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The Odyssey Project: A history

By Matthew Schroyer/For CU-CitizenAccess '” The Odyssey Project in Champaign is an affiliate of the Bard Clemente Course in the Humanities, which began offering college-level courses to economically and educationally disadvantaged adults in 1995 out of the Roberto Clemente Family Guidance Center in Manhattan, N.Y. Since then, courses under the Bard Clemente name have been taught more than 100 times, and in 14 states and the District of Columbia. 

Like the Bard Clemente Course, the Odyssey Project gives all students free instruction and course materials, such as textbooks and flash drives to save computer documents. Once students graduate the program, Bard College is the academic authority that grants the six college credits. 


The Illinois Humanities Council first began the Odyssey Project in Chicago 10 years ago. In 2005, John Marsh, who at the time was assistant director of the Illinois Program for Research in the Humanities at UIUC, began planning an Odyssey Project for Champaign. 

Part of his reason for starting a Champaign project was a desire to do more than coordinate research among UIUC faculty and grad students. Another was the poverty situation in Champaign County, which by some measures, was worse than Chicago. 

The 2000 census pegged Chicago's poverty rate at 19.6 percent. Meanwhile, Champaign has a poverty rate of 22.1 percent, while Urbana has a poverty rate of 27.3 percent. 

Marsh saw the demand, and his academic background allowed him to make a Champaign project a reality.

"Because of my own research interests, which was in the Great Depression, and writing of workers in the Great Depression, I knew of these adult education that had happened then and thought that was something that the university, and in particular, IPRH could provide or necessitate.' 

Marsh wrote a $30,000 funding proposal for the Chancellor's office, to "buy out' humanities faculty and release them from UIUC responsibilities to teach for the Odyssey Project. The Provost approved, IPRH agreed to supply funding for books, supplies and childcare, and the program got off the ground. 

The Chancellor's office was enthusiastic from the beginning, he said in a telephone interview from Pennsylvania State University, where he is an assistant professor of English. "I quickly found a partner in the community, in the Douglass Branch library. And so the hardest part was for the first year finding faculty to teach it, but there, too, we worked things out.' 

In a commentary for the academic journal Pedagogy, Marsh wrote of his experiences founding and running the Odyssey Project in Champaign and said he was concerned about a widespread belief that higher education, and specifically Odyssey and similar programs, are a cure for poverty in America. 

"Ensuring that everyone has a right to a college education is neither a necessary nor a sufficient condition for battling poverty,' he wrote. "It may increase the equality of opportunity, but it will do comparatively little for the problem of equality and poverty proper other than, perhaps, ever so lightly shuffling the deck of who is poor and who isn't.' 

Marsh included the Department of Labor statistic that seven out of ten of the jobs projected to grow in coming years do not require a college education and will pay less than $13.25 per hour. 

"It's an enormous assumption to assume that there are jobs out there going unfilled that just sort of exist and employers are waiting for educated workers to come fill them,' Marsh said. "I'm not sure that's a terribly realistic description of the labor market.' 

Instead, what would benefit the bottom two-thirds of wage earners in America, Marsh argued, are wage increases, stronger worker's unions and earned-income tax credits. 

"Poverty is undeniably, a question of a lack of resources, in its most basic sense,' he said. "If that's the case, then the solution to it involves resources. 

"The belief that education would be this kind of means to the acquisition of those greater resources, I think that can be true to a limited extent on an individual level, but can't be a legitimate approach to poverty on a national level.' 

But Marsh defends the program, promoting the "less-tangible benefits' of liberal arts education, which he witnessed in the conversations and contemplations of people who, if it weren't for Odyssey, wouldn't have the luxury of doing so. 

Borrowing from Aristotle, a Greek philosopher who Marsh introduced to Odyssey students in 2008, he argues that happiness depends not only on an adequate paycheck, but also the education to "reflect on what it means to be human and what it means to live in a society of humans' -- the humanities included. 

"So little in people's daily lives is devoted to the opportunity to reflect upon their daily lives, or the world they live in, and how it got to be that way.' Marsh said. "To the extent that is has a value, and I think it has a very big value, that's something worth fighting for.'  

¨ Copyright 2011 CU-CitizenAccess.