“The Best Students I Have Are Inmates”


Christia Mercer (Columbia) reports on her experiences teaching philosophy to inmates as part of the new Justice-in-Education Initiative, sponsored by Columbia University’s Center for Justice, and calls for greater attention to the educational needs of prisoners, in an op-ed in The Washington Post. She writes:

My incarcerated students differ radically from the ones at Columbia. When I walk into a tidy, well-equipped classroom on Morningside campus, I know my undergrads have spent years preparing for academic achievement, supported by family and teachers. Trained to ask hard questions, they consider diverse perspectives and then expect to get to the bottom of things.

When a correctional officer escorts me into a prison room equipped with rickety tables, tangled Venetian blinds, and no chalk, I know my incarcerated students have been locked away for years – sometimes for decades — with virtually no opportunity for intellectual stimulation. The culture they inhabit punishes people for asking questions. Solitary confinement is often the reward for any form of precocity. As one woman explained, “If you ask too many questions in here, you’ll be punished for having the wrong attitude.” The lesson is to keep your head down.

My main goal as a teacher in prison has been to create a space comfortable enough for exploration and insight. The circumstance does not make that easy. With a heating system so loud we can barely hear ourselves think and a correctional officer randomly peering through a window in the classroom wall, it’s easy to be distracted. A quick trip to the bathroom is overseen, and class ends not at the scheduled time, but when it suits the schedule of others. Although every aspect of my students’ lives is controlled, down to the details of their drab green uniforms, our class begins at the whim of the correctional officer on duty. “Welcome to our world,” mumbled one student…

There are roughly 2.2 million people in a correctional facility in the United States, which incarcerates more individuals than any other country in the world. According to a 2012 study, 58.5 percent of incarcerated people are black or Latino. According to the Sentencing Project, one in three black men will be incarcerated. Although more than 50 percent have high school diplomas or a GED, most prisons offer few if any post-secondary education…

The pleasures I’ve found teaching in prison are among the richest I’ve ever had. But the pleasure I find in this pedagogical delight is matched by the pain of recognition that their intellectual exploration will cease without volunteers like me.

Readers may also be interested in a post from last year in which several philosophers who teach in prisons described their experiences.

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Professor Plum
Professor Plum
6 years ago

Cocooned in anonymity (and horribly bored by the grading I should be doing), I’d like to express an unpopular opinion: I’m tired of the “philosophers find their best students in prison” trope. And it is a trope at this point. If you google it, you will find hundreds of examples, including essays and (rather obnoxious) TED talks.

I’m not sure why it annoys me so much. It certainly isn’t because I approve of our system of incarceration–I recognize it as horribly unjust, and I applaud all those working to make it better. But there is something uncomfortably self-righteous and self-serving about these pieces.

First off, they are almost always written by white people. I find it super annoying that prison life is of interest to the readers of the Washington Post only when it comes to them safely interpreted by someone like them.

Second, while the professed goals are always emancipatory and properly liberal, they seem to tacitly express some sort of illicit thrill–“here I am, in prison, while white! OMG! It is so dirty here! This will make for such an exciting story at my next cocktail party!”

Third, there is always this sense that it is *surprising* that prisoners have interesting thoughts about philosophy– this strikes me as both odd and sorta racist/classist.

Fourth, I never learn anything new. While I would think that the incarcerated would have unique perspectives on philosophy, I never actually learn anything about these prospectives from these pieces.

In the end, the philosopher goes to prison pieces leave me feeling more troubled than inspired.Report

Aaron Garrett
Aaron Garrett
6 years ago

Thank you Christia for sharing this experience and for teaching prisoners — not something we all do but something perhaps we all should. IN response to the above: 1) Most philosophy professors are white people. This is unfortunate. It should be different. But why are you insulting Christia for telling us about teaching in prison? Furthermore how do you know it’s only of interest to white people when safely interpreted by white people. It certainly isn’t to me; 2) That’s just insulting and completely unwarranted by the discussion above; 3) It might be surprising because one might think that the day to day needs of prisoners are rather difficult to deal with and so philosophy might take second place to coping. Cf. the comment in the article “the lesson is to keep your head down”; Of course in another sense it’s not at all surprising; Why read it so uncharitably; 4) I learn I should probably also go teach prisoners. That seems a sufficient reason to write such articles, to convince others to do so.
This is really an example of the cloak of anonymity allowing for comments much more pointless and insulting than those someone might actually stand by.Report

Professor Plum
Professor Plum
6 years ago

Calling my comment pointless is certainly a low blow; while you may not like my point, I don’t think this shows that I don’t have one.

