In The News

Free Thinking

This is an excerpt from the full article, which originally appeared in The Core.

By Carrie Golus


“You can change your life. You can get the education you’ve always wanted.”
Flyer for Odyssey Project Chicago

OUTSIDE, IT’S DARK. Inside, the lights are all off except one, so that Hamza Walker, AB’88, can use his laptop to project images on the wall: right now, a coin collection. His art history class tonight centers on the origin of museums, as well as “the art-culture system,” in the term of anthropologist James Clifford.

Two and a half minutes into Walker’s lecture, Honni Harris asks her first question: “Do you collect?”

Walker, whose day job is associate curator and director of education at the Renaissance Society, the contemporary art museum based in Cobb Hall, considers. “I’d like to say no, but that’s probably not true,” he says. “I’m lying to you right now.” The ten other students in the class laugh.

“I know you are,” says Harris. The students laugh harder.

“I have some art,” Walker admits finally. “I have bric-a-brac. I have sentimental bric-a-brac around which I configure meaning.”

THIS SEMEMSTER MARKS the first time Walker has taught a class for the Odyssey Project, run jointly by the Humanities Division’s Civic Knowledge Project and the Illinois Humanities Council. It’s part of a nationwide program, the Clemente Course in the Humanities, founded by author Earl Shorris, X’53, winner of the National Humanities Medal.

The idea behind the Clemente Course is old-fashioned, yet deeply radical: that education in the humanities can provide a pathway out of poverty. The yearlong course, open to adults earning up to 150 percent of the poverty level, costs nothing. Books and transportation are paid for; child care is provided on-site.

Shorris studied at the College during the Hutchins era, and the course—with its intriguing mixture of elitism and populism—was profoundly affected by the thinking of that time. “The philosophy of the Clemente Course,” Shorris explained in a 2000 interview with Mass Humanities magazine, “grows out of an idea put forth by Robert Maynard Hutchins: ‘The best education for the best is the best education for all.'”

As well as art history, students take literature (taught by Adam Davis, PhD’03), philosophy (taught by Charles Thomas Elder, AM’83, PhD’91, who also teaches in the social sciences core), US history (taught by Hana Layson, AM’95, PhD’03), and critical thinking and writing (taught by Amy Thomas Elder, X’84, the program’s administrator). Students who complete the program earn six hours of college credit.

ON AN EASEL PAD, Walker redraws Clifford’s diagram “The Art-Culture System: A Machine for Making Authenticity” from The Predicament of Culture (1988). To prepare for tonight’s class, students had to slog their way through the chapter “On Collecting Art and Culture.”

The diamond-shaped diagram places “authentic” at the top, “inauthentic” at the bottom; “artifact” on the right, “masterpiece” on the left. Clifford’s interest—and Walker’s—is how objects move from one zone to another: in particular, how folk art or objects from non-Western cultures come to be considered high art.

Turning back to his laptop, Walker shows the class an example of folk art that has made the transition to high art: crazy quilts from Gee’s Bend, Alabama.

Unlike quilts made by a group of women working together around a table, “crazy quilts are the work of a lone woman, working with scraps, stitching on her lap, so the patterns become skewed,” Walker explains.

“Crazy quilts from Gee’s Bend are considered special because they’re part of a continuing tradition that goes back into slavery, to African textiles,” he says. “And they look like modern geometric abstractions, on par with the great paintings of the 20th century.” On Clifford’s diagram, the quilts had moved from zone 2 (authentic, artifact) to zone 1 (authentic, masterpiece).

“I like that one,” says Harris of a quilt that looks like Op Art.

“That’s hypotizing me, man,” says Virgil Burgs.

“My grandma would have made something like that,” says Andre Wilson. “I wouldn’t put it on the wall. But it will keep you warm.”

Walker laughs. “I like that,” he says. “You are talking to a man who slept under a moving blanket my first year in college.”

THE MOST OBVIOUS criticism that could be leveled at the Odyssey Program—and it has been leveled against the study of the humanities many times—is that it is impractical. If you are poor, why sit around philosophizing about the art-culture system? Wouldn’t it be wiser to get some kind of practical, job-related training?

But training is even more impractical, according to Shorris. It prepares students for jobs that are “poorly paid, with little or no chance for advancement,” he said in the 2000 interview.

“If one has been ‘trained’ in the ways of poverty … what is needed is a beginning, not a repetition. The humanities teach us to think reflectively, to begin, to deal with the new as it occurs to us, to dare. If the multigenerational poor are to make the leap out of poverty, it will require a new kind of thinking—reflection.”

