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Teaching philosophy in prison
April 10, 2013 2:36 PM   Subscribe

"Tell you what, Case, if I never meet another psychopath again as long as I live, it'll be far too soon." And I knew that I had lost the stomach for the whole damned business. If I carried on in prison, I would have to do it differently; I would have to admit that it was prison.
posted by Chrysostom (16 comments total) 27 users marked this as a favorite

 
"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."

Wow.
posted by boo_radley at 2:41 PM on April 10, 2013 [9 favorites]


Great read. Smart guy. Too bad he couldn't teach others to do this.
posted by eggtooth at 2:44 PM on April 10, 2013


Cool article, though despite his protestations, it sure sounds like a guy gearing up to write a book.
posted by i less than three nsima at 3:34 PM on April 10, 2013


Previously
posted by justsomebodythatyouusedtoknow at 3:44 PM on April 10, 2013


Also Previously
posted by murfed13 at 3:49 PM on April 10, 2013


Great article. I wish he could have gone into more detail into just what had happened that morning when he decided he'd had enough.
posted by Broseph at 4:12 PM on April 10, 2013 [1 favorite]


"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.

I have multiple degrees and diplomas and I feel this worse than before I started.


A little learning is a dang'rous thing;
Drink deep, or taste not the Pierian spring:
There shallow draughts intoxicate the brain,
And drinking largely sobers us again.
Fir'd at first sight with what the Muse imparts,
In fearless youth we tempt the heights of Arts,
While from the bounded level of our mind
Short views we take, nor see the lengths behind;
But more advanc'd, behold with strange surprise
New distant scenes of endless science rise!
So pleas'd at first the towering Alps we try,
Mount o'er the vales, and seem to tread the sky,
Th' eternal snows appear already past,
And the first clouds and mountains seem the last;
But, those attain'd, we tremble to survey
The growing labours of the lengthen'd way,
Th' increasing prospects tire our wand'ring eyes,
Hills peep o'er hills, and Alps on Alps arise!

- Alexander Pope.
posted by srboisvert at 6:29 PM on April 10, 2013 [8 favorites]


Richard Pryor on working in prison.
posted by ThatFuzzyBastard at 7:42 PM on April 10, 2013 [1 favorite]


Really interesting article, thanks for posting, and I'm glad there is a link to more of his writing in the Guardian. His essay reminds me what got me excited about writing when I first read Granta and American Best Essays more than 20 years ago.
posted by KokuRyu at 9:13 PM on April 10, 2013


I taught college-level history in a maximum security state prison and I have volunteered there ever since as a tutor and book club organizer. It has literally made me rethink my career and everything I value. At the prison I report to a man who has taught adult ed there for twelve years. He's about to retire. He has his moments of cynicism and I do too.

Of course there are psychopaths and men who are extremely manipulative but fall short of that diagnosis. There are men who have poor impulse control, which is why they ended up in prison or is the result of having spent 20-30+ years in prison. There are at least half a dozen men I know who have come off death row. None of them had the opportunities to socialize in the general population so a couple of them are frankly odd and more annoying than the others.

I can see getting burned out or irritated by working with inmates for 14 years, but that’s the nature of prison. For me it’s been an enormously positive experience helping those men build a community inside or for the loners, helping them study for their own personal growth. I haven’t found the men to be ignorant. Not many of them have had access to education but the ones interested in education work hard. They work harder than my university students, and they are far more insightful. My university is known for philosophy and my inmates who take philosophy courses intimidate me when it comes to that subject. (not that it's hard to do so)

I learned to differentiate guys you can trust and guys can't from two inmates and from the adult ed teacher about to retire. You can't work in a prison without allies but you can't work around inmates with such disdain for the men. There's a delicate balance of trust and wariness. This author appears to have no respect for the men. I wouldn't be surprised if they didn't think very much of him either.

Actually I hope he doesn’t write a book. At this point in the US a lot of people are working on getting state DOCs interested in improving education in state prison systems. It seems that state DOCs are beginning to realize that education furthers their mission-- security-- not to mention it improves the quality of life for inmates. This kind of article is the last thing US prison activists need, and I bet it's not helping the UK either.
posted by vincele at 9:39 PM on April 10, 2013 [8 favorites]


Maybe I didn't read it closely, but what I took away from the article is the writer is quitting teaching in prison precisely because he has started to feel disdain or indifference for the inmates, and knows that such apathy is wrong.
posted by KokuRyu at 10:53 PM on April 10, 2013


Smith's pieces always have this weird disjointedness to them, like he wrote five thousand words and an unskilled editor cut it down to the best one-liners, making them non-sequiturs. I really hope he writes a book, though: compare this short piece to this longer one.

They work harder than my university students, and they are far more insightful

I have had this experience, as well. My regular students don't take this news well, but I find it has interesting motivating effects.
posted by anotherpanacea at 4:19 AM on April 11, 2013 [1 favorite]


> It seems that state DOCs are beginning to realize that education furthers their mission-- security-- not to mention it improves the quality of life for inmates. This kind of article is the last thing US prison activists need

Huh? The whole point of the piece is about how important education is, how it improves the quality of life for inmates. It should inspire the bosses to beef up funding, not cut it.

Great piece, Chrysostom; thanks for posting it.
posted by languagehat at 6:22 AM on April 11, 2013


I'm sorry I misread the article. I talk a lot to my colleague about how to handle the stress of dealing with difficult men and how you maintain the proper distance from them especially since you spend so much time with them. I was probably a bit predisposed to react negatively to what he said. There was something about his tone that didn't sit right with me but that's my problem probably and not his.
posted by vincele at 8:46 AM on April 11, 2013


I think anotherpanacea nails it - the piece is somewhat disjointed, so I can see how it would be easy to maybe notice one thing and miss out on something else, if that makes sense.

On the other hand, vincele, your insights on teaching in prison were really interesting and the sort of thing that makes MetaFilter such a great place to visit.
posted by KokuRyu at 11:54 AM on April 11, 2013


anotherpanacea: They work harder than my university students, and they are far more insightful

I have had this experience, as well. My regular students don't take this news well, but I find it has interesting motivating effects.
Not coincidentally, in my experience "older" college students took everything far more seriously than the 18-22 crowd. I was never sure how much of that was simply maturation, and how much was their concrete realization that if they fail here, they'll lose out for the rest of their lives.

For many of us, the four years in college were much like the four in high school, only with less reporting to our parents and less hallway supervision.

For vets and 30-somethings hoping to change (or simply gain) careers, every damn assignment mattered.

In prison, even more so. I wonder how his experiences would have differed if he'd taught juvenile offenders.
posted by IAmBroom at 1:08 PM on April 11, 2013 [2 favorites]


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