I remain anonymous on blog postings because I think we have good reason to believe that unpopular opinions of academics will be held against them. Maybe after tenure I will come out from the shadows so you can put a face and a name to the ideas you find so abhorrent and pointless.

I’m surprised to read that this is the first you’ve heard about philosophers volunteering in prison. As I said above it is now something of a trope. Rich white undergraduates have Teach for America and rich white philosophy professors have teaching in prison–both balms to soothe the troubled souls of the privileged (and they provide good cocktail party conversation to boot).

Please do not get me wrong: I have nothing against white people teaching philosophy in prison. Nor do I have a particular problem with Mercer or the program she’s involved with at Columbia.

My main gripe is directed more towards newspapers like the Washington Post who publish editorials like this rather than first personal accounts from prisoners themselves. Why aren’t we hearing from the students taking these philosophy classes in prison rather then the well-off white professors teaching these classes? I don’t know, but I suspect that many white people just feel more comfortable reading about the experiences of people like themselves. Or the editors think this is the case. To me, this is disturbing, and I do wish philosophers would stop participating in this rather creepy and uninteresting practice.Report

Doesn'tMatter
Doesn'tMatter
6 years ago

Oh my god, yes. I have never taught inmates, but I have taught many adult students, some of which were parolees, and I have to say that adults aren’t just more likely to be more responsible than kids, but they often bring a lot of thoughtful life experience to the table. And one of my best students ever had just finished a fairly lengthy prison bid when she or he took my class. I think he or she is planning to go into a STEM field, but last I heard she or he is double-majoring in philosophy and something STEM-y. But we’d be lucky to get him or her on our team.Report

Jamie Dreier
Jamie Dreier
6 years ago

‘I’m tired of the “philosophers find their best students in prison” trope. And it is a trope at this point. If you google it, you will find hundreds of examples, including essays and (rather obnoxious) TED talks.’

I googled it. It gets zero google-hits.

The really tired trope is the self-congratulatory “I know it’s unpopular but I’m speaking the truth to power!” thing. You happen to have pulled it off in a particularly nasty, mean-spirited way.

Maybe just leave your lead pipe in the conservatory next time, how about?Report

Corina Strößner
Corina Strößner
6 years ago

At Jamie: I think Plum meantthe many hits for “teaching philosophy in prison” and the like and not a particular phrase. I would also be interested to hear more from the students and less about them.Report

Ben A.
Ben A.
6 years ago

Corinna Stroßner, it is totally reasonable to want to hear more from incarcerated students and less about them; but in practice it can be a difficult request to satisfy. Very few (if any) incarcerated students have internet access, so their voices won’t be directly represented in threads like this one. Some of us do endeavor to bring our students’ voices indirectly to forums on the outside (see, for instance, the Prison-Neighborhood Arts Project, p-nap.org); but doing this in a way that is at once respectful of students’ epistemic agency and compatible with correctional institutions’ policies is not always easy.Report

Via Malcontenti
6 years ago

I had a number of inmates in some old-style correspondence courses that I taught. I very much enjoyed teaching these students, for two main reasons: they truly appreciated the course, and unlike many of my other students, they did not cheat.Report

Professor Plum
Professor Plum
6 years ago

It is curious to me that my comment was immediately met, not just with criticism, but with insult, dismissiveness, and seemingly intentional misrepresentation of my claims by two white, male philosophers who certainly count as highly privledged by any understanding of that term.

One reason why I find the “philosophers go to prison” trope so offensive is because prisoners are not exotic or foreign to me. While I’ve never been to prison, I certainly have acquaintances and neighbors who have done time, and I can’t count all the family members and close friends who have been thrown in jail at some point.

Privledged philosophers often fall all over themselves to stress just how awful they find the lack of diversity in philosophy. Yet this thead, and my personal experiences suggest a quite different picture: many privileged philosophers welcome diversity only when those who bring some “color” to the field express views that support the status quo. Perhaps this explains the lack of diversity, of all kinds, which still plagues the profession.Report

Dan Dennis
Dan Dennis
6 years ago

Philosophers who teach in prison are behaving very commendably in doing so. I interpret them writing articles about it as reminding the cossetted reader at home of their shared humanity with the prisoners and encouraging others to go teach in prisons too. Any clever person can think of cynical negative interpretations of others’ good deeds (including their writing of articles such as that above) – but what sort of a person chooses to interpret good deeds in that way? Do you teach in prison, ‘Professor Plum’ or Catrina Strossner? If not, why not? If you would like to hear from the inmates, as you say, then go and speak to them!Report

Dan Dennis
Dan Dennis
6 years ago

PS Any philosopher who does not have a prison in their town, or who prefers not to teach there for whatever reason, can at least volunteer to teach a philosophy class at a local school. Again, they will find eager and engaged students…Report