History

Where we come from

The Socrates Project was inspired by the Clemente courses in the US conceived and developed by Earl Shorris. His mission was to spread “dignity outward from the classroom” using the Socratic method in class discussions. Students must read and reflect on the texts that have been assigned for class, and be questioned about their assumptions, not only on in regards to what they have read, but also, indirectly, in regards to how they have lived. This questioning, though critical, over time affords students a reflective refuge from what Mr Shorris called “the surround of force” which binds the poor “to a busy and fruitless life of reaction”. This force is strong and tenacious, but by critically discussing the great ideas of civilization in a classroom with their peers, in discussions led by an expert, students discover that they already own the resources to break free.  

“If the multigenerational poor are to make the leap out of poverty, it will require a new kind of thinking — reflection. And that is just the beginning. The study of the humanities is in itself a redistribution of wealth.” 

Earl Shorris, a celebrated American novelist, historian, and critical thinker, was motivated to found the Clemente Course in the US in 1995 by his experience working with prisoners at the Bedford Hills Correctional Facility for Women in New York.  

One day Mr Shorris asked the prisoners why they thought poor people are poor. One of the prisoners, Viniece Walker, told him that it was because they didn't have “the moral life of downtown... plays, museums, concerts, lectures, you know.”  

“You mean the humanities.” Mr Shorris said, surprised.  

“Yes, Earl, the humanities,” she responded.  

Earl Shorris immediately went to work, persuading friends and associates to volunteer their time to teach the first humanities classes in 1995, then winning funding from the Roberto Clemente Foundation to establish what became known as the Clemente Course in the Humanities.  

The Socrates Project intends to repeat the experience of the Clemente Course in Berlin, Budapest and Vienna. The Clemente Course has taken Over 13,000 people across the world locked out of university education by poverty and disadvantage, and given them university-level classes in philosophy, literature, history, art history, and academic writing. The Socrates project ran two pilot courses in Budapest and, bases on the positive feedback from students and professors, is set to launch full-fledged courses in three European courses in 2021. 

It is not the intention of such a project to furnish students with marketable new tools and skills, even if it does give them that. The aim is more to allow participants to achieve a new sense of self. This happens on a personal level, via increased self-knowledge and self-confidence, and outwardly, by enabling students to become fuller participants and citizens of society. This building of self is education's primary role, and it is from the benefits of this role that educationally disadvantaged people have traditionally been excluded.