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Higher Ed in the Halfway House

Updated: Aug 30, 2023

recent article from Stanford University’s in-house news service highlights a continuing ed program that has made humanities coursework an aid to both addiction recovery and the broader social stability needed to sustain it. The Hope House Scholars Program was founded in 2001 by Stanford philosophy profs Debra Satz and Rob Reich, who were inspired by the Clemente Course in the Humanities program founded by Earl Shorris in 1995. Each term, two Stanford profs team up to teach a course to the residents of Hope House, a residential drug and alcohol treatment facility for women, many of whom have recently been released from prison. The courses focus on themes including ethics, social justice, and moral responsibility. Each of the roughly 16 graduates per term receives college credit and a voucher for another continuing ed course. Corrie Goldman reports:

Wende C. is a grandmother who worked in banking for 27 years. She is also a crack addict who checked herself into Hope House, a residential drug and alcohol treatment facility in Redwood City, Calif., so she could learn the skills she needs to recover from her addiction. As a resident in the all-female facility, she participated in group and individual therapy sessions, and health and nutrition seminars. She also attended a weekly humanities course. Each session focused on one historical female figure, including medieval philosopher Hildegard of Bingen, poet Emily Dickinson, African American abolitionist Sojourner Truth and Hatshepsut, one of the most successful pharaohs of ancient Egypt. At first, Wende wondered about the merit of studying “old and dead people,” but she said that learning about influential women made her feel “empowered” and helped her realize that it’s “OK for women to take a stand.”

One of the reasons I find this kind of program fascinating is the way it interacts with the humanist traditions built into the various mutual-aid and talk therapies used in recovery facilities and beyond.

A large part of many recovery programs, and certainly twelve-step and related ones, is the development of self-narrative via testimonial practices of listening and speaking. These narrative practices entail a significant degree of intentionality around genre, performance, and exchange. Participants discuss their lives as narratives, participate in meetings that allow them to hear others’ hopeful stories as models for their own, and are encouraged to think of testimonial performances as shaping their experiences and activating certain kinds of growth.

Academic humanities scholarship operates via less obviously functional but more sharply defined forms of awareness, whether in “critical distance” or simply in the various historical, theoretical, and aesthetic contexts brought to bear on particular stories. Recent Hope House course titles include “Writing Futures, Performing Hope” and “The Environmental Imagination: Finding Our Way Back into the World.” They suggest a program-appropriate focus on journeys of transformation that link self-narrative to the exploration of wider trajectories in the world.

A humanities education may not seem like an obvious component of addiction recovery, but Karen Marie Francone, the executive director of the Service League of San Mateo County, the nonprofit agency that runs Hope House, said there is a strong correlation between the two. “Like the recovery process, the coursework seems insurmountable,” she said, but trusting the process of the course shows students that “you can do anything if you keep an open mind and are willing.” Francone, who initiated the Hope House program with Stanford, also said that humanities subject matter, such as philosophical scenarios and ethical dilemmas, gives the students new perspectives “that help them make wise decisions that are actually good for them.” Importantly, Francone noted, exposure to the humanities helps the women “expand their horizons and see themselves not just as an addict or alcoholic but as a whole person.”

In this account of the Hope House Scholars program, you can see the recovery and humanities traditions meeting and merging on common ground, at concepts like “empowerment.” When participant Wende C. recounts learning that it’s “OK for women to take a stand” while studying historically influential women, she reconceives her sense of self in light of historical precedents. This effect is what Setz calls the egalitarian nature of democratized educational access and what co-founder Reich describes as “a sense of possibility and agency.”

The success of the program raises the question of which side of the engagement learns more from the other. While it’s fairly clear what the residents gain, putting humanities education in the service of the most pressing human needs would seem to help clarify what it is truly capable of and what its purpose is. The exigencies of addiction, like those of poverty and imprisonment, tend to force epistemic practices to confront their real-world value.

Importantly, said Satz, “it’s not a one-way program. This is not a program where Stanford faculty bring their expertise to a group of people who have no expertise. This is actually a program in which two groups that have been relatively isolated from one anther come together and think together about important questions of values, and ethics, and history.”

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