I just watched Damon Horowitz: Philosophy in prison. I was a very short talk, but it meant a lot to me. In it Horowitz tells the story of a young man convicted of murder who studies philosophy. Horowitz describes the situation that brought Tony to prison and his experiences studying philosophy. He says:
So when we meet in my philosophy class in his prison and I say, “In this class, we will discuss the foundations of ethics,”Tony interrupts me.“What are you going to teach me about right and wrong?I know what is wrong. I have done wrong.I am told every day,by every face I see, every wall I face, that I am wrong.If I ever get out of here, there will always be a mark by my name.I’m a convict; I am branded ‘wrong.’What are you going to tell me about right and wrong?”
I was struck by two things there: the fact that Tony is constantly reminded that he is “wrong” and the fact that, in spite of that, he feels safe enough in the class to challenge the instructor like this.
As to the constant reminders of being wrong, it is something that I don’t really think you can comprehend unless you have spent time in a prison. I know I would never have believed it. Maybe I haven’t watched enough prison movies; maybe I am the only one who is surprised on a daily basis by this fact of life in prison. Either way, working in corrections has been an education.
I am happy to say that our students feel some of the same freedom to express themselves that Tony did. When they come to education, they feel safe. We work hard to establish and maintain that kind of environment. We really believe it is critical to their learning.
But as I reread the quote from the talk, I am sure that others may not read the words the same way I do. Tony is, they might say, threatening the instructor. Fortunately for Tony, the instructor didn’t see it that way. He says
And that is what I learned from this talk:
Thoughtlessness is quite often what got my students where they are. It has gotten them in trouble inside prison from time to time. It makes their days more difficult on a regular basis. My job as a teacher is to help them realize that fact and help them to think.
I taught a cognitive class tonight in which we discussed the ideas of trust and loyalty. It was interesting to watch the women as they talked about these ideas. Most of them could see that they need to think more and think better if they want to really make changes in their lives. Happily, many of them have committed themselves to doing that. That is why they are in the class.
There are, of course, some who have not reached that level of thoughtfulness yet. I have learned that I can only present the material, that the students have to want to learn it. And they aren’t going to learn it if they don’t see any value in it. Ironically, they aren’t going to see the value until they are ready to really think about it.
I am thinking about posting that sentence on my wall:
It means a lot to me — even if no one else gets it.