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Why the inmates I teach are better learners than many college students: op-ed

‘Never have I been more grateful to teach where I do,’ prison educator wrote

An educator wrote that her students — inmates in a maximum security men’s prison — have retained the habits and environment of liberal learning that their college peers have lost.

“Many of us who care deeply about education in the humanities can only feel despair at the state of our institutions of ‘higher’ learning,” educator and writer Brooke Allen wrote Sunday in The Wall Street Journal.

Enrollment is way down, reductive ideologies have taken over the humanities, and technology has depleted attention and facilitated wide-scale cheating.

In contrast, Allen wrote, at prison she is free to teach enthusiastic students primary texts in literature and history, for example, “classes on the Enlightenment, the Renaissance, Romanticism, George Orwell, South Asian fiction.”

Her inmate students come to class focused and ready to learn, she wrote:

My students there, enrolled in a for-credit college program, provide a sharp contrast with contemporary undergraduates. These men are highly motivated and hard-working. They tend to read each assignment two or three times before coming to class and take notes as well. Some of them have been incarcerated for 20 or 30 years and have been reading books all that time. They would hold their own in any graduate seminar.

That they have had rough experiences out in the real world means they are less liable to fall prey to facile ideologies. A large proportion of them are black and Latino, and while they may not like David Hume’s or Thomas Jefferson’s ideas on race, they want to read those authors anyway. They want, in short, to be a part of the centuries-long conversation that makes up our civilization. The classes are often the most interesting part of these men’s prison lives.

Instead of deconstructing their education, inmates welcome it with enthusiasm and dedication.

They are also free from the shortcuts that bedevil college students tethered to technology. They cannot access the internet or cell phones.

“Cyber-cheating, even assuming they wanted to indulge in it, is impossible,” Allen wrote.

“But more important, they have retained their attention spans, while those of modern college students have been destroyed,” according to Allen.

In short, despite their mistakes and stripped-down learning environment, or even perhaps because of them, her students cultivate a kind of “Platonic ideal” of education.

“If prison inmates, many of whom have committed violent crimes, can pay close attention for a couple of hours, put aside their political and personal differences, support one another’s academic efforts, write eloquent essays without the aid of technology and get through a school year without cheating, is it too much to ask university students to do the same?” Allen wrote.

Perhaps college in prison can serve as a model for learning beyond bars.

MORE: The problem with English departments is that they don’t teach English

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About the Author
assistant editor
Maggie has previously worked as an associate editor of Columbia magazine, an editorial assistant at DNAinfo.com, and an elementary school teacher at a charter school in Phoenix. She holds a B.A. from New York University and lives in Philadelphia.