The liberal arts in prison

by Michelle Clifton-Soderstrom

I am on the faculty at a liberal arts university that has an embedded seminary and I’d like to tell you about what the liberal arts and theological education have to do with people in prison. The photos are of our students who are incarcerated at Stateville Correctional Center and they are delighted to contribute to this talk through their images and educational journeys that mark a whole new chapter in the history of liberal arts—a history which could be said to begin like this…

Once upon a time, before the rise of the medieval university, the liberal arts were born into a world divided by the free and the servile. Those who were free studied music, language, math, and philosophy so that they could become elite citizens. Those who were “servile” took up trades that prepared them for the skilled labor force.

Now, the servile arts were considered unbecoming of free persons because they trained people to tend to society’s most base needs. The liberal arts, on the other hand, educated people for effective, informed, active citizenship by promoting critical thinking, empathy toward others, and the ability to solve society’s most complex problems.

As time went on, these pre-modern modes of education persisted into the modern, then post-modern period, and today, we continue to maintain the distinctions between universities, who educate broadly, and community or vocational colleges.

Despite succumbing to ancient classist categories, the liberal arts have, in many instances, expanded in their purpose. They still prepare students for wise and virtuous living, and yet many liberal arts schools also understand the very act of learning—in and of itself—to be true, good and just.

In a famous piece called The Idea of a University, Cardinal John Henry Newman describes the liberal arts as “various disciplines coming together, to talk to each other and to form a whole that draws in a community of learners. This kind of interdisciplinary and communal learning leads to a classroom that fosters ‘overtures of reconciliation,’ ‘hospitality to strangeness,’ and the ‘opening of intellect,’ followed by a ‘responsive feeling in the heart.’”

The author with students

In the midst of an ever-growing identity, the good news about liberal arts education is that actual access to it has grown. But unfortunately, it has not grown enough. If liberal arts is indeed a transformative pathway that opens students’ minds and hearts to new communities and creative ideas, then it must be accessible not only to those who are free, but perhaps most especially to those who are not free.

Many of you probably know that around 2.2 million men and women are currently incarcerated in the United States. You may also know that those in prison are disproportionately people of color, come from economically disadvantaged backgrounds, were either unemployed or in a low-skilled job at the time of arrest, and are less educated than people in the free population.

What you may not know is that education in prison has been shown to be a powerful tool toward building a meaningful life both in prison and upon reentry. Further, around 40% of those incarcerated are eligible for college courses, but the sad reality is that the number of college in prison programs in the U.S. had fallen from 350 in 1982 to just 12 by 2005.

We need the liberal arts in prisons. I could convince you of this with studies proving that college in prison is good for everyone (those studies are out there). Or I could convince you with stats, such as: the state saves $5 for every $1 put into education. Or I could convince you with the facts that education in prison increases public safety, promotes the economy by creating a stronger workforce, and reduces the chances of recidivism by 40-50%.

While convincing, stats and studies are not at the heart of what I want you to walk away with. I would rather stand on the liberal educator’s conviction that learning is true and good and just in its own right, and invite you into my classroom to offer you a glimpse of the integrated learning community.

But first—a bit about my own journey to prison. My area of expertise is theology and Christian social ethics. As my doctor father warned, we have the unpleasant task of studying how people sin in groups. Fair warning aside, I didn’t go into Christian social ethics because I enjoy analyzing society’s faults or researching how people groups harm one another. To the contrary, I was interested in facing our deepest social ills in order to advance the very best of humanity—the flourishing of all people, participation in civic life, and justice that is liberating for all—and especially those on the margins.

After fourteen years of teaching Christian social ethics in an urban context where the topics we studied (such as poverty, racism, and educational disparities) affected real people in our community, I came to the realization that I wanted to do more than just educate people about truth and goodness and justice. I wanted education to actually be true and good and just.

