Prison Education: Can the Liberal Arts Liberate?

Ashley Thorne

A recent article in the Chronicle of Higher Education titled "Doing Time, With a Degree to Show for It," discusses the value of higher education for prison inmates. The author is a distinguished fellow at the Bard Prison Initiative. I was especially arrested by this excerpt from the author's conversation with a former inmate:

As I pressed him to explain, he talked of growing up in Harlem, where his friends in the street always wanted to know "who was putting us down." Bard taught him, he said, to think critically about statements like that. His classes in history and anthropology had enabled him to understand his situation in a social context. "Now," he said, smiling, "I know life is more than 'us versus them.'"

 Life is more than 'us versus them.' I'm glad that history and anthropology classes are teaching this to the incarcerated. But for most students, liberal arts classes teach just the opposite - that history is the history of identity-group-based oppression. Just look at Howard Zinn's textbooks. It sounds as if colleges and universities have something to learn from programs such as the Bard Prison Initiative. To read further on prison education, check out this article from the NAS:

Inmates in liberal arts programs frequently invoke the language of inner freedom to describe their experience.  The irony, of course, is that so many students who are on the outside attending elite four-year colleges and universities adopt the pretence that their freedom is phony and that they are victims of an oppressive society.
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