“Expanding College Opportunity in Our Nation’s Prisons”

For more than five years now, “expanding college opportunity in [one of] our nation’s prisons” has been my part time job, and it’s been my full-time job for the past year, since the JCI Scholars Program partnered with the University of Baltimore to offer courses towards a Bachelor’s degree in Community Studies and Civic Engagement as a part of the US Department of Education’s Second Chance Pell Experimental Sites Initiative.

I visited the University of Michigan-Ann Arbor last week to participate on a panel with this title. I learned a lot from my co-panelists Erin Castro and Fred Patrick, but each of us were asked to prepare answers to the questions below so I thought I’d share those answers here.

If you had to describe the current relationship between higher education and prisons in one phrase, what would it be?

“Low hanging fruit:” College in prisons is the easiest and most obvious of a host of criminal justice reforms that we absolutely must be making and for which there is bipartisan support. We incarcerate 2.3 million people in the US, at a rate more than seven times higher than the global average. We’re not seven times more violent or larcenous than the rest of the world–perhaps we are seven times more racist, but even that isn’t clear any longer–so we need to fix this over-incarceration crisis. But for the time being, educating the people we incarcerate is almost literally the least we can do.

There is an eternal tension in higher education between the liberal arts and practical arts. Prison education programs often face this same tension. Based on your experiences, how has this divide manifested in prison education programs? Are there certain curricula that tend to receive broader support? How has this influenced your own work?

In the background here is that we don’t stop punishing people when they are released from prison. We continue to subject returning citizens to legal discrimination in employment, merely because of their status as previously-incarcerated.

There’s certainly good evidence that starting one’s own business is a good way to avoid employment discrimination. But most small businesses fail, and returning citizens face problems with raising startup capital that are just as onerous as their problems finding a job. 

In general, you can think of entrepreneurship as evidence that the ordinary labor market is absorbing workers too slowly: there is not sufficient labor market absorption for those currently unemployed, so they must instead go out and start small businesses of their own, taking considerably more risk with high rates of failure. We have not found meaningful work for many men and women, and we’re not willing to suspend our biases, and so we ask them instead to make their own.

Still, even in that context I see the liberal arts degree as superior. I think the data suggest that even for people who want a vocation, a liberal arts degree is the best investment. I’m partial to the philosophy major, myself: employment prospects and pay are better for the modal philosophy major than for the modal business administration major, because the liberal arts are techniques for problem solving, clear communication, and understanding difficult texts and situations. To achieve that, students need to learn to read hard books and write long papers for demanding professors.

Of course, the liberal arts are also–literally–techniques for freedom and for free people. So they’ve got that going for them, too, which is nice.

What are some of the ways in which prisoner education programs help prisoners identify and pursue educational opportunities upon reentry?

In some sense I think colleges have mastered a lot of the fundamentals of reentry because they are already basically institutions of ENTRY: colleges are pretty good at taking high school students and turning them into workers, and they’re also pretty good at preparing people who are accustomed to being dependents to live more independent lives. 

Our program at the University of Baltimore was built from the ground up with the ideal of having students transition from inside to outside while finishing their degree. Thus they’ll be able to use what is already a good transitional space, the university, to help accomplish that other kind of transition: reentry and return.

The audience today is full of current and future educators that may be considering how they can get involved with a prison education program. As you reflect on your own experiences, are there moments that stand out to you as particularly informative for those in the audience?

I started teaching a philosophy class and ended up running a program. There’s tremendous unmet demand among those 2.3 million incarcerated men and women for a college education. Be patient and persistent, recognizing the work comes before your ego, and find and cultivate collaborators.

We also have a lot of people here interested in research and policies that can shape prison education programs. What are the types of research questions the next generation of researchers should consider?

The GED test was once an important distinction, but it was basically devalued because it came to be associated with returning citizens, which is why they decided to raise the standards (to make it much more difficult and specifically to lower the pass rate) in 2014. Will something similar happen with our programs? Can we prevent that? 

Another important question has to do with selection effects. How much are we just finding the men and women who would have gone to university, if we didn’t live in a mass incarceration society? How much are we actually changing lives, adding value,” or changing the course of these men’s lives?

There’s very good reason–as Erin Castro reminded us during the panel–to look past the recidivism question: “We don’t evaluate a University of Michigan degree based on how likely its graduates are to later become incarcerated.” And while I do think that the recidivism statistics are awesome trump cards for the public policy debate, I would like to see my own program evaluated on other metrics, like student satisfaction, just as programs on the outside are evaluated.

