Washington College Alumni Magazine Fall 2011 : Page 18
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Partners In Philosophy
TALES OF GREAT TEACHING
THE WAR TAUGHT A YOUNG MARINE WHAT CAN HAPPEN WHEN PEOPLE DON'T LEARN HOW TO THINK. NOW JIM SCHELBERG '12 IS BRINGING THAT LESSON TO ONE OF MARYLAND'S TOUGHEST PRISONS. BY JOAN SMITH
WHEN JIM SCHELBRG '12 served in Iraq and Afghanistan as a Marine Corps gunner, he came back, not only with indescribable memories of war, but with a new and unshakable belief in education – for everyone. Last summer he turned that conviction into a remarkable program – Partners in Philosophy – in which four distinguished members of Washington College's faculty traveled 65 miles to Maryland's maximum-security prison in Jessup, to teach 32 inmates about ethics in art, literature, religion, philosophy and history.
A Washington Post article about the program, picked up by newspapers around the world, generated e-mails, letters and phone calls that keep Schelberg relentlessly busy. He has already helped a reading specialist in Virginia, who works with troubled teens, to begin a correspondence between her students and the prison's philosophy students. In September, Jared Rankin '13, a friend of Schelberg's, led a month-long reading group at the prison on existentialism.
"When I was in Afghanistan, I saw how destructive ignorance – lack of knowledge and the learned ability to think critically and make your own judgments – can be," says Schelberg, a philosophy and humanities major. "We tend to take these things for granted, to see education as something that fulfills us and opens doors, but it's amazing how easy it is to manipulate entire villages, entire tribes, an entire people, without it. Lack of education leaves you vulnerable to whatever negative forces are out there."
Schelberg recognizes that Afghanistan isn't the only place people suffer a lack of education. In the spring of 2009, he was deeply moved by an article he read for a class called American Pictures – taught by Adam Goodheart and Donald McColl – about Baltimore filmmaker John Waters and his work teaching writing and filmmaking to prison inmates.
"I wondered if there would be any interest in a philosophy course," he says. "The amazing thing about philosophy is that it's a really technical and disciplined way to capture the natural curiosity everybody has about the world, those moments when you're lying in bed thinking about how language works, how the mind works. My intuition is that everybody has the raw materials to do philosophy and do it well."
It took nearly two years of research and planning to turn his idea into a program. Anyone who has worked with prisons knows that it's nearly as difficult to get in as it is to get out. And there is little institutional interest in initiatives like Schelberg's. He discovered that inmates have access to only the most rudimentary education – earning their high school GEDs, for instance – the sort of thing that likely turned some of them off school in the first place. "They don't get a chance to wrestle with the great existential issues," Schelberg says.
Schelberg finally found a way into the prison – through Loyola University philosophy professor Drew Leder, who has done a lot of teaching in prisons and is the co-author, with some of his imprisoned students, of The Soul Knows No Bars: Inmates Reflect on Life, Death and Hope. "I was really lucky," says Schelberg. "I asked him if I could join him in one of his classes, and he very kindly brought me into the prison at Jessup and introduced me to some of the guys, and I started forming relationships."
At the same time, Schelberg started recruiting faculty – historian and bestselling author Adam Goodheart, who runs the College's C.V. Starr Center; professor of philosophy and religion Kevin Brien; Underwood associate professor of art history Donald McColl; and visiting assistant professor of English Philip Walsh. Each of them (including Schelberg) would teach a class, consisting of two two-hour sