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Bringing Plato to the Underprivileged

In many ways, the debate over the value of the humanities has been shaped by those who have a lot—affluence, one or more degrees, prestigious positions, and the privilege of voicing their opinions via newspapers and blogs.

But what might those who have relatively little say about the value of Plato, of poetry, of postmodernism? If you’re poor, can you still learn something from Henry David Thoreau? If you’re homeless, can you still find meaning in a Baroque painting?

Last month, I got to ask such questions while spending some time with Kathryn Pope, who teaches writing at Antioch University in California. As I describe in an article today, Ms. Pope directs Antioch’s Bridge Program, which provides humanities courses, free of charge, to low-income adults.

Admissions counselors often recruit at high schools and college fairs; each summer, Ms. Pope goes to shelters, community centers, and rehab facilities, talking to those who are, by any measure, in transition. About 35 people enroll in the program each fall, and they go on to read Homer and Descartes, and Langston Hughes and Alice Walker, to name just a handful.

In an era where student recruitment is a fast-and-furious affair, with e-mails hitting prospects’ inboxes every second, Ms. Pope’s approach is slow and steady. She waits a while to call prospective students, so they have time to think about whether they’re ready to commit the time. “Once we have you, we want to keep you,” she tells them.

Listening to Ms. Pope’s pitch at a stop in Santa Monica, I was struck by what she didn’t say. She didn’t say that the nine-month program would somehow change everyone from head to toe. She didn’t describe the campus as a haven of light and love and scrumptious cafeteria food. And she didn’t promise that students would leave with a piece of paper that would surely get them a job. In other words, hers was not the usual admissions presentation.

On the contrary, Ms. Pope, as well as students who have completed Bridge, describes its benefits in relatively modest terms. Some of those benefits are tangible: Many students who complete the program go on to enroll at two- and four-year colleges or professional schools. Others describe becoming more confident and curious, or developing a sense of connection to their community.

If that sounds corny, you should talk to Terry Moore, who completed Bridge a few years ago. He’s not a corny guy, and he doesn’t overstate what the experience did for him. The program, he says, opened him to authors and philosophers he had never heard of, to ideas he had never considered. He still struggles with writing, he says, but not as much as he did before he took the program’s writing courses. “I had to trust in myself,” he says. “I had to learn how to do that.”

Mr. Moore spent many years in prison and eventually kicked himself free of drugs. Before enrolling at Antioch, he also had to overcome his longstanding suspicion that school was a waste of time. As a young man, he had reached a conclusion: “I thought, I’ve got to make money. It was all about me getting mine.” In other words, he saw value in material gain, but not in, say, reading books.

That’s changed. Mr. Moore, who works as a handyman, wishes he could take all the courses again, just so that he could try harder, learn a little more.

Antioch’s program is not a panacea, nor is it for everyone. But perhaps its story should remind the well-heeled, well-read, and well-credentialed among us that to dismiss the so-called intangibles of learning is, just maybe, a luxury.

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