So, I spent my sabbatical preparing to go to prison to teach and learn with those who are not only marginalized, they are isolated to the point of invisibility. My first experience in prison was at Stateville Correctional Center—a maximum security, all male prison outside of Chicago. I sat in on a colleague’s course on religion and violence against women. Students were presenting final projects, incorporating their own journeys with the themes of the course. As I listened to the students speak, two things happened.

First, I realized that incarcerated students not only have a great interest in learning—they have much to teach the free world. One Stateville man said that he was taking as many restorative justice and violence prevention courses as he could to prepare for successful reintegration, and to do advocacy work on the inside. He was committed to learning as a tool that transforms prison culture and builds collaborative relationships with free people.

Second, I saw the liberating power of learning in itself on a whole new level. The classroom was clearly a space where the inside students claimed their humanity back from a set of social ills that had stripped away their dignity for much of their lives. Regardless of the very good future outcomes of educational programs in prison, the classroom experience is liberating simply by existing.

When the senior chaplain invited me to teach, I decided that my liberal arts institution and theological seminary needed to do more than simply bring me in. We needed to get as many students, faculty, administrators, pastors, and even trustee members to participate (even if only once) in this classroom that could gather different people groups, to talk to each other and “to form a whole that draws in a community of learners.”

Imagine the prison classroom with me. Fifteen incarcerated students sit in a circle intermixed with seven free students. The classroom has no windows, and it is loud with sounds echoing off the walls. For three hours straight, there are no cell phones, no computers, nothing to eat, and nothing to drink. Just books, pens, and paper. A chalkboard, words, and people. Two professors take turns facilitating the discussion. There is no need for long lectures because class is focused on learning how to engage the material critically and creatively for oneself.

Everyone has read the essays by activists, incarcerated persons, lawyers, theologians, chaplains, and family members of those locked up. Both free and incarcerated identify with at least one of the scholarly voices and together they discuss some of the painful realities that lead to incarceration in the first place.

I had one of my most uncomfortable moments as a teacher there. An inside student, who I’ll call James, faulted me for the reading choice. “Prof Michelle,” he said. “I am so angry with you. Why did you make us read this piece on the private prison industry? Companies are making billions of dollars imprisoning people like me? I almost didn’t come to class, and I missed my visit with my family because I was so mad.”

I listened in silence. As was usually the case, other students jumped in with responses and I had a moment to ask myself, what was I thinking? Is my privilege of a detached reading about private prisons overshadowing the pain of students who are living it? Is it too much to discuss mass incarceration, racism, and economic injustices with men in prison? It was an uncomfortable place for me to be.

But as the students continued to discuss, I saw that, while we were learning more about the economic and social evils surrounding U.S. prisons, the class was cultivating something perhaps even more important—the opening of intellect followed by a responsive feeling in the heart. We were responding to what we were learning—in anger, sadness, disgust…but also empathy, collegiality and care. Never again would my free student face mass incarceration as an “issue” without seeing the faces of people she knows.

I also realized that because of the fact—not in spite of the fact—that James felt free enough to criticize my pedagogical decision, my choice was in fact a good one. Toward the end of class, I said, “James. Thank you for speaking up to an authority figure. You showed great courage and even freedom. You modelled constructive criticism and you demonstrated that we can have hard conversations in class. I also want you to know that as an educator, I could not in good conscience keep this material from you. You are strong enough to learn about issues that affect you personally, and this learning community is strong enough to enter that world with you.” Over a year later, James continues to come to class and offer bold critiques of anything that is less than true, good and just. This is the best of liberal arts and more. It is the best of humanity.

Humanizing events like this don’t happen because I, my colleague or the free students humanize the incarcerated students. They happen because incarcerated students claim the truth of their humanity on their own terms, and the integrated classroom creates a place for these embodied claims to reach ears in the free world. One incarcerated student remarked: “I believe that the presence of the inside students and our interactions with the outside students and teachers have broken down many false stereotypes about prisoners. I think the outside members of the classes have gotten to know us as individuals and we became one community.”

