Humanities 101 aims to break down barriers

by Gavin Wilson
Staff writer

What would happen if 20 people from Vancouver's poorest neighborhoods came to the university twice each week to study history, philosophy and literature. Would it change their lives? Would it change UBC?

That's what a student-organized program will discover this September when a three-month pilot project known as Humanities 101 begins.

Students Allison Dunnet and Am Johal, co-chairs of a committee planning the program, say the course will be barrier-free. Bus fare, child care, even meals will be provided to students who are referred by non-profit agencies.

The aim, says Dunnet, is "to offer non-vocational training that empowers students to use critical thinking in everyday life and inspire a passion for lifelong learning."

The idea for Humanities 101 came from an article in Harper's magazine. It described a similar program set up in New York's Lower East Side by author Earl Shorris. He started the program after an inmate in a women's prison told him the poor needed "a moral alternative to the street" to be able to rise above their circumstances.

Graduates of the program, none of whom had previous higher education, have gone on to college studies or full-time jobs.

Teaching the humanities contradicts the conventional wisdom that people need technical job skills in order to succeed in today's economy.

"There are lots of skill-based programs out there, but none that focus on the arts and humanities. We believe that teaching critical thinking skills is just as valid as teaching specific job skills," says Dunnet.

Everyone will benefit from having non-traditional students and their viewpoints on campus, the organizers say.

"A variety of backgrounds and opinions will make the class that much more interesting. And it will be good for UBC students and faculty too," says Johal.

Although the course will be non-credit, the organizers hope students successfully completing it will receive a certificate and be able to take part in Congregation ceremonies at the Chan Centre for the Performing Arts.

The pilot program will be funded with a $15,000 grant from the Innovative Projects Fund, which is jointly operated by the Alma Mater Society and the university.

The program, which is now housed in the Faculty of Arts, has enlisted the help of UBC lecturer Jim Green. The former head of the Downtown Eastside Residents' Association, Green is currently a provincial civil servant in the Ministry of Employment and Investment.

For more information, contact the UBC Information Line at UBC-INFO (822-4636) or e-mail to