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Scholars Behind Bars

Notes from the Field

a one-woman show written and performed by Anna Deavere Smith and directed by Leonard Foglia
Second Stage Theatre’s Tony Kiser Theatre, New York City, November 2–December 18, 2016
Anna Deavere Smith in Notes from the Field, her play about American education and the criminal justice system, which she performed at the American Repertory Theater, Cambridge, Massachusetts, before the production came to New York
Evgenia Eliseeva
Anna Deavere Smith in Notes from the Field, her play about American education and the criminal justice system, which she performed at the American Repertory Theater, Cambridge, Massachusetts, before the production came to New York

American higher education has to deal much with bad news, as any quick scan of the country’s front pages will confirm: skyrocketing costs, runaway debt, sexual violence, and sluggish students more interested in partying than learning. But consider the following description of Bard College students, by one of their professors:

Students report that classes are “totally absorbing,” which is clearly evident in the classrooms. The intensity of student engagement is seen in the consistently lively class discussions. The study rooms are always full. In one-on-one conversations with faculty, students often report having read several more books than the ones assigned in order to investigate the topics at hand more deeply. They regularly ask for comments on essays they have written not for class, but just to express their views about someone running for office or an event in the news. On occasion, they buttonhole professors to talk about some particularly challenging philosophical puzzle they have been contemplating, such as how one knows what is and is not fair. Others have wanted to discuss an idea they have for a book they want to write or an organization they hope to establish once they are home.

That’s not the kind of intellectual atmosphere you will find on most American campuses. But these students aren’t on Bard’s campus; they’re in jail. The tribute to them comes from Ellen Condliffe Lagemann, distinguished fellow at the Bard Prison Initiative (BPI), which provides college education to inmates at several high-security penitentiaries in upstate New York. The project was founded in 1999 by Max Kenner, an undergraduate at the time, with the backing of Bard’s president, Leon Botstein. Lagemann’s evocative book makes a convincing “case for college in prison,” to quote its title, carefully documenting the great many benefits that its graduates receive from BPI.

So does a second account by Daniel Karpowitz, the academic director of BPI and cofounder of a national network to promote liberal arts education in prisons. At the same time, both books also remind us how far our higher-education system has strayed from the humanistic ideal at the heart of the Bard prison project. By any conceivable measure, the education that these inmates receive is vastly superior to the standard academic experience of the roughly 20 million undergraduates in the United States. So these books also serve as an indirect criticism of mass higher education, not just mass incarceration.

What is college for? American higher education began as a narrow religious and moral project, preparing a small subset of young men for upright lives in this world and the one everlasting. But it has evolved into a colossal vocational enterprise, which promises to yield gainful employment for its increasing variety of eager customers. Whether a college degree will lead to upper-middle-class jobs is one of the most hotly contested questions in American social sciences right now.1 But for prisoners, the practical advantages of a college education are impossible to deny. Only 2 percent of BPI graduates return to jail, as opposed to about half of released prisoners nationwide. Even more importantly, BPI alumni make vital and often unexpected contributions to their communities upon their return. In their prison classes, they talk about working as youth advocates, counselors, and teachers. And once they are home, that’s mostly what they do.

There are in fact only a limited number of college-in-prison programs in the US. The 1994 Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act, signed by President Clinton, prohibited inmates from obtaining federal Pell Grants to cover tuition costs. Almost anyone receiving a college degree in prison today relies on private initiatives like BPI, which has raised impressive amounts of foundation money.

Lagemann links the decline of college prison programs to the punitive spirit of criminal justice over the past several decades and to the simultaneous drop in public commitment to higher education. Since the 1960s, America has incarcerated more people—and for longer periods of time—than at any time in its history, and more than any other nation on earth. Many criminals were seen as beyond rehabilitation, so the only seemingly reasonable thing to do was to lock them up for many years. And even as states and the federal government plowed more money into prisons, they cut funds for colleges and universities. They also slashed student aid, shifting the cost burden from grants to loans—that is, from public to private hands. The imprisoning widened, and the educational state withered.

