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Studying Up

Studying Up
February 2015
A free course at Trident Tech inspires disadvantaged locals with lessons in literature, history, and philosophy

For most college students, a Western lit discussion centers on imagery and verse, plot and metaphor. But Trident Tech’s HSS 101 and 102, collectively known as the Clemente Course, use literature as a platform for a different sort of inspiration.

Every semester for the past decade, this free humanities class has filled its 30-name roster with disadvantaged citizens who have lost traction in some way—destitution, family violence, prison, addiction, homelessness. The program, unique in the Southeast, is part of an international initiative founded 20 years ago in New York by social critic Earl Shorris. His motivation? The belief that generational poverty can be broken by using classic literature, philosophy, and history to develop abstract critical thinking skills, explains English professor Dr. Mary Ann Kohli, who established the Charleston chapter in 2005 after a battle with breast cancer left her seeking a deeper purpose.

Kohli recruits from the VA hospital, rehab facilities, soup kitchens, shelters, the Department of Social Services, and teen pregnancy centers, offering assistance with the application and placement testing. (A high-school degree isn’t required, but students must be literate.) Those accepted receive free tuition and books, bus passes for transportation, and a meal at each biweekly class, plus admission to area plays, museums, concerts, and historical houses. But earning course credit is no free ride. Like any college class, students must complete essays, take tests, and pass exams.

Often for participants, graduation marks the first time they’ve met a significant goal. “It’s a feeling that’s propelled me forward,” says recent grad Anthony Drayton, who dropped out of high school when he fell into the wrong crowd and took up drugs and drinking. Nearly 25 years after getting clean, Drayton set out to earn his GED, finding Kohli and the Clemente Course in the process. He’s now set his sights on a degree in African-American history so that he can share his heritage and culture with other vulnerable black teens.

But Kohli stresses that a continued education isn’t necessarily the group’s mission. “While we love it if students go on to take other courses—and some do—our real purpose is to make them active citizens in the community, be that through gainful employment, voting,  participating in community affairs, or simply feeling a part of society again.”

Support the Class: The Clemente Players (which includes many students) present one-act plays Alice and Alice Through the Looking Glass April 24-26 at North Charleston’s Sterett Hall ($20). Learn more at