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…


This is exclusive content for subscribers only – subscribe at this low introductory rate for immediate access!

Online Subscription

Unlock this article, and thousands more from our complete 55+ year archive, by subscribing at the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue – that’s 10 issues online plus six months of full archive access for just $10.

One-Week Access

Purchase a trial Online Edition subscription and receive unlimited access for one week to all the content on nybooks.com.

If you already have one of these subscriptions, please be sure you are logged in to your nybooks.com account. If you subscribe to the print edition, you may also need to link your web site account to your print subscription. Click here to link your account services.