated to plan and teach this class to a remarkable group of students: the two of us from Westminster College, and University of Utah professors Jennifer Bauman, Jeff Metcalf, and Jack Newell.

The 20 Venture students came from all parts of the valley and represented a variety of cultures: Hispanic, Japanese, Anglo, Iranian, Somalian, Lebanese. The youngest was 17; the oldest, 62. All worked in low-paying jobs and had had little, if any, college experience. Some had known homelessness, drug addiction, prison. Many were single parents or grandparents. Many had worked in their jobs for years, with little chance for advancement. All met the requirements for the course: a desire to challenge themselves with a college-level course, a low income, and the ability to read a newspaper in English. Of the 20 students who began, 16 successfully completed all papers and readings required over the two semesters.

The Venture Course is modeled on The Clemente Course in the Humanities in New York City, the brainchild of author and social activist Earl Shorris. A long-time student of the chronically poor, Shorris developed Clemente after talking with an inmate in a maximum-security prison, Viniece Walker. To address poverty, she told Shorris, “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.”

Walker’s advice reinforced Shorris’s growing conviction that what poor people lack most is not job training or skills education but the ability—and time—to reflect, to develop independent thought. To respond to this need, Shorris developed a humanities curriculum for people unable to afford college. The first class was held at the Roberto Clemente Family Guidance Center. Admission requirements were basic: a low income and the ability to read a newspaper in English. Curriculum focused on literature and critical writing, American history, moral philosophy, and art history. College credit came from Bard College, faculty from NYU. The class convened at night and provided child care and bus tokens to the Center.

From this modest beginning a decade ago, ten states—now including Utah—are running courses modeled on the Clemente Course. Like Venture, most are funded and run by the state humanities council in partnership with a local college or university.
With a three-year grant from the A.H.E. Cultural Initiative and the Humanities Connection, the Utah Humanities Council (UHC) launched Venture in the fall of 2005. Jean, who serves as Assistant Director of UHC, began recruiting professors to plan the class the year before. As we talked it seemed clear that Westminster should be a community partner. It was no stretch to align Westminster’s core values—impassioned teaching, respect for diverse people and perspectives, collaboration, social responsibility—with a year-long, interdisciplinary humanities course for people with the desire, but not the income, for college-level courses. Arts and Sciences Dean Mary Jane Chase agreed. Westminster College committed to providing students with ID cards; access to library resources, including the college’s writing center; and eight hours of humanities credit for completing all course requirements.

James Andersen, principal of Horizonte Instruction and Training Center, offered classroom space at Horizonte, ideal because of its central location on a bus line. Horizonte also provided day care and a free evening meal to students.

Our goal was not to prepare students for college, but to develop their skills in critical thinking and self-expression, to introduce them to a world of value and meaning that has become inaccessible to much of society.

We didn’t realize that it would become much more than a course, for them and for us. “It’s simply the most rewarding teaching I’ve ever done,” Jean says of her year with Venture. Bridget adds, “We all—students and faculty—built strong relationships; we built a community.” Nothing revealed this more than graduation.

Graduation: May 12—Bill and Vieve Gore School of Business Auditorium
For more than 10 minutes Taiko drummers filled the Gore Auditorium stage with their fierce movement and penetrating sound. Then Venture student Gina Zivkovic, a petite woman with intense green eyes and cropped auburn hair, welcomed friends and family. One by one, the students came on stage to accept their certificates and go to the microphone. Some gave emotional testimonials to what Venture had meant to their lives. Others shyly offered “Thank you” and stepped away, hugging each of the five faculty on their way across the stage. When Gina accepted her certificate, her nine-year-old son, the last of her seven children, stood up and yelled, “That’s my Mama!” Not a typical graduation, yet absolutely typical. Pride and relief on everyone’s faces. And a sniff of anxiety—what next?

Students have begun to plan. Two have been accepted into college—one to Westminster—and at least three others hope to pursue a college education if they can find funding. One has started her own nonprofit organization on the west side. Most have signed up for Beyond Venture, a new course in writing and documentary film making taught by Venture professor Jeff Metcalf. Many joined a summer book club led by Venture faculty.

Funding from the A.H.E. Cultural Initiative and the Humanities Connection will continue for another year, after which Venture will need more supporters. Bridget is optimistic about the future: “Sometimes the right people and organizations come together at the right time to create something much more important than themselves. I think we’ll find a way for Venture to continue.”