Incarceration is fed by our failing K-12 schools, as well. That is the theme of Notes from the Field, Anna Deavere Smith’s recent performance piece Off-Broadway, in which Smith assumes the voices of a school principal, a teacher, and a student as well as of several inmates. Her message is stark, and almost unspeakably sad: if you take young people from hardscrabble homes and place them in underfunded and poorly run schools, a high fraction of them will wind up in jail. But there are hopeful stories, too. The most affecting character in Smith’s roster is Denise Dodson, an inmate in Maryland and a student in a prison education program run by Goucher College.

Like Bard, Goucher offers full undergraduate degrees in prison. Dodson seems transformed by her coursework. “I guess I can say that I just wasn’t connecting to everything,” Dodson says, reflecting on her life before prison, “because I wasn’t given enough information to know that we are all connected somehow.” Just as a poor education transports people into prison, a rich one can transform them beyond it.

Our prison population leveled off during the Obama years, as recession-strapped legislators looked for new ways to trim budgets. And the number of students attending college or university continued to grow, assisted by Obama’s expansion of tuition tax credits and his provision of direct government loans to replace the private banks that served (and sometimes gouged) student borrowers.

Yet there doesn’t seem to be any more public sentiment on behalf of college for prisoners than there was before. Obama did initiate a small program in 2015 to get around the Pell Grant prohibition, and this is expected to provide federal student aid to 12,000 inmates. But the “experimental” tag of this effort also indicated that it had tenuous political status. Indeed, as Republicans and Democrats agree to reduce the number of prisoners and their associated tax burden, life might become even more miserable for the people who remain behind bars. Reserving prison for “the worst offenders” makes it tougher to make any kind of case for assisting them. And many Americans—probably most Americans—are offended by the idea of devoting their tax dollars to the education of supposedly hardened criminals.

To their credit, neither Lagemann nor Karpowitz romanticizes the students in BPI. Almost all of them are in prison for committing acts of violence, not for drug violations or other so-called victimless crimes. Not surprisingly, many of them also lack more than the rudiments of basic literacy. But in the era of “college for all,” it turns out that prisoners want a degree as much as, and maybe more than, anyone else. Some of the most poignant passages in Lagemann’s book describe prisoners’ repeated efforts to gain admission to the Bard program, which requires a written test as well as an interview. Only one of ten applicants is admitted, but some inmates keep trying—as many as eight times—until they get in.

Students of the Bard Prison Initiative attending a calculus class at Eastern New York Correctional Facility, Napanoch, New York
Pete Mauney
Students of the Bard Prison Initiative attending a calculus class at Eastern New York Correctional Facility, Napanoch, New York

Bard commits to giving them a rigorous college education but not “remediation,” the catch-up instruction that many of our universities provide for students who don’t have the skills that high schools are supposed to provide. Instead, BPI students are presented with guides to grammar and usage upon admission. They pass these books around the prison yard, where students help each other master the rules of sentence structure and verb conjugation. It’s up to them—and not help from Bard—to acquire the basic proficiency they didn’t receive in school.

Nor does Bard tailor its curriculum to their expected future vocations, another characteristic of contemporary higher education. Most American undergraduates major in so-called “practical” fields—business, computer science, communication, education, and so on—rather than in the liberal arts. In part, that trend reflects the preferences of students: as an annual survey of freshmen has demonstrated, rising numbers of young people value financial and job security over other educational goals.2 The same trend has also been encouraged by politicians like Florida governor Rick Scott and former North Carolina governor Pat McCrory, who both suggested that their states shouldn’t assist students who choose to major in the humanities or social sciences. (McCrory: “I don’t want to subsidize that if that’s not going to get someone a job.”)3

Even President Obama suggested a similar view, telling a 2014 audience that “folks can make a lot more, potentially, with skilled manufacturing or the trades than they might with an art history degree.” Obama later withdrew the remark, but even his apology spoke volumes about popular perceptions of the liberal arts: “I was making a point about the jobs market, not the value of art history,” Obama wrote, in a handwritten note to an offended art historian. “As it so happens, art history was one of my favorite subjects in high school, and it has helped me take in a great deal of joy in my life that I might otherwise have missed.” One might conclude from this that the liberal arts give you enjoyment, and fields like business and communication yield employment.