Students at Stateville

Those used to being heard listen, while those used to being muted speak. An incarcerated musician, who I will call Thomas (after Thomas Dorsey, the father of black gospel music), believed that muted voices could speak through music. Thomas didn’t have a piano in his cell, so he used some paper to cut out keys. He practiced playing on his cardboard piano so that he would be ready to play should a real piano make it inside. Eventually, one did. And Thomas hit the ground running, and became the pianist and director for Stateville’s gospel choir.

When I told Thomas that NPU had a gospel choir too, he organized a joint concert. He shared that “prison communities and the communities that incarcerated people represent suffer from the same social, economic, and political problems.” Thomas and other inside students wanted to use their music to fight for freedom and equality—not just for black communities and prison communities, but for oppressed people all over the world. Thomas told our class that, “even though our voices are often muted, we still believe that we can be heard.”

Thomas has since transferred to another prison (where he leads a new choir), but he has a legacy: every spring and fall, joint choir members continue to sing together within the reality that the history of gospel music represents. And when the free students leave the prison campus, they are advocates who are building a hospitable place on our university campus for students with records.

Prison is a liminal space that has the power to both hide and reveal the human beings most knowledgeable of and most affected by intersecting social problems. By integrating their lives and learning in one classroom, free and incarcerated students work to create the ideal liberal arts setting, marked by ‘overtures of reconciliation,’ ‘hospitality to strangeness,’ and the ‘opening of intellect,’ followed by a ‘responsive feeling in the heart.” Muted voices not only come to the fore. Muted voices are our primary sources who have great capacity to not simply to teach free students about social issues, but to care about the millions of people tragically affected by them.

Watching students read and write in the midst of a transformative but painful learning context, I am reminded of one of the earliest advocates of the liberal arts— Cicero. Cicero was an ancient Roman philosopher and great politician. He had a daughter named Tullia, and he loved her dearly. After she gave birth to a son, Tullia tragically fell ill and she died. Cicero was deeply grieved and wrote that he had lost “the one thing that bound him to life.” He went into depression and had regular “unmanly” fits of weeping. He shut himself off from society and then consoled himself by writing extensively on his grief and pain. During this time, he wrote many letters to his friend Atticus, telling him that writing on such difficult subjects brought him a little respite and enabled him to grow in spirit and in mind.

Cicero’s writings revealed that though he was isolated from society, his mourning (of “the one thing that bound him to life”) became his most productive period, creating works which would later become foundational to the Renaissance curriculum. Many attribute Cicero’s rich imaginative life and strength in the midst of great turmoil to his robust liberal arts education…I would also attribute them to the ear he had in his friend Atticus.

Men in prison find similar respite in reading and writing in the midst of the most severe conditions. Their creations find a hearing in the ears of their free colleagues, and in turn, all are converted to a new way of being in the world. This is how the integrated liberal arts classroom is transformative—we have our best primary sources around many social ills and real restorative practices in the people in our midst.

Of the ideal that is the liberal arts classroom, Cardinal Newman also wrote this: “The general principles of any study you may learn by books at home; but the detail, the color, the tone, the air, the life which makes it live in us, you must catch all these from those in whom it lives already.”

When I claim that education integrates lives and liberates minds, I’m not saying that the freed imagination is enough to overcome the suffering in incarcerated bodies. It’s not. But, when muted voices engage, empathize, and problem solve on their own terms, truth becomes good by tethering previously separated lives together. And that is how the slow work of liberal arts can deal with the brokenness of mass incarceration.

Some people call prisons schools for criminals. Let’s work to make them something more —simply schools. Schools where people can be freed by the liberal arts not only so that we may better address society’s greatest ills and advance the best of humanity, but because the integrated liberal arts classroom in itself is a liberating space that is true and good and just—simply by existing.

From a TEDx talk held at North Park University in Chicago. To view Michelle’s talk online, visit Pietisten.org.

If you would like to get involved in North Park Theological Seminary’s School of Restorative Arts, as a student, volunteer, or donor, contact:

North Park Theological Seminary
3225 West Foster Ave, Box 14
Chicago, IL 60625-4895
(773) 244-6200