Humanities 101—Hum—is a 17-year-old Community Programme and the oldest programme of its kind in Canada. Supported by residents of Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside and Downtown South (DTES/South), it is sponsored by the University of British Columbia’s Office of the Dean of Arts and private donations, largely from UBC alumni. Participants are people with diverse backgrounds and knowledge who are geographically situated in the DTES/South and nearby areas and are working to overcome obstacles and roadblocks—financial, institutional, educational, governmental, health and social.
Hum attracts education activists who are participants, alumni, volunteer teachers, facilitators and supporters, and is committed to being responsive and situated. Along with four free university-level courses which are grounded in relevant, interdisciplinary critical and creative thinking practices (Humanities 101 (2 terms), Humanities 201 (2 terms), Writing 101 (1 term offered twice a year) and Writing 201 (1 term offered twice a year)), Hum also runs Public Programmes in the DTES/South initiated and led by participants and alumni: study groups, workshops and an alumnus-led documentary film series now in its tenth year. All past and current participants are invited to be involved in these ongoing Public Programmes as well as Hum’s Steering Committee which meets regularly and guides all aspects of the Programme.
For some people, Hum is a catalyst for self-knowledge that inspires and activates—if the moment’s right, it can help to get momentum going. The courses are a dedicated time and space for inquiry and an opportunity to meet like-minded people who love learning. This mix of people coming together, giving and taking knowledge, are in reciprocal relationships of learning based on their own expertise and also open to new visions. In class and in Public Programmes, there is a mutual flow and exchange of a variety of knowledge and responses to ideas, and this goes for everyone involved—participants, volunteer teachers and facilitators and staff. For participants, there are no pre-requisites, so you start where you are. Some have travelled through the eye of a storm in their lives, persevered and refuse to allow themselves to be restricted from education, further learning and ways of being.
There are more than 820 Hum alumni and many more people enmeshed in the handful of sister programmes across Canada and similar courses elsewhere. Along with the current focus on responsible relationships between communities and universities, and international interest in freeing education, Hum is part of several movements….
Hum is part of an international movement of similar courses which began in 1998, and it also sits in the context of long-standing alternative education projects, working class and women’s education, and more. Hum is based both at UBC and on the Downtown Eastside, a place which houses, or finds homeless, the lowest income citizens in the country. The Downtown Eastside plays a large role in the minds of Canadians, primarily through negative images and tired stereotypes that play over and over in the media. Hum students and alumni, mainly Downtown Eastside residents, counter these views in countless inspiring ways.
Hum—the first of its kind in Canada—was inspired by the “Clemente Course” initiated in New York City’s Lower Eastside by the American journalist Earl Shorris. In 1998, UBC students/staff Allison Dunnet and Am Johal read Shorris’ article in Harper’s Magazine, wanted to start such a Programme at UBC and received funding from the Dean of Art’s Office to do so. Their intention was “to offer non-vocational training that empowers students to use critical thinking in everyday life and inspire a passion for lifelong learning.” While they found an abundance of skills-based programmes in the Downtown Eastside and surrounding areas, they found none which focused on the Arts and Humanities.
Shorris had himself been inspired by “an inmate in a women’s prison” who told him that that poor need “a moral alternative to the street” in order to rise above their circumstances. Coming from a journalistic and academic background, Shorris believed that the lives of the rich and the lives of the poor, although different in many significant material and financial ways, diverge because one has access to “the radical character of the humanities” while the other does not. Shorris’ vision has generated about 60 Clemente-type Courses in seven countries, and counting.
While connected, UBC’s Hum differs in some important ways from Clemente Courses: the ‘great books’ are not privileged over contemporary works and the courses do not focus on the classics and their ‘civilizing’ effect but on relevant interdisciplinary critical and creative thinking practices; at the same time, the Humanities are both appreciated and seen as implicated; and, most importantly, Hum students’ ongoing passion for lifelong learning, informed analysis of society, volunteer community involvement and political activism displaces the idea that what’s on offer is “Riches for the Poor”, the title of Shorris’ book about the Clemente Course. Hum recognizes that many of our students are engaged in political lives before they take the courses, and recognizes the value of what they bring with them and generate together.
Hum has a strong commitment to being responsive to the needs and desires of its communities in Downtown Eastside areas and at UBC. It is guided, in all aspects, by a Steering Committee whose members are all students and alumni of the Programme, and whose knowledge of the Programme is highly valued. Over its seventeen-year lifespan, it has gained its own flavour, and students and alumni initiate their own Public Programmes which take Hum in new and welcome directions.
At the first national meeting of all Canadian Hum-type Programmes which took place in Calgary in October 2008, concerns surfaced about how closely we are following Shorris’ Clemente Course criteria, and it was recognized that each Canadian Programme is different from the others—in course content, course length, Programme funding, relations with students, alumni and volunteers, etc.—that each is suitable for their specific context, and that none of the Canadian Programmes follow all of the Clemente criteria; in accordance, the Canadian Programmes are now united as ‘Radical Humanities’ (a provisional name), and not as Clemente Courses.