On the Power of Teaching Philosophy in Prisons

Phi­los­o­phy is often seen as an arcane aca­d­e­m­ic dis­ci­pline, in com­pe­ti­tion with the hard sci­ences or laden with abstruse con­cepts and lan­guage inac­ces­si­ble to ordi­nary peo­ple. Such a per­cep­tion may be war­rant­ed. This is not to damn aca­d­e­m­ic phi­los­o­phy but to high­light what has been lost through pro­fes­sion­al­iza­tion: clas­si­cal notions of ethics as “the art of liv­ing” or what Michel Fou­cault called “the care of the self”; the ancient Greek idea of par­rhe­sia—bold, hon­est speech uncloud­ed by pro­pri­etary jar­gon; phi­los­o­phy as a prac­tice like med­i­ta­tion or yoga, a tech­nique for self-knowl­edge, self-con­trol, and wise, just, and con­sid­er­ate rela­tion­ships with oth­ers.

From Socrates to Aris­to­tle to Epi­cu­rus and the Sto­ics, ancient West­ern thinkers believed phi­los­o­phy to be inti­mate­ly rel­e­vant to every­day life. This was very much the case in ancient East­ern thought as well, in the Jain­ist sages, the Bud­dha, or Lao-Tzu, to name a few. We will find some form of pop­u­lar phi­los­o­phy on every con­ti­nent and every his­tor­i­cal age. And while plen­ty of mod­ern teach­ers still believe in phi­los­o­phy for every­one, they oper­ate in a con­sumer cul­ture that often deems them irrel­e­vant, at best. Still, many edu­ca­tors per­sist out­side the acad­e­my, endeav­or­ing to reach not only ordi­nary cit­i­zens but a class of dis­em­pow­ered peo­ple also deemed irrel­e­vant, at best: the impris­oned, many of whom have had few edu­ca­tion­al resources and lit­tle to no expo­sure to philo­soph­i­cal think­ing.

We have many exam­ples of influ­en­tial thinkers writ­ing from prison, whether Boethius’ ear­ly Chris­t­ian Con­so­la­tions of Phi­los­o­phy, Anto­nio Gramsci’s pas­sion­ate Marx­ist prison let­ters, Oscar Wilde’s De Pro­fundis, or Mar­tin Luther King, Jr.’s essen­tial “Let­ter from a Birm­ing­ham Jail.” These have maybe pro­vid­ed read­ers who have nev­er been jailed with trag­ic, yet roman­tic notions of doing phi­los­o­phy while doing time. But the philoso­phers who enter pris­ons to work with peo­ple convicted—justly or otherwise—of all man­ner of crimes can­not afford to have roman­tic ideas. Philoso­pher Alan Smith found this to be espe­cial­ly so after teach­ing in UK pris­ons for 14 years, and writ­ing bold­ly and can­did­ly about the expe­ri­ence in his Guardian col­umn “Phi­los­o­phy for Pris­on­ers.”

Final­ly retir­ing in 2013, Smith con­fessed, “If I car­ried on in prison, I would have to do it dif­fer­ent­ly; I would have to admit that it was prison.” He may have felt burned out at the end of his sojourn, but he had­n’t lost his sense of eth­i­cal pur­pose:

When we don’t know about his­to­ry and art and soci­ety we are adrift. Most of you read­ing this will nev­er have had that expe­ri­ence, but many of the men I taught were igno­rant of just about every­thing, and as grown men felt this keen­ly. Edu­ca­tion was a relief, a route to self-respect.

Those who do this work report on how so many inmates hunger for routes to self-knowl­edge, reflec­tion, and rig­or­ous intel­lec­tu­al exer­cise. Sev­er­al edu­ca­tors at The Phi­los­o­phy Foun­da­tion, for exam­ple, have writ­ten about their expe­ri­ences teach­ing phi­los­o­phy in var­i­ous UK pris­ons. Con­di­tions are dif­fer­ent, and often much bleak­er, in the US—a coun­try with 5% of the world’s pop­u­la­tion and 25% of its prisoners—but here, too, philoso­phers have helped inmates dis­cov­er new truths about them­selves and their soci­ety. In the very short TED talk up top, Damon Horowitz, who teach­es at San Quentin through the Prison Uni­ver­si­ty Project, gives a pas­sion­ate, rapid-fire account­ing of his mis­sion behind bars: “Every­one’s got an opin­ion. We are here for knowl­edge. Our ene­my is thought­less­ness.” A cho­rus of ven­er­a­ble ancients would assured­ly agree.

Fur­ther down, you can see par­tic­i­pants in Prince­ton’s Prison Teach­ing Ini­tia­tive talk about the virtues and rewards of their accred­it­ed pro­gram. That includes teach­ers and stu­dents alike.

Note: You can find 140+ Free Phi­los­o­phy Cours­es in our ever-grow­ing list, 1,700 Free Online Cours­es from Top Uni­ver­si­ties.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Tim Rob­bins’ Improv Class­es Trans­form Pris­on­ers’ Lives & Low­er Recidi­vism Rates

Pat­ti Smith Reads from Oscar Wilde’s De Pro­fundis, the Love Let­ter He Wrote From Prison (1897)

What Pris­on­ers Ate at Alca­traz in 1946: A Vin­tage Prison Menu

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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