It’s a beautiful argument; perhaps he’s even right.

The students themselves have more limited expectations. Philisha Carter works two part-time jobs: conducting telephone surveys for NORC and providing homework help for an after-school program. “I know a lot of people with college degrees, and they’re doing what I’m doing,” says Carter, who brings her three children—Malik, 14; James, 11; and Jeremiah, 7—to class with her. “I want a college degree for myself. It’s for my own self-worth, and to encourage my kids.”

Harris’s view is similar. “I always loved learning,” she says, but in high school, divided into “the haves and the have-nots,” she felt like the teachers overlooked the have-nots. She dropped out of Kenwood Academy her junior year.

“I’ve always been opinionated. This is the first time that’s been looked upon as something good,” she says. “If President Obama was sitting right there, I wouldn’t be intimidated to discuss Socrates with him. Socrates is my new best friend.”

Harris’s oldest son Edward, 17, is now a senior at Kenwood. As well as taking Odyssey classes, she’s studying furiously for her GED: “I want to get my degree,” she says, “before he gets his.”

NEXT WALKER SHOWS photos of Shaker furniture, one of Clifford’s examples of a craft now categorized as high art. Shaker furniture, like modern furniture, is known for “elegance, simplicity, and excellent craftsmanship,” Walker explains. “But from their point of view, it comes from living a life without any frills.” The students nod. “It’s not a collector base for Shaker furniture—it’s a cult. Oprah was buying so much, she was single-handedly driving prices up.”

Walker flips through images of benches and chairs. “Lovely,” several students say.

“Let me ask you a question,” says Harris. “Is it expensive because of the craftsmanship, or because it goes back to their tradition, or both? Why should I have to pay for their tradition?” The class laughs explosively. “What if I really don’t care about them or agree with them? Why is that added on?”

“This is a fabulous question. This is an incredible question,” says Walker.

“What you’re saying is actually implicit in Clifford’s argument. This chair is an expression of the Shakers. It is of them, it is them,” he says. “A similar modernist one—that’s just a good piece of furniture. It doesn’t express the collective religious aspirations and way of life of a people. For that, you gotta pay more.”

“Those quilts are lovely, but who says they’re art?” says Harris. “I think art is personal. No one should be allowed to say what’s art and what’s not.”

“So you’re trying to put me out of a job,” says Walker, who in 2010 won the Ordway Prize, one of the art world’s most prestigious awards, for his innovative curatorial work. “That’s okay, I’m not going to take that personally.” His students are laughing again.

THE CLASS CONTINUES into its second hour with no break. A few people have brought snacks—cheese puffs, potato chips—which they manage to eat with a noteworthy lack of crunching. Despite the evening hour and the dark room, not a single student is slumping or yawning.

Next week, Walker plans to take the students on a field trip to the Art Institute. Tonight, it’s a virtual tour, beginning at the website of the Museum of Modern Art (“Where is that again?” Wilson wants to know; “New York,” says Walker), stopping off at Toronto’s Bata Shoe Museum, and ending at the National Firearms Museum in Fairfax, Virginia.

“The reason I like Clifford is that he reveals the assumptions we have when we go into a museum,” Walker says. “When we go to the Art Institute, you’ll see there’s China, pre-Colombia, Africa, Oceania. We have this idea that all cultures are capable of producing beauty. But that wasn’t the case 100 years ago, when ethnographic objects were displayed as curiosities.”

At the end of class, Walker retells a story from the Clifford book, about anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss and his surrealist artist friends in New York in the 1940s. Passionate collectors, they bought up Eskimo masks from the Bronx warehouse of the Museum of the American Indian. The museum’s director considered the masks “jokes” and sold them for tiny sums. “The Surrealists bought the best,” Walker reads from the book, “…stripping it of one masterwork after another.” Recently, he says, one of these masks came on the market and sold for $2 million.

“The museum director completely undervalued them,” says Walker. “Not in his wildest dreams, clearly, did he ever see these things as having value. He didn’t give them any respect.” The students nod; the idea of being undervalued seems to have a particular resonance.

At 8 p.m., they begin putting away notebooks and pulling on coats. A few of the students drive to class or get rides, but most take public transit home.

As the other students drift away, Harris lingers in the classroom to keep talking with Walker about museums. She might end up waiting longer on the El platform, but she’s been waiting a long time—decades, in fact—to have discussions like this.