Bard’s Clemente Course offers free immersion into timeless truth

Jacques-Louis David’s “The Death of Socrates.”

They’re the great, eternal ideas which shape the way we think about our lives, our culture and ourselves, but for most of us, the window to learn about the “liberal arts” was open for a few early college years, if that window was even open at all.

But now, Bard College, through its Clemente Course in the Humanities, is re-opening that window, for free if you qualify. All you need to bring is time, curiosity and a commitment to follow in the path of the world’s greatest thinkers.

The course offer a college-level introduction to the humanities — philosophy, literature, U.S. history, art history, and critical thinking and writing — starting in late September at the Kingston Library to adults living on low incomes. Students attend at no cost; tuition, books and childcare will be provided. Classes will meet Tuesdays and Thursdays from 6 to 8 p.m., from September to May.


“It delivers a college-level introduction to humanities course to neighborhoods which tend to be under-resourced to people who otherwise wouldn’t have access to a college-level humanities course,” said Bard’s David Shein, dean of studies and a philosophy teacher. “It’s intended for people who otherwise wouldn’t have access to this stuff. … It’s for people who wish they’d taken this kind of course in college, or wish they’d gone to college.”

According to a release from Bard, the program, which was started as a pilot project on the Lower East Side of Manhattan 17 years ago, “is based on the belief that by studying the humanities, participants acquire the cultural capital, conceptual skills and appreciation for reasoned discourse necessary to improve their societal situation.”

Clemente students receive 110 hours of instruction in five humanistic disciplines and explore the great works of literature, art history, moral philosophy and American history. Instruction in critical thinking and writing is also offered. The program removes many of the financial barriers to higher education: books, transportation costs and childcare are provided and tuition is free. Bard grants a certificate of achievement to any student completing the course and six college credits to those completing it at a high level of academic performance.

Applicants must be 16 years of age or older; living in a household with low income; able to read a newspaper in English; highly motivated and committed; and have the time and desire to attend classes regularly, complete assignments outside of class and participate fully in the course for the entire nine-month term. Older adults are welcome. Shein said all applicants get an interview and the only person he’s ever turned down already had an advanced college degree.

The obvious question is why and how would words taken down, in some cases, 2,000-plus years ago, like the texts of Sophocles and Plato, be relevant to Kingstonians of AD 2012. Shein answered quickly and decisively: Texts like Antigone and Plato’s The Death of Socrates speak to the issue of civil disobedience. Kafka’s The Trial grapples with a person’s obligation to the law and the law’s obligation to justice. “It’s incredibly pertinent to Midtown Kingston,” said Shein.

The legacy of the course goes beyond the person who takes it, said Shein. “For me, the biggest impact of this class is that we give the students the books … in the majority of the homes of the Clemente students, there are shelves of books, of Antigone, Kafka, Plato, Shakespeare, W.E.B. DuBois, American history, art history — these volumes are there on the shelf for the next generation to read.”

Marina van Zuylen is a professor of French and comparative literature at Bard who has taught the Clemente course on and off over the last 14 years. “I love teaching this course — there’s something very special about teaching a course where people sense it’s a new beginning, a new chance,” she said, adding that life experience makes the appreciation of great writing possible for older students in a way it rarely is for the usual late-teens, early-20s college students. “When people who have had ups and downs in their lives read Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilyich, it resonates in a very special way. … The intensity with which they read these texts is mind-blowing to me.”

Van Zuylen said the course has the potential to literally change lives. “They are going to discover a link, not only to a new community of people who will take the class with them and share difficulties and excitement, but also they’re going to open a new community to the future. When they apply for a job, for instance, they can talk about that experience. It’s a huge positive experience. … You have something really beautiful to share.”

Marge Knox of Kingston, who works with disabled persons for the Resource Center for Accessible Living, took the class last year, and enjoyed the whole experience — the teachers, the material and her fellow students. She said the class had the support system in place to help her and her classmates get through tough stretches both in the academic context and outside life.

She said she enjoyed how teachers worked to link ideas and concepts together during the classes. “It was like a thread between all of [the subjects],” said Knox. “They kept it interesting.”

Knox has advice for those thinking about taking the class: Do it.

“Don’t judge yourself by how much you know or how much you think you don’t know,” Knox said. “The course is designed in a way which encourages you to learn and encourages you to open up. … Don’t limit yourself; it’s an experience that you shouldn’t let go by.”

Applications are available at the Kingston Library,55 Franklin St., at the circulation desk during regular business hours. For more information, contact Shein at or by calling (845) 758-7454.