Only one per cent of the world’s population has a university education. The common complaint that academics dwell in ivory towers, far removed from the realities they study and critique is infinitely more poignant when viewed in light of this vast disparity. One per cent of the world’s population, whose parents (most often) happen to be economically fortunate enough to pay for higher education in the first place, is tasked with studying, theorizing, and predicting the future of every aspect of human society. Their studies are used by politicians to legislate new laws and acts. And yet, the experiences and perspectives of this one per cent are narrow and limited compared to the ninety-nine per cent they study.
Trinity College at the University of Toronto has come up with an innovative way to improve this imbalanced pursuit. Humanities for Humanity is a unique program that pairs disadvantaged members of society — single moms, disabled retirees, Rwandan refugees, and so on — with Trinity students for weekly sessions of “reality based philosophy.”
The 12 sessions, which together attempt to trace a very rough history of moral, political, social, and economic thought in the West since the Middle Ages, each focus on one longish reading from thinkers such Machiavelli, Marx, Hobbes, and Adam Smith. The 40 or so members of the community and the 10 “student mentors” (this term carries the probably mistaken connotation that we can teach the “disadvantaged” more than they can teach us) are expected to read the work before class, which consists of a one-hour lecture from a U of T professor of whichever subject we’re focusing on, followed by an hour of smaller group discussions facilitated by the “mentors.”
I just came from the first session, which was based on Sir Thomas Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur, essentially the first compilation of the many King Arthur-focused stories that had been floating around Europe for a few centuries prior to Malory writing them down in the 15th century. The class discussed themes of power, trust, betrayal, and virtue in the context of the medieval soap opera. It was certainly a different experience than any class discussion I’ve had to date.
Perhaps the most interesting part of the evening was before class even began. I was sitting next to a seemingly wise old woman who had moved here from the Caribbean years before. She had plenty of much-appreciated advice to give about the value of patience and determination in determining a career, and so on, which carried on pleasantly until the woman next to us, from Zimbabwe, chipped in.
We had been discussing yoga and meditation when our new Zimbabwean friend mentioned that in her country, yoga was illegal, going on to timidly criticize the regime of Zimbabwe’s dictator President Robert Mugabe. At this point, the tact of my Caribbean friend vanished as she began almost praising Mugabe, saying that since the West had (in her view) killed Martin Luther King Jr., Mugabe’s violence towards pro-Western political groups is justified. Disregarding the argument that two wrongs don’t make a right, Mugabe’s violence is directed essentially at retaining power, which he’s had for 30 years, not at some ideological anti-Western goal.
Similarly far-fetched arguments and bizarre perspectives were to remain the norm for the rest of the night. The lack of coherency and articulation with which these views were proposed by the largely uneducated group made it all the more difficult to take seriously. While this initially made me think that the fortunate one percent might do fine to stay in their towers, some reconsideration has led me to believe that perhaps there are benefits in this process after all. Attempting to understand why these people hold such views could potentially shed light on many important aspects of humanity. In that sense, I think an occasional jaunt down the ivory towers might be worthwhile after all.