Halifax Humanities helps people to learn to question everything

Jennifer Conroy was a frequent visitor to the IWK with her oldest child.
One day she spotted a pamphlet for the Halifax Humanities 101 program.
She noticed the pamphlet many times in the preceding six months, but never picked it up.
“I didn’t think I was capable of doing it because it was a university-level course,” recalls Conroy. But she finally started reading about the program that offers free university-level humanities classes to people with low incomes.
“I was in search of something for myself,” says Conroy. “I was a single parent and my life was consumed with disability and high emotions. On a social level, I felt very isolated. I had anxiety being around a bunch of people.”
She wanted to be able to enjoy being around people again, and all the other solutions seemed too institutional or therapy based. Halifax Humanities students read great books, which appealed to her, plus it was part-time, free, and not for credit. Triple bonus. She filled out the form, dropped it off and waited.
That was eight years ago. She completed the course and is now two credits shy of a university degree.
“It was very daunting at first,” says Conroy. Students start out reading The Epic of Gilgamesh, Homer’s Odyssey, Plato’s Republic and Dante’s Divine Comedy. “Those are very difficult texts to read, but I just stuck with it. Often, when I went to the class the next day, hearing the professor’s take on the text and other students’ take really helped. It was feeding my soul, feeding my spirit. Eventually, it clicked, and I ran with it.”
Conroy realized that taking the program had a positive impact on her kids too. They are nine and 18, now, and were always around when she was studying, which set a positive example. Later, she was able to pass on the wisdom of her experience.
“My children have learning disabilities, and so do I, which is why I never went to university,” says Conroy. “My oldest son was really struggling with school, and he saw me putting the time in and really engaging and it changed his relationship with his work.”
Now, there are books all over the Conroy house and, recently, her nine-year-old starting asking her about restorative justice practices. “It has made them more empowered,” she says.
Aron Spidle is another graduate, but he learned about the program by chance. One day, when he was volunteering at Veith House, he was “shooting the breeze” with Tamsyn Brennan, the executive director. “I was lamenting one day how much I missed learning,” Spidle recalls.
Brennan mentioned Halifax Humanities to him and he applied. Spidle, who had earned a bachelor of arts and a master of arts already, didn’t like the pressure that came with exams and paying for university. But he missed the lectures, the discussions, the learning, the reading and the social aspect of classrooms.
“Right away, I thought this is wonderful to have the opportunity to read and discuss literature,” Spidle says. “It’s a way of plugging people into the cultural riches of our society when they otherwise couldn’t afford to do so. Poverty is very isolating.”
Now in the second-year seminar, Spidle says he likes the students who participate in the program because they love learning and they want to be there; they’re not there just because they’ve paid the tuition.
Spidle says, even though they’re “diving into the literature on a more leisurely level,” it still makes for interesting discussions and lively debates. “As iron sharpens iron, one man sharpens another,” he says. “It will teach a person how to debate civilly and to agree to disagree.”
Sadly, this skill seems to be disappearing in our society, especially online, but in an academic context, one must learn to do just that. Spidle is a bibliophile. He has books in every conceivable nook and cranny of his home. When he read about the fire at the Library of Alexandria in Egypt, he wept.
He sees knowledge as something that is passed down through the ages, as is the love of learning. “We’re passing the torch, just by what this is doing,” he says.
Spidle already has two degrees, but he thinks that anyone can succeed at the program. A dyslexic person would be challenged, but they would still pick up a lot from the lectures.
“I would recommend it for anyone, particularly for anyone at the lower end of the socioeconomic spectrum,” he says. “You’ll never be the same, in a good way.”
Spidle also speaks very highly of the program’s director Mary Lu Roffey-Redden.
“Mary Lu is amazing,” says Spidle. “She is the heart and soul of the program and she is very encouraging and kind.”
Her job is to coordinate all the volunteers and provide a stable presence throughout each class. She loves her job and says it’s “like a box of chocolates” because she never knows what each day will bring, but it’s always something good.
“The students who stick with it are the biggest reward,” says Roffey-Redden. “They find it very interesting and very stimulating to be in a classroom that feels safe and supportive to allow them to be engaged intellectually.”
Halifax Humanities 101 is a cousin of a program started in 1995 in the United States by Earl Shorris called the Clemente Course in the Humanities. In 2003, Halifax community advocates based at St. George’s Anglican Church in the North End of Halifax started the Saint George’s Friends of Clemente Society, a non-profit organization dedicated to enriching the lives of those living in material poverty, through education in the Humanities.
In October 2005, with the cooperation of the city’s universities and the Halifax North Memorial Library, the Society led by organizers Gary Thorne, then rector of St. George’s and Angus Johnston from Kings College launched an eight-month pilot project called Halifax Humanities 101 based on a hugely successful American Clemente Course in the Humanities. Since then, more than 110 students have graduated from the eight-month course of study, which is similar in content to the King’s Foundation Year Program.
Classes in the first year are twice a week. Those who go on to the second-year seminar course, meet once a week. Roffey-Redden says there is a host of people willing to volunteer their time or donate goods or services to the program, including many university professors, who almost line up to get a chance to participate.
Neil Robertson is one such professor, who, along with many colleagues, was recruited to the fold by Thorne, the chaplain at King’s. He says he loves the experience. “It’s amazing teaching,” says Robertson. “It really is teaching like you don’t experience in the ordinary setting.”
The students of Halifax Humanities 101 come from diverse backgrounds—many have faced adversity and some of life’s toughest challenges. That makes for a much different class environment than the ivory tower of academia. For example, some, since the downfall of the Soviet Union, could see teaching Karl Marx as anachronistic.
“For people who have experienced the worst of our economic and social order, they get it,” says Robertson. “It is very powerful to have people speaking from that sense of alienation, to use Marx’s terminology. They ask questions from a place that you don’t expect.”
Conroy says Halifax Humanities was revelatory for her.
“It changed my life in a bunch of different ways,” she says. “For someone to say, ‘What do you think?’ was completely new to me.”
Spidle says he would recommend Halifax Humanities to anyone, especially anyone who wanted to go on to university but didn’t know if they could do it. He’d like to see the program live forever: “I’d like to see the Humanities still going strong when the pyramids are dust.”

This story was originally published in Halifax Magazine.

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