Given the change in administration, should we be concerned about the future of the Second Chance Pell pilot program?

Of course we should be concerned! Yet Betsy DeVos has not, to my knowledge, commented on the Second Chance Pell experiment. It’s notable that she is also primarily devoted to school choice in K-12, which is literally modeled on Pell, a grant program that supplies school choice for higher education.

If this becomes a partisan issue, I don’t expect it to survive. But I’d like to think it won’t become partisan, that there’s still enough bipartisan support for this because it’s such low-hanging fruit, because the evidence makes it common-sense. If you’re committed to small government, you like prison education. If you’re committed to social justice, you like prison education. What else can you think of that the Koch brothers agree with George Soros about?

Diversify or Die

There’s an interesting piece in the Stone today on the consequences of philosophy’s Anglo-European blinders: If Philosophy Won’t Diversify, Let’s Call It What It Really Is. Garfield and Van Norden suggest that the systematic failure to address non-Western sources impoverishes the discipline and belies any claim to universality. And what a wonderfully provocative list of addenda they suggest!

We hope that American philosophy departments will someday teach Confucius as routinely as they now teach Kant, that philosophy students will eventually have as many opportunities to study the “Bhagavad Gita” as they do the “Republic,” that the Flying Man thought experiment of the Persian philosopher Avicenna (980-1037) will be as well-known as the Brain-in-a-Vat thought experiment of the American philosopher Hilary Putnam (1926-2016), that the ancient Indian scholar Candrakirti’s critical examination of the concept of the self will be as well-studied as David Hume’s, that Frantz Fanon (1925-1961), Kwazi Wiredu (1931- ), Lame Deer (1903-1976) and Maria Lugones will be as familiar to our students as their equally profound colleagues in the contemporary philosophical canon. But, until then, let’s be honest, face reality and call departments of European-American Philosophy what they really are.

Thus, the more appropriate title for our departments would be “European and American Philosophy.” On balance, I applaud this argument: we ought to aim to live up to the universality of our disciplinary self-conception, or give up that self-conception entirely.

When I think about diversifying my own syllabi, I almost never reach for Asian philosophers. I aim for gender parity first, racial diversity second, and usually end up with only a few thinkers from outside the Euro-American tradition. Sometimes none. I am scared to get Confucius or Mencius or Wiredu wrong, and I’m worried about orientalizing or exoticizing their traditions. These are obviously resolvable anxieties, given a sincere commitment, but they exist. I have a comfort zone, I push against it in some ways but not in others, and there are biases in the patterns of which ways I leave the comfort zone that I must address.

My biases, though, largely reproduce the biases in the discipline as a whole. And it would be much easier for me to correct my individual failings if the profession would work with me, if my training had worked on me. Why didn’t my graduate school train these biases out of me? Kristie Dotson’s How is this Paper Philosophy? is my go-to answer for this question. I think it’s crucial, but it’s hard to excerpt well, so read it!

… … …

Okay, you’re back? Basically, philosophers are constantly engaged in a dual game of legitimating their work as philosophy and working to reconstitute the borders of what counts as philosophy. These practices–simultaneously forcing people to justify their projects and choices in terms of a shifting standard of legitimate philosophical research–are how we end up treating Chinese or Native American philosophy as merely “inert ideas,” or worse, as “religion, mythology, storytelling, poetry, or ‘dancing’ (as Levinas once so generously declared).”

This has the effect of making philosophy a mostly white man’s game, because what Dotson calls “diverse practitioners” usually find that philosophical borders are being continually redrawn to exclude them. Of course, she writes the essay in defense of Black American, feminist, and queer philosophy, but the point stands: Asians are excluded by the kind of discipline that philosophy has become.

So I think it’s not enough to say philosophy has a budget problem. It does! But maybe it wouldn’t have quite as bad a budget problem if there weren’t so many faculty working on the semantics of the left parenthesis. The discipline became scholastic to avoid the big ideological fights of the last half century, and now is paying the price.

Attending to other traditions might produce more majors and philosophy departments would be richer both financially and ideologically and could then be doing better work. But it’s still an open question which traditions to prioritize, since these decisions get made one hire at a time. The Garfield/Van Norden piece gestures towards African and Latin American philosophy, but it’s part of a project to specifically increase attention to Chinese philosophy. That seems good, but I do also want to see a continued? renewed? nascent? long-delayed emphasis on Black American philosophy, as well as a re-commitment to feminism.

