by Duff Allen
Bard College is a nationally known liberal arts institution nestled in the bucolic Hudson Valley. It’s extremely well-regarded, and the attention is well earned, but the cost of tuition, like tuition costs across the nation, can be steep. However, there is a part of the Bard liberal education offered to Hudson Valley residents for free.
Absolutely free? Yes! The Clemente Course in the Humanities is a year-long, tuition-free Bard College program available to economically disadvantaged persons living right here in the Kingston, New York area. They even provide a transcript so that the class counts towards college credit elsewhere. The Clemente Program meets twice a week at the Kingston Public Library, Tuesday and Thursday evenings between 6-8pm. Some classes include lectures and group discussions on Literature, Philosophy, Art History, American History, and Writing.
This groundbreaking course is fully funded, books and even transportation can be covered for any person who applies and demonstrates need. You might be tempted to think that this course might be a training ground for graduate students hoping to get to the next level of academia, but it’s run by dedicated, hopeful professors who are committed to giving back to the community.
Professor Marina van Zuylen received the National Humanities Medal from President Obama on the program’s behalf in 2015. At that time she served as the national director and is currently the Hudson Valley director as well as its Literature Professor.
Recently, Clemente Writing Professor, Duff Allen, and program graduate, Michael Solomon, talked about their experiences in the course as teacher and student.
Duff Allen: How did you learn about the Clemente Program?
Michael Solomon: I heard about it from another person who was already a Clemente student, so through word of mouth.
DA: That’s awesome...After Clemente you went back to school, I believe.
MS: That’s right, afterwards I got an opportunity to go study Native American History and Comparative Atlantic Slavery at Bard College. That was an incredible experience, to be in environment I wouldn’t have necessarily had the chance to experience if I hadn’t attended Clemente.
DA: So the Clemente classes opened the doors for you?
MS: Definitely. Having successfully completed the Clemente Program, I had enough confidence in myself to be able to get over the hurdle of what was initially very daunting, very difficult. Clemente allowed me to reacclimating to a competitive academic environment after 20 years with other pupils half my age. Without the scholastic skill set honed at Clemente, I would have intellectually drowned.
DA: Would you say that Clemente gave you the confidence to pursue higher education?
MS: Yes, absolutely.
DA: What was it like being a student in the program?
MS: It was hugely enlightening. Before I attended the program I took anything that was written or spoken by an educated individual at face value. I assumed that anyone who had that education automatically knew more than I did and had the final say about whatever subject they were discussing. The Clemente Course shifted my paradigm. Now, I’m more likely to question other people’s opinions rather than accept them as the gospel truth. It was incredibly empowering to learn new thinking skills by working through the books we read, discussing the methods of authors, philosophers, and thinkers. I learned to be more confident when forming my opinions about the world around me.
DA: So often students come into the Program with the impression that there’s some sort of truth that can only be understood by accessing a traditional education system. One of the things I aim to do as a teacher is to show that even the gospel might not be “the gospel.” There are notions of authority: textual authority, literary authority, pedagogical authority, where authors state what you’re being told is “the truth,” but one of my goals is to empower students by guiding them towards a the belief in uncertainty. This applies to the texts that we read, the teachers who teach us, the things that we learn from our environment and the things we hear from others around us.
MS: I completely agree. Instead of preaching a fixed mode of thought, the Clemente course offered a new way to approach truth, both in life and in education. Specifically, I realized that reading was supposed to be a tool to provoke thought, as opposed to the rote methodology that consisted of “let me read this and memorize passages and quote from all these things.” What I mean is, prior to Clemente I presumed that being educated meant that I had to collect what other people had said or written and broadcast these ideas as my own. I understand now that education is about being exposed to those ideas, setting them up and holding them in your mind like a sluice or a catch-fence that you’re running your own thoughts against, so on the other side of this informed opinion, you have a combination of ideas which creates your own, individual, wholly unique worldview.
DA: Wow...I’m wondering about your current worldview now, post-Clemente. What’s your idea of yourself now, and how does that relate to your having been a Clemente student?
MS: I’ve realized that everyone is the same, and I can recognize the similarity in all of us, no matter how different we are. I can understand, or at least conceptualize how people felt one hundred, two hundred, five hundred years...two thousand years ago, and being able to relate with that, and sympathize and empathize with that...This program has made me far more accepting of people who think differently, who behave differently. Looking back, I can recognize some ignorance in the way that I thought and formed opinions before I attended Clemente. Really! The program sort of melted some of my staunchly-held ideas that were based in ignorance and misunderstanding.
DA: I hear you! I think the most important thing is to create the opportunity for every student in the room to actually be heard, seen, and listened to regardless of their background, regardless of what is their first, second, or third language, regardless of anything. And one of the most beautiful things that I have discovered as a teacher, that these things are what all students want. In the program all the students, without exception, have always listened to—have always allowed—other students to be seen, to be heard. That is the epitome of the shared experience of the Clemente community.
Classes begin October 4. Submission of applications extended to the middle of October. If needed, transportation and childcare provided. Classes meet two times per week from 6-8 pm, Tuesday and Thursday at the Kingston Library, 55 Franklin Street. Applications may be submitted online or dropped off at the Kingston Library. Full scholarship for all students accepted into program whose household income is no higher than 150 percent of the federal poverty level.
Graduates of the program can earn up to six college credits. For more information about applying to the Clemente Course beginning in October, go to Clemente.bard.edu or email firstname.lastname@example.org.