If you’d like to see an inspiring example of the power and purpose of education, watch the documentary series College Behind Bars on PBS (available streaming from the PBS app). For almost 20 years, Bard College has been running the Bard Prison Initiative (BPI), offering AA and BA degrees to men and women incarcerated in New York. The program is not especially geared for prisoners, with a focus on basic and vocational skills, other than the fact that it occurs in prison. BPI is college — real college. From the clips we see, the content and pedagogy are more rigorous than what I’ve seen in most college classrooms.
There is much to be learned from this series, including about the nature and purpose of incarceration, the meaning of losing one’s liberty, and the social and personal forces that lead so many young men to prison. But the most important lesson I take is about the true purpose of education, which ultimately revolves around human dignity and purpose in a civilized society. Without meaning, dignity, and civilization, vocational skills have little benefit.
It’s strange that it requires extreme circumstances for us to grasp the core purpose of many activities. Only when we see education in prison, do we really understand what education is. Similarly, 60 Minutes recently aired a two-part segment on music that was written and performed in German death camps. What is the true purpose of music and art? We gain greater insight by seeing what art does for people in the most horrible circumstances.
Also watch this extra segment on the story of Anita Lasker-Wallfisch, who survived because she played cello in an orchestra the Nazis organized to provide them with entertainment and to calm and deceive people as they entered the camps to go to their deaths. When Lasker-Wallfisch notes that these mass-murderers were cultured and “were not un-educated,” the interviewer asks her how she reconciles that. She replies, “I don’t.” Education and rational explanation can foster civilization but clearly also has its limits.
These programs are the best. My school, Trinity International University, has an undergraduate degree program at a prison in Wisconsin.
They really are. There is a particularly touching scene in which the students are discussing The Odyssey. One of the students says that he is like Odysseus because he is also struggling to go home. I wish more students had the kind of insight that this prisoner had.
Plato was right: with enough patience, every mind can be educated.