The Two Endings of Brison’s Aftermath

Susan Brison’s Aftermath ends twice: the final chapter discusses her various efforts to retell the story of her brutal rape and attempted murder (she calls it “attempted sexual murder.”) And ends with her final, planned retelling to her son when he is older:

“Tragedy,” Wittgenstein wrote, “is when the tree, instead of bending, breaks.” What I wish most for my son is not the superhuman ability to avoid life-threatening disasters, but, rather, resilience, the capacity to carry on, alive in the present, unbound by dread or regret. Not the hard, flinty brittleness of rock, but the supple tenacity of the wind-rocked bough that bends, the bursting desire of a new-mown field that can’t wait to grow back, the will to say, whatever comes, Let’s see what happens next.

The second ending comes in an afterword where she discusses four murders. The first set of murders is the murder of her friends Susanne and Half Zantop which occurs soon after she submitted the manuscript. The second set is the murder of Trhas Berhe and Selamawit Tsehaye, two of five Black women candidates for PhD in physics at Dartmouth a decade before. Because they were Black international students from Ethiopia–killed by a third Black Ethiopian–the campus treated these murders as non-events, and failed to mourn or respond with what we sometimes think of as the characteristic security theater.

In both cases she struggles with survivor’s guilt, the sense that their deaths and her survival were random, and undeserved. So she finishes the story again:

None of us is supposed to be alive. We’re all here by chance and only for a little while. The wonder is that we’ve managed, once again, to winter through and that our hearts, in spite of everything, survive.

An American With a Gun Kills Students, Again

I have a two year old daughter, and I’m overwhelmed every time this happens with fear and anger. I teach at a university, and I feel special fear every time there is an active shooter reported, though I quickly cover it with bravado and statistical arguments. (There were two on my old campus in a single semester a few years back.) Guns make me scared, I don’t want to be anywhere near them. I even think it’s creepy that police officers carry them.


And yet, I’m never very happy with the way these discussions go. More than perhaps any other policy discussion, there’s a palpable sense of paralysis; I have more hope for a basic income guarantee than for substantial and effective gun control. For one thing, everyone who talks about gun control of any sort has to recognize that most there are almost as many guns as people in the US. The horse has left the barn, Pandora has opened the pithos, the djinn has escaped the lamp, etc. Plus it’s impossible to amend the 2nd Amendment under anything like current partisan political conditions. So our response has to be geared towards that. It’s got to involve action and organization and policy savvy.

The NRA’s power is not primarily money: it’s a large, active, and single-issue-voting membership list. The money is comparatively small and irrelevant: all you can do with money is buy ads to affect votes. The NRA already *has* votes, and gun control advocates don’t. For instance, most liberals who want more gun control would still be happy to have Bernie Sanders as President, despite his stance on guns.

So when the President says we should become single issue voters, he’s saying we should choose guns over finance sector regulation, campaign finance consistency, real attention to inequality, pro-choice judges, funding for Planned Parenthood, climate change, and many other things that matter.

That’s what a single-issue voter is: would you vote for a member of the other party if she had a stronger pro-gun-control record than the incumbent from your party? Because NRA members will, even if they mostly don’t have to: they will primary out a viable candidate and accept a loss, which comes to the same thing.

Despite the fact that gun control proponents are in the majority, we just don’t want it enough. We have a minor desire to see fewer mass shootings; gun owners have a strong desire to support untrammeled access to guns. Forget what people say: look at what they do. And we just don’t do much about guns.

And even if we did take that single-issue stance, there’d still be a gun for every man, woman, and child in the US for decades. So we’ll continue to be a country where assholes with guns kill our children and neighbors. And Black men will continue to die at twice the rate of whites, because we talk about school shootings and automatic weapons, but not handguns used in assaults and homicides.

I want to hope that someone will give an answer to the question of what we should do–what my readers and neighbors and friends and I should do–to actually change the terrible, atrocity-ridden status quo. And yet a sober calculations suggests that despair and impotent anger is the appropriate response. The love and hope we nurture can’t reach these issues: the guns will always be a background condition of our lives, a potential risk, yet–if we are white and comfortable–a statistically unlikely one.

It’s like Camus describes in La Peste:

And, indeed, as he listened to the cries of joy rising from the town, Rieux remembered that such joy is always imperiled. He knew what those jubilant crowds did not know but could have learned from books: that the plague bacillus never dies or disappears for good; that it can lie dormant for years and years in furniture and linen chests; that it bides its time in bedrooms, cellars, trunks, and bookshelves; and that perhaps the day would come when, for the bane and the enlightening of men, it would rouse up its rats again and send them forth to die in a happy city.