That’s the conventional wisdom, but it’s probably wrong. In a recent survey of business leaders, nearly all of them said they valued clear thinking and communication skills in job applicants more than the particular undergraduate majors of job candidates; 80 percent agreed that “every college student should acquire broad knowledge in the liberal arts and sciences”; and three quarters said they would recommend liberal arts education as “the best way to prepare for success in today’s global economy.”4

Lagemann and Karpowitz make a similar point, noting that BPI’s liberal arts approach prepares graduates for a broader variety of vocations than an explicitly “vocational” curriculum would. They’re slightly ambivalent on this score, and for understandable reasons: by emphasizing advantages the liberal arts may have in securing jobs, we may risk diminishing the kind of intrinsic joy and deeper perception that President Obama experienced in his art history classes. But surely there is room for both: the liberal arts can prepare students to be economically successful workers and more aesthetically and intellectually aware human beings. And that’s also why we need to provide a liberal arts education to people across our diverse colleges and universities, as well as in elite institutions like Bard College.

At the same time, however, Americans also need to acknowledge that some tendencies in liberal education have closed minds rather than liberated them. The freewheeling, take-no-prisoners discussions in Bard’s prison program are in contrast to many campus classrooms, where rules of political decorum inhibit honest conversation. A professor tells Karpowitz that when she teaches students on the Bard campus they often respond to a controversial statement or opinion by announcing that they are “uncomfortable” with it. But her students in the prison program embrace rather than avoid potentially embarrassing topics, which give them intellectual respite from the dull routines of incarceration.

The comparison of the two kinds of discussion tells us a great deal, not just about the mind-deadening quality of prison life but also about the ways that elite campuses can dare constrain minds in the name of protecting them. Witness the growing language of trigger warnings and microaggressions and safe spaces, all anticipating that some students will be offended by a variety of historical references or literary texts and all reflecting the dubious proposition that young psyches need vigilant defense from injury. Many of the BPI students aren’t young, and they have caused or witnessed physical injuries that most of our campus students can only imagine. They’re not put off by controversy, and they never ask professors to shield them from it. One suspects that in many cases they get more out of college than their on-campus peers do, in part because the inmates aren’t afraid to give—or receive—offense. It is astonishing to think that prisoners could have, in effect, more freedom of speech than free citizens in many colleges. But in narrow matters of concern about offensive language, it might also be true.

Yet the biggest reason for the prisoners’ superior college education is also the simplest one: they work harder at it. American college students spend twelve hours per week studying, on average, and one third of them report studying less than five hours per week. This is nothing less than a scandal. In a typical semester, half of our college students don’t take a single class that demands twenty or more pages of writing, and one third of them don’t take a class requiring forty or more pages of reading.5 And even as American students do less schoolwork, their grades keep rising: about 43 percent of college grades in 2011 were A’s, up from 31 percent in 1988 and 15 percent in 1960.6

It is true that some students don’t have enough time to study intensively: many of them have to work long hours to support themselves, while others care for young children or aging relatives. But many other students are simply having a good time, on the public dime or their own, enjoying the company of their peers and putting academic learning to the side. Our colleges and universities collaborate in this travesty, providing easy paths to degrees and collecting big fees along the way. That is assumed to be a “sustainable model” by many involved. It is not.

