Transcript – Episode 106

Narrator: This podcast is a project of the Mass Cultural Council. We believe in the power of culture – the arts, humanities, and sciences – to enrich communities, advance equity, and foster creativity.

Jack Cheng: The humanities gives people time to reflect and think about issues in a different way than our daily living.

Anita Walker: Hi. I’m Anita Walker at the Mass Cultural Council, and welcome to “Creative Minds Out Loud.” Our guest today is Jack Cheng, Academic Director of the Boston Clemente Course. So welcome to our program.

Jack Cheng: Thanks very much.

Anita Walker: Now, we are big fans here at the Mass Cultural Council of the Clemente Course, which is operated by Mass Humanities, one of our great partner organizations, and I wonder if you could just kind of start out by describing what the whole Clemente program is, and what is its purpose?

Jack Cheng: I’ll tell you what I tell prospective students, which is if you enroll in the Clemente Course, it’s a yearlong course. It’s a college-level introduction to the humanities. It’s taught in five parts. There’s art history, literature, moral philosophy, American history, and writing. I’m the art historian, so I teach the art history part. We meet twice a week in the evenings. In Boston we meet at the Codman Square Health Center, and the classes are all taught in a seminar style. So that means it’s not 1 person telling 20 people something; it’s 20 people having a conversation, and when people finish the course, they earn a certificate. If their work is college-level, they earn six college credits from Bard College.

Anita Walker: So who are your students? Describe your students.

Jack Cheng: Right. So there’s a big range. I’ll tell you the median student is– would be an African-American woman in her 30s, maybe a kid or 2, partner or no partner, and she’s either looking for a job, or she’s in a job, where what often happens is a promotion came up, but her boss told her, “Without an associate’s degree, without a bachelor’s degree, I’m afraid you can’t apply for this job, even though you’re qualified.” So those’re the kind of people, but the range is huge. We have 20-year-olds. We have 70-plus, every race. Every sort of immigrant nationality that comes to Boston, we’ve had. We’ve had a lot of Haitians just because we’re in Dorchester. There’s a lot of Haitians in the area and a lot of people from the Caribbean as well, yeah.

Anita Walker: So I want to pull back the conversation just up 10,000 feet, because you don’t hear a lot of people talking about the humanities as an important thing to study these days. In fact, I believe I’ve read it’s kind of losing spots, even in university curriculums, and so here the Clemente program is bringing the study of humanities to people who maybe are struggling to just even be employed at all. So speak to that, will you?

Jack Cheng: To begin with, Earl Shores, who’s a journalist and writer, he was– he’s the one who came up with the idea, and the idea did not originate from him. The idea originated from a woman he was interviewing, and when he asked her, “Why are poor people stuck in a cycle of poverty?” she said– she did not ask for job programs. She didn’t ask for Excel or Microsoft Word. She asked for the humanities. She said lectures, libraries, the opera, the museums, and he realized that the humanities gives people time to reflect and think about issues in a different way than our daily living. So Earl had his own thing. Earl thought that that would help people sort of rise out of their circumstances. I’ve got a different approach to that. I think if humanities as the dessert of human life. I mean, everything that we want to do– if you and I won the lottery, we would– maybe we’d go to Paris. We’d sit at a café. We’d talk about life. That’d be philosophy. We’d go to the Louvre. That’d be art history.

Anita Walker: I am there. I’m totally there. I’ve left the podcast.

Jack Cheng: So I guess my point is that, in some ways, we’ve been reserving or are holding onto the humanities for people who are higher-income, higher levels of education, but really they are a treasure for everyone to share, and that’s part of what we’re doing is we’re just sharing the bounties of all human history.

Anita Walker: In fact, there is that word, human, right, smack dab in the very beginning..

Jack Cheng: That’s right. That’s right.

