April 18, 2008

Program gives second chance at higher ed

It had not occurred to Teri Watkins, a 45-year-old mother of five who was born and raised on the South Side, that parsing the works of Plato would play an important role in her life. Now a second-year participant in the Odyssey Project, a free, yearlong Great Books course for low-income adults, Watkins is continuing an education that had earlier stumbled when she dropped out of college to start a family and later found community college not viable due to work pressures.

For someone whose path to higher education had always been blocked by the obstacles of day-to-day living, the “life of the mind” was a luxury of the privileged. But the Odyssey Project, which serves adults at or below 150 percent of the poverty level, intends to disprove this assumption by teaching the humanities to people who would normally not have access to a college-level education.

In various neighborhoods in Chicago, residents who are working low-skilled jobs, some of whom dropped out of college or never finished high school, are engaging with Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus and Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness.

A collaborative initiative between the Illinois Humanities Council and the University of Chicago, the Odyssey Project offers first- and second-year courses in five humanities subjects—literature, U.S. history, critical thinking and writing, philosophy, and art history—taught in part by University of Chicago faculty. The average age of students is 39, and the Odyssey Project provides free on-site baby-sitting.

When Watkins first applied to the Odyssey Project, she saw it as an opportunity to learn free of charge, although at first the reading list did not seem that interesting. But reading Plato’s the Apology for the first time had an unexpected impact.

“I was really surprised that the things Socrates argued were valued in society because we don’t value those things today,” she said.

She found that literature like Shakespeare’s Macbeth enabled her to see the world from other perspectives.

“I just couldn’t believe that someone could get inside the head of a murderer and understand him,” she recalled.

She described a memorable class with former University professor Danielle Allen, in which Allen had used the Declaration of Independence to show how minute changes in language can alter meaning.

“She was talking about the difference between ‘separate and equal’ and ‘separate but equal’,” Watkins said.

While the program—which gives college credit—was initially intended as a jumping-off point for further education, going on to a four-year college is no longer the primary goal of the program.

“What started out as an instrumental program became almost a spiritual program,” said Amy Thomas Elder, director of the Odyssey Project and lecturer at University of Chicago’s Graham School. “The students go in wanting college credit, but what they discover is that they want to learn.”

For many of the students, the benefit is, above all, personal.

“The humanities are there to teach human value, not to get you into college,” Thomas Elder said. “The students in this program have had to think very pragmatically, thinking about the next pay-check and how to survive. The purpose of the project is to connect people with a tradition of expression and reflection in ways that allow them to reflect upon their own experience.”

Nevertheless, roughly half of the students do end up going on to a four-year college. Thomas Elder cited the example of a student who, at the time of her Odyssey Project interview, was homeless and living in a church. Now, seven years later, she is finally applying to college.

The Odyssey Project is one of the programs offered by the Civic Knowledge Project, an organization geared at creating reciprocal flows of knowledge between the University and the community through joint educational and environmental projects.

Bart Schultz, director of the Civic Knowledge Project, said that the project’s mission statement—to “strengthen community connections by overcoming the various racial, economic, and social divisions among the various knowledge communities on the South Side of Chicago”—was inspired by a range of theories of participatory democracy, from Athenian democracy to John Dewey.

Schultz rejected the notion that the University’s outreach programs reflect a patronizing, one-sided relationship.

“It’s really a two-way street. Knowledge enterprises are just not the kind of elite, top-down things that they’re often presented as,” he said.

Schultz also disavowed the “false contrast” between economic and educational development that often arises when programs are classified as either economic or educational outreach.

“We should think of economic development in richer terms,” Schultz said, “and the Odyssey Project is really part of a wider anti-poverty program in terms of giving its students and their children resources to help combat poverty.”

“The political impact of the project is empowering—students feel they have more power over their lives and their children’s academic lives,” he said.

Watkins said that the Odyssey Project had made her think about her life differently—both in terms of what she can do and what she wants to do.

“The Odyssey Project has given me more confidence in the sense that I can do some of the things I want, like finish college, which I didn’t even know I wanted to do. Now I know that I like to learn, not just about certain things that I enjoy, but things I didn’t know about before.”

“When I first started the Odyssey Project, I would think to myself, if I were getting down about something in my life, ‘Oh, but I get to go to class,’ and that’s a really big thing,” Watkins said.

Thomas Elder said that a University humanities course and an Odyssey course are worlds apart.

“Odyssey students have more life experience—real experience, for some of them including things like jail, homelessness, and addiction,” she said, “and haven’t been socialized to be ‘good little students.’ It’s more immediate and personal; they’re not there to get a good grade.”

Cautious of ranking one above the other, Thomas Elder said, “We have 22 hours to talk about philosophy to people who don’t know what it is, and a certain intensity comes with that.”