Comments on “Why All Humanists Should Go to Prison”

Alex Tipei, in a 25 September 2016 Chronicle of Higher Education piece, “Why All Humanists Should Go to Prison,” relates experience as a volunteer instructor in Indiana Women’s Prison. She notes that having done so forced a critical reevaluation of her classroom methods, given both the divergence in physical circumstances between teaching inmates and teaching typical undergraduates and the systematic, structural similarities between the institutions of incarceration and higher education. For her, the experience of teaching in a prison–something she claims ought to be done by far more people than currently do it–helps to reaffirm at least one mission of the liberal arts in the wider world: the development of fuller, better-rounded, more humane people.

The clickbait tile of the piece is somewhat misleading, to be sure. Perhaps I have done too much reading in some less happy parts of the internet or attended too closely to the complaints made by no few people in the broader society of the United States, but the idea of punishing in one way or another those who study the humanities–and by some other means than the already-abundant social disdain and too-low pay–is something that I have seen voiced, and I found myself worried when my Twitter feed (yes, I am on Twitter: @GBElliottPhD) showed me that the Chronicle of Higher Education had run an article with the title. (Indeed, the clickbait worked; a carp, I rose to the bait and was hooked.) I am happy to have followed along, but I could wish not to see such misdirection at work in the publication.

Tipei makes a compelling case for the value of teaching in prisons, although I do have to wonder at the influences of the particular populations taught upon what revelations she distills from her experience. (That circumstances determine much is obvious. What those circumstances are is perhaps less so; I am not expert on the inmate population of the facility discussed, so I cannot speak to them. Perhaps some explication thereof would have helped.) I have to question whether such insights as emerge would have come from different populations–although my own experiences teaching those formerly on the inside says that they might well have, for certain instructors and in certain tenures of instruction. But I do not question the central view of the piece, that reaffirming the value of traditional instructional modes–lecture and discussion–and reminding those of us who teach the academic humanities that our goal is not so much to contribute to the digitally-enhanced (and, yes, I am aware of the irony of making such a comment in a digital medium) career readiness of our students as it is to help them become the kinds of people who can improve the world–empathetic builders of a more just and equitable world than we now have rather than more efficient technicians ready to be replaced by the next set of them to graduate under crushing debt loads, slowly being pushed into some new social stratum that we have yet to fully understand.

I am sure that there are other implications to tease out of Tipei’s piece. I may return to them in time; others might pursue them in the short term. But all of us can take something from the text–and I will see about putting what I get from the piece to use in my own institutions, whatever their sort.

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