In The News

Former students continue their Odyssey of learning

This article originally appeared in the Chicago Tribune.

Eight years later, Star Perry is still blown away by “The Allegory of the Cave.”

Plato’s classic philosophy text imagines a group of prisoners living in a cave. Unable to see anything but shadows of objects made by the light of a fire, they conclude that the world is made of shadows. 

One of the prisoners is taken out of the cave, Perry said, her excitement speeding her words into a race. “He rebels against the sunlight at first, but then he realizes, ‘Here are the real flowers I saw shadows of!’

“That book was my life. … I was just going on day to day, accepting what I was in, in my little world, going to work, feeding my kids. … My goodness, you get all puffed up and proud about the little thing you know — but it’s the only thing you know.

“I’m like — man.”

She paused for a moment. “That was a great book,” she said.

For 10 years, The Odyssey Project has taught great books, in both the upper- and lowercase sense of the term, and more to low-income Chicagoans. Perry is a graduate of the free program, which is sponsored by the Illinois Humanities Council.

These are the humanities at the highest level — literature, philosophy, history, art history, writing and critical thinking — taught by faculty from the University of Chicago and DePaul University.

The basic course, a one-year, college-level program, is offered at several locations and in Spanish. It can be followed by the Bridge Course, which prepares students for further study.

Students are not the typical purveyors of such stratospheric intellectual fare. When Perry took the course, she had not finished high school.

That is the point of the program, which is affiliated with the University of Chicago’s Civic Knowledge Project and the Bard College Clemente Course in the Humanities. Its premise is that studying the humanities can help students escape poverty.

Sunday’s graduation ceremony for current students, which will be at the National Museum of Mexican Art, offers a fitting occasion to look at where the project takes students next. And it’s a good thing Star Perry talks fast.

She got her GED, struggling with the math but earning a nearly perfect score on the English and writing sections. She has written a book about spirituality and decision-making that she said will be published by a Christian organization. For a time, the former high school dropout was hired to tutor other people to take the GED.

A mother of four children ages 15 to 26, she is now a sophomore at Chicago State University, majoring in sociology. She works seven days a week at two jobs — as an activities coordinator for a homeless shelter and as an assistant in a family support center. She hopes to get a master’s degree and become a social worker.

The Odyssey Project changed her life “totally,” she said. “Totally. Totally.”

Sheila Fondren, 47, who like Perry took both The Odyssey Project and the Bridge Course, still works at the same job she had at the start, as administrator of the environmental services department at the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago. But she does not think about the world in the same way.

She analyzes life more closely and looks at her surroundings more carefully, she said. “If I walk into an art gallery now, I look at a picture and I see the different colors and I think, ‘Why did the artist put this color here and the gray behind that?’ ” she said.

A mother of three children ages 17 to 31, Fondren went on to a class on creative writing and is writing a book on women’s empowerment. She has attended subsequent Odyssey Project classes to hear other students’ points of view.

“I think, ‘Hm, I didn’t think of that,’ ” she said.

I met Star Perry in 2002 when I sat in on her class for a column I wrote then about The Odyssey Project. The students addressed whether wisdom brings virtue, the ability of knowledge to change people’s moral sense and the subordination of the body to the soul. And as my college-graduate mind struggled to understand what a Kohl’s cashier and a McDonald’s worker were fluently debating, I learned a lesson of my own.

I always wondered what became of Perry and the other scholars. Some 500 people have gone through the program now, enough to give Amy Thomas Elder, director of The Odyssey Project, a sense of the classes’ influence.

About half of the graduates go on to college, Elder said. Participants have more confidence, higher expectations of themselves and great pride at having their children see them as successful students. Many of their children start getting better grades.

“If the world is now something I can understand in a new way, then that has implications for who I am and who I ought to be,” Elder said.

Who are they?

The Odyssey Project “let me know that I can think; I can read; I can understand,” said Perry.

“I think the sky is the limit,” said Fondren. “I truly don’t think anything is beyond me, if I want to do it.”