For the past half-century, the operating principle of American higher education has been “access” of students to college: how to increase it, how to pay for it, and how to sustain it. From the GI Bill and the 1965 Higher Education Act through Obama’s call for free community colleges—and Bernie Sanders’s demand for free college—America has tried to provide more education to a greater portion of its people. This is a quintessentially democratic impulse, and it’s shared by Lagemann and Karpowitz; indeed, they imply that college-in-prison is part of the same long march to access.

But their books should also make us ask: Access to what? Why should more people go to college, at great expense to the commonweal and themselves, if they’re not learning very much? The problem isn’t college liberal arts, where students actually read and write more than in the so-called practical fields; it’s the low academic standards of college generally. Lagemann nods to this problem, noting that “defining ‘high quality’ has always been difficult in higher education.” But it’s not impossible, and it’s becoming imperative. Unlike governors Rick Scott and Pat McCrory, I think it’s perfectly legitimate, indeed necessary, for the state to subsidize students who major in philosophy or literature (or, for that matter, in business or communication). But only if they are seriously studying. And if they’re not, I wonder why they—or the institutions that let them skate by—are deserving of public assistance.

The Bard Prison Initiative gets almost no such assistance, even as its students get a world-class education. The same goes for most other college prison programs that have been organized around the country, which rely heavily on philanthropic donations. (State-run prison education efforts are mainly remedial and vocational, and—not surprisingly—their students don’t show nearly the kind of personal or job-related gains that full college-in-prison programs yield.) A student on campus who is not much interested in academic learning, and does not work hard at it, can receive a public subsidy, but a prisoner who devotes himself single-mindedly to his classes isn’t deemed worthy of any public help at all. “You’re used to teaching classes where the students would rather be sleeping off their hangovers,” a Maryland prison professor tells Lagemann, “[but] these guys are desperate to sit in the room and talk with you about big ideas.”

The big idea of America is democracy, as Alexis de Tocqueville observed nearly two centuries ago. But we often forget that he came here to study prisons, the dark hangover of our exuberant democratic experiment. “While society in the United States gives the example of the most extended liberty, the prisons of the same country offer the spectacle of the most complete despotism,” Tocqueville and his fellow traveler Gustave de Beaumont warned in 1833. Despite the noble efforts of prison educators—and the undeniable benefits of their work, for prisoners and for society writ large—we cannot expect the voting public to approve many expenditures that would substantially improve inmates’ lives. Private efforts, or some intervention by American colleges such as Bard, may be the only way to save prisoners from the living hell in which our democracy has entombed them.

  1. 1

    See, for example, Claudia Goldin and Lawrence F. Katz, The Race Between Education and Technology (Harvard University Press/Belknap Press, 2008); Peter H. Lindert and Jeffrey G. Williamson, Unequal Gains: American Growth and Inequality Since 1700 (Princeton University Press, 2016); and Robert J. Gordon, The Rise and Fall of American Growth: The US Standard of Living Since the Civil War (Princeton University Press, 2016). See also William D. Nordhaus’s review of the third book in these pages, August 18, 2016. 

  2. 2

    Higher Education Research Institute at UCLA , The American Freshman: Fifty-Year Trends, 1966–2015 (2016), available at www.heri.ucla.edu.  

  3. 3

    Daniel Lee Kleinman, “Sticking Up for Liberal Arts and Humanities Education: Governance, Leadership, and Fiscal Crisis,” in A New Deal for the Humanities: Liberal Arts and the Future of Public Higher Education, edited by Gordon Hunter and Feisal G. Mohamed (Rutgers University Press, 2016), pp. 87–88. 

  4. 4

    Hart Research Associates, It Takes More Than a Major: Employer Priorities for College Learning and Student Success (April 10, 2013), available at www.aacu.org

  5. 5

    Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa, Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses (University of Chicago Press, 2011), pp. 69–71.  

  6. 6

    Stuart Rojstaczer and Christopher Healy, “Where A Is Ordinary: The Evolution of American College and University Grading, 1940–2009,” Teachers College Record, Vol. 114, No. 7 (2012).