Program of Liberal Studies Shares Great Books with South Bend Youth

Author: Arts and Letters

Whether working at the local food bank or spending time with a hospice patient, Notre Dame students are encouraged to engage in activities that support their academic goals while serving the greater good. For Michael Clemente (’09), volunteering with the Program of Liberal Studies’ Junior Masterpieces Seminar provided a way for him to share and pass on his passion for the liberal arts with local elementary school students. In the process, he also helped them with critical thinking and communications skills.

The University’s Program of Liberal Studies (PLS) is one of 21 academic departments in the College of Arts and Letters. Known for its major in the “Great Books,” this department leads ND students on an intellectual journey through classic literature and philosophy. Inspired by Earl Shorris’ Humanities Project, which taught classics to the poor in New York City, the PLS faculty in 1998 began the Community Extension: World Masterpieces Seminar for guests at the Center for the Homeless in South Bend. The success of that seminar led program faculty to involve PLS students in leading similar seminars for local school children.

The PLS Junior Masterpieces Seminar is designed to help these students develop essential literacy skills by reading and discussing notable, age-appropriate literature. Group leaders like Mike Clemente guide students in regular discussions where they are encouraged to ask questions about plot, character, dialogue, and motive.

“Reading great texts and discussing them helped me develop in so many ways—and I hoped to help others develop themselves similarly,” says Clemente, who participated in Notre Dame’s Great Books Seminars as a liberal studies major.

“The students in South Bend,” he adds, “bring the diversity of their personal backgrounds with them as they ponder some of life’s perennial questions. These questions—questions about what gives value to life, about suffering and death, etc.—will confront each person at one time or another. How these young students position themselves in relation to these questions will influence the approach that they take to life.” He points out that while not trying to give any explicit answers, the PLS Junior Masterpieces Seminar attempts to help young students build tools for acknowledging and addressing these questions.

Like many others who participate in service opportunities, Clemente felt that he learned more from volunteering than the students he taught.

Most memorably, he discovered how much an individual’s personal history and life experience influence how they approach a question or a story. “We would all read the same story and five students would understand five different meanings,” he says. “One student who was picked on by the others empathized with the story’s antagonist, a student who was very energetic and playful thought that the parental characters were too strict, and a student who enjoyed reading thought that the story was too short and underdeveloped.

“Each person brings the richness—and woundedness—of his or her background to each text,” Clemente explains, “and it is through these human eyes that literature receives its life.”

Approximately 12 to 16 junior and senior PLS majors volunteer each year to be group leaders for the program. Like Clemente, they have participated in Great Books Seminars during their undergraduate studies. They have all also completed a required sequence of tutorials. PLS faculty select group leaders based on their academic excellence, their talent for helping others find new ways to approach and understand literature, and their ability to formulate and articulate thoughtful arguments.

Thanks to Notre Dame’s Program of Liberal Studies and students like Clemente, the PLS Junior Masterpieces Seminar has been offered in a variety of South Bend community schools including the Juvenile Justice Center, Clay Middle School, Hamilton Jr. High School, Hamilton Sr. High School, St. Joseph Elementary School, Brown Intermediate Center, St. John the Baptist, Holy Cross School, and Edison Intermediate Center.