Drawing on the work of Hannah Arendt, Danielle Allen calls for a paradigm shift in the way we think about education, moving away from instrumentalism to the cultivation of civic and social engagement. I find the notion of citizenship as “co-creating” and “world-building” compelling, and I have seen the most profound manifestations of this idea inside a state prison in Massachusetts, where I taught creative writing and literature to a group of men serving life sentences.
In the current discourse around prison education, the efficacy of enrichment programs is often determined by recidivism post-release employment rates: Does the former fall and the latter rise? As the Massachusetts Division of Inmate Training and Education puts it, the purpose of these programs “is to provide comprehensive academic and occupational (vocational training) programs and services that will assist offenders in becoming more productive citizens upon release.” But one of every nine individuals in U.S. prisons is serving a life sentence, almost a third of whom—about 50,000 people—have no possibility of parole. What of those who will never be released? My experience has taught me that we need a different framework for thinking about the role of education in incarcerated spaces, just as Allen suggests that we need a shift in how we think of education more broadly.
Humanity demands a space to question, create, and grapple with the world, a place to restore social and intellectual agency.
On alternating Saturday mornings, I would sit with my five male students in a small classroom in the back of the prison. In a circle of wooden desks, surrounded by old, chestnut bookshelves, we used literature as a catalyst to engage in conversations about who we are, who we have been, and how we make sense of the world around us. We immersed ourselves in the fiction of Jhumpa Lahiri, using it to interrogate how we construct the facets of our identity. We pored over the poetry of Derek Walcott, exploring what it means to live as a full person, accepting all that makes us who we are and rejecting compartmentalization. We studied the sonnets of William Shakespeare, finding parallels between his seventeenth-century insights and the idiosyncrasies of our own biographies. We wrote poems, stories, and essays that no one else would ever hear except for the people in that room. We did these things not so that the men might be better prepared to get jobs but because they were engaged in a collective project of self-exploration, building together a world that might reclaim what others have sought to take away.
These men are not perfect; they have made mistakes. But that does not mean they should be deprived of the opportunity to learn. Education programs can and should be arenas for community building—creating opportunities for people to build a space where their minds are cultivated, their ideas respected, and their humanity affirmed. It is this humanity that demands a space to question, create, and grapple with the world, a place to restore the social and intellectual agency that prison inherently strips away.
Schools, too, can strip away agency. As a former public high school teacher, I have seen unsettling parallels between the prison and public education systems. Many schools that serve low-income students of color, in particular, are like cages—abounding with police officers, metal detectors, and steel bars enclosing each classroom window. The infrastructure evokes the social condition they are expected to occupy, reinforcing that expectation.
Intellectually, our country’s singular focus on testing has turned many schools into places where exploration and imagination take a back seat to training for a remarkably narrow set of skills. Students could be taught to use learning as a way to understand who they are. Instead they learn to equate achievement with a myopic conception of progress reflected on a chart at the end of the year.
To be incarcerated does not mean one should be deprived of the opportunity to learn, and to be a public school student does not mean that learning should be defined by what you fill in on a Scantron form. Education, in all contexts, should be a method by which we liberate ourselves from the myth that we are unable to move beyond the social constructs of the world as it currently exists. It should be a means to collectively co-create the world we deserve.