Guest post by NWA writer Sylvia Taylor

Three years had passed since I first saw the Odyssey Project bluish brochures and information in the NWA newsletters when I applied. My reason for not attempting before was that I did not know how my schedule would change. I figured I would be gainfully employed and did not want any interference with my new job. Well, as the years continued to progress and I did not receive anticipated job offers I promised myself I would seriously look into being a student. I wanted to know more about the Greek classics in particular but the Odyssey curriculum of art, philosophy, and history were bonuses. Earlene Strickland, another NWA writer, had impressed me with her comments and review about the Iliad at one of the NWA workshops I had attended.

An applicant is eligible to participate in the Odyssey Project if they are at least 18 years of age, able to read English, willing to do the assignments and complete the course, and live in a household with an income of no more than 150% of the poverty level. The program appealed to me because it offers a chance to explore philosophy, United States history, literature, and art history through critical writing and thinking. I was enjoying my writers group with the Neighborhood Writers Alliance and I figured my experience would be complemented. It turns out that the experiences are completely different. The writing done in the Odyssey Project is more academic, because the emphasis is on critical thinking. We have studied Socrates, Plato, Shakespeare’s Othello, the Iliad and Toni Morrison’s Jazz.

I previously felt my knowledge was totally inadequate, in part because I choose to not read the Greek Classics in high school. I am glad that my introductions to these books happened with the Odyssey Project. Dissecting them and discussing them, I realize that they are much more relevant than I imagine it would have been in high school during the sixties. However, I also appreciated broadening my definition of classic books to include works like Toni Morrison’s Jazz. Classics include the books that stand the length of time, but classics are also defined as literary or artistic works of the highest excellence—not everyone thinks of classics as just Greek or Roman, and I would like others to broaden their definition to think otherwise too.

I love that our books are provided for us and we get a chance to keep them. I discuss what I learned about Socrates with my young men at home. The fifteen year old is also studying Socrates at his school, Urban Prep.

The support supplied by the Odyssey Project under the direction of Amy Thomas Elder is phenomenal. Riza, our social worker, brings us information on job and housing needs.

We are encouraged to know our fellow classmates and opportunities are provided for us to do so. We have made several trips to the Art Institute to reinforce what we discussed in art class. We analyze by discussing the classics in class before writing about them. We were able to see an adaption of the Iliad and Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man at Court Theatre. Our instructors also teach at the University of Chicago. The instructors as well as student volunteers from the University of Chicago and graduates from the Odyssey Program all make themselves available to us for extra help on Saturdays. College admission representatives have been to our class to discuss the application process and scholarships. We will graduate from the program with six transferable credit hours from Bard College in New York. Our class graduation will take place at the National Museum of Mexican Art in May.

The premise of the Odyssey Project is that liberal education makes people free, and it proceeds on the conviction that engagement with the humanities can offer individuals a way out of poverty by fostering habits of sustained reflection and fostering skills in communication and critical thinking. We were exposed to The Politics of Truth by C. Wright Mills. In that text we read his opinion on a liberal college education for adults. He says “Insofar as it [liberal education for adults] is—in ideal at least—truly liberal, the first answer is to keep us from being overwhelmed. Its first and continuing task is first to help produce the disciplined and informed mind that cannot be overwhelmed. Its first and continuing task is to help develop the bold and sensible individual who cannot be overwhelmed by the burdens of modern life.”

My decision to enroll in the Odyssey Project has been a good one. I am a member of the Parent Advisory Council at Curie High School and I have scheduling conflicts because one of the two days that we meet is in conflict with the PAC meetings. I feel that I am sacrificing a lot by not regularly attending PAC meetings. But I’ve met many interesting people as a student in the Odyssey Project and have learned so much more about critical thinking and crafting an essay that I am getting close to forgiving myself regarding my absence. So, it has helped me to be less overwhelmed with life and day to day stresses, as Mills suggested. I would recommend this class to the graduates of Curie and to all persons interested in broadening their understanding of the world. I thank the NWA for helping me find the program, and the Illinois Humanities Council for making the program possible.

NWA Writer and Odyssey Project Participant Sylvia Taylor