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I visited one of these programs — called a Clemente course — in Harlem on a Thursday night.
"Can you live in a good life in a society where people are doing different things?" asks the teacher.
"Of course," replies a student.
Sitting in on a Clemente course is like watching a bunch of passionate freshman staying up all night in their dorm debating an assignment.
But rather than a room full of teenagers, the students ranged in age from mid-20s to their 70s. They have to be low-income to attend and they are all interviewed before being accepted.
Among the nearly 30 students in this class, there's a rape survivor who says she suffers from panic attacks. There's a former inmate who's now a prison reform advocate. And there are several working mothers like Renee Mitchell.
"I was so freaking nervous," Mitchell says, "because I felt so dumb. You know, I felt like I was too old."
Mitchell is a secretary who came to this class, held at a Harlem social service agency, last fall. The Clemente course is for low-income adults wishing to study philosophy, history and art. She thought it could help her get a college degree, and earn more money. But Mitchell recalls how hard it was when she tried to write her first philosophy paper.