Anita Walker: … and middle of the word humanities. One of the things that occurs to me is you sort of describe the student population and the cycle of poverty, and the cycle of poverty sort of looks very, very sort of reactive, always stumbling, always putting out a fire, always– never having a chance to sort of really step back and think through, and studying philosophy and art history and literature, it gives people sort of a context and a perspective on which to put their own experiences in the middle.

Jack Cheng: Yeah. Can I tell you a story about– the Greek play “Antigone” by Sophocles, it’s about a woman who is arguing with her uncle, who happens to be the king of the state, to have a proper burial for her brother, and there’s lots of issues involved, and we spent hours talking about it in class with the philosophy teacher and talking about what’s right, and shouldn’t everyone deserve a proper burial, and people tended to come down on Antigone’s side. She thought that that was right. In 2013, you remember after the Boston Marathon bombing– after one of the perpetrators was killed, a lot of communities refused to bury him, and we were just talking about that issue in class as news, and everyone said, “No, I live in Boston. I don’t want that man buried in my city,” and one of the students said, “But what about ‘Antigone’?” and, as you said, it gave us a chance– we have thought about it before. We had worked out our personal philosophies, our personal moral issues and as an abstract, not just reacting in the moment of the news of the day but sort of having thought through these issues.

Anita Walker: Once of the things that you’re talking about and describing is something that really is hinged on the luxury of time, and I think back to sort of– well, it was the aristocracy who had acres of leisure time, and so these were the readers of literature and the students of art history and waxed philosophical over the 12-foot dining-room table, and it feels like people work harder and work longer, and the one thing, not just for the poor but for everybody in our technological age, is missing time, which is sort of what you need for the kind of conversations you’re having.

Jack Cheng: It’s true. It’s true, and I’m embarrassed at how few books I’ve read this year. Partly there’s so much information coming at us all the time. Another story I’ll tell you– a woman in the class a few years ago told me she was diagnosed with a brain tumor, and she was the main breadwinner for the family. She was taking care of her parents, her children, and I said, “Feel free to take time off. If you don’t want to finish this year, come back next year.” She said, “No. These are the two hours where I don’t have to think about all that other stuff, where I’m just talking about a book. I can think about this book, and it is a luxury. As to how we’re going to produce more of that time for ourselves, I have no idea. I wish I knew.”

Anita Walker: I thought technology was supposed to save us time, but evidently it’s working in the opposite. So I’m curious. How do you recruit students into this program? I mean, so hardworking people, people subsisting on– at the poverty level, one thing a lot of them don’t have is time. They’re working multiple jobs. They don’t have transportation. They’re struggling to put food on the table, and you say, “Come and take an art history course.” How do you get takers?

Jack Cheng: Yeah. So, we put up a lot of fliers at local health centers, at libraries, at local gyms. One thing I’ve been doing recently is I just walk up and down Washington Street, and there’s a lot of barbershops, lot of salons, and I walk in and say, “Hi. I’m giving a free college class.” Ostensibly I’m there to put up a flier, but often I end up handing out fliers to people in the chairs, and we’ve got a great student this year who said, “I was sitting in a barber chair when you came in, and that’s why I’m here.”

Anita Walker: I love that that is so analog. You did not use social media in that example.

Jack Cheng: It’s true, although, I mean, it’s sort of unavoidable, and we are starting to try out Facebook ads and things like that, but the face-to-face meetings are the ones that sort of stick, and one thing we haven’t mentioned yet is that the students don’t always finish. I mean, it’s a big commitment to do a whole school year. It’s a lot of work, and it’s not easy.

Anita Walker: This has got to be a real challenge for some of your students to even stick with it for as long as you require to get through the course.

Jack Cheng: It really is, yeah. So there’s a lot of reading involved, and even five pages of philosophy can be very hard to digest, and it is twice a week. It’s through the whole school year, and a lot of people have different issues going on in their lives, and not everyone finishes. One thing I’ve found, though, having done it for so long is I’m getting messages, e-mails, occasional phone calls or Facebook messages from previous students who tell me how much the course affected them and that they’re now in community college. They’ve now started a business. They’ve now started a nonprofit, and when I look up these students, not all of them are the ones who graduated. So often it’s just a few months in the course gives them this idea, suggests a way forward for them, and it may not be the time to do it then, but they pick it up, and they credit us, to some small degree, with helping them reach their vision.

Anita Walker: So you have a Ph.D. in art history. Do you teach at the university level as well?

Jack Cheng: I don’t. I just teach at Clemente.

Anita Walker: Is your approach different than it might be if you were at one of the universities in front of a class?

Jack Cheng: Yes and no. I mean, on the one hand, I am trying to deliver the same content, the same level of information and– to the students. I’m not trying to cheat them out of what we’re saying is college level, because it is. On the other hand, in the time I’ve been doing it, the students ask me questions that I never was asked in a college classroom. They ask me the basic, “How do you know that?” and they don’t accept, “Well, Smith, 1943, said that.” That doesn’t make any sense to them. They want to know what the actual evidence is, and it’s forced me to sort of go back and figure that out so I can tell them, and so it’s made me, I think, a better teacher.

Anita Walker: Do you think that especially if we’re talking about students who are coming out of poverty or some struggle or challenges in their lives that in a way they have a stronger connection to some of the messages, whether it’s Socrates, Aristotle or the artist or the writer, than the privileged student who’s been groomed and trained to get the high AP scores and end up at the elite university?

Jack Cheng: I think that’s absolutely right. I mean, when we talk about philosophical dilemmas, 19-year-olds are complex people, but they’re not as complex as 38-year-olds. So if you have that much more adult life and conflicts that you’ve gone through, you can bring a lot more to the classroom, and– sorry, another little story is one of the first times I brought– every year– as the art historian, every year I bring the class to the Museum of Fine Arts, and we walk around for a bit, and they love it, and one of the first years I– we were trying to get back on the bus, and I sort of lost track of one of the students, couldn’t figure out where she was, and when I finally found her, I caught her stuffing a dollar into the donation box, and this was a student who– we gave her bus fare to come to class all the time. She was not well off, and I don’t know if she felt closer necessarily to the artist and the humanities, but I sort of feel like that dollar in her household budget was worth so much more than the splashy $1,000 gifts or $100,000 gifts that the museums get, and I thought that was the most precious dollar that MFA ever got.

Anita Walker: So what have you gotten out of doing this? You’ve done this for how long now?

Jack Cheng: Almost 20 years.

Anita Walker: Twenty years. How have you changed?

Jack Cheng: That’s a great question. It’s a privilege to get to know these students. I’ve met so many people. I’ve such more diverse experience of humanity. I’ve made some excellent friends with students, with teaching colleagues.

Anita Walker: I’m going to interrupt and ask a question, and this is really going to put you on the spot.

Jack Cheng: Okay, go ahead.

Anita Walker: Over the 20 years, do you think your attitude toward people who are in more challenging circumstances has changed?

Jack Cheng: Yes. I’m certainly less ignorant about people in general. One thing I’ve found is there are brilliant people who are just stymied in our society for lack of resources, for lack of opportunity, but that doesn’t say anything about their potential or who they are, and certainly that’s changed– I mean, I hope I wasn’t a terrible person before, but I certainly was ignorant, and certainly it’s been– what’s the opposite of ignorant? It’s been enlightening to get to know these people and spend time with them in the classroom.

Anita Walker: Everybody deserves the humanities. It really is part of who we are.

Jack Cheng: It really is. It really is, and it’s wonderful to see people– as I said, they say that teachers– it’s a job where you don’t really get the benefits until three or four years out, and it is great when I do occasionally get these messages saying, “I look out my commute on the bus differently, because I’m looking at the architecture, and I’m looking and seeing Greek architecture and Gothic architecture,” and it’s wonderful.

Anita Walker: Jack Cheng, academic director of the Boston Clemente Course, another one of our creative minds out loud.

Jack Cheng: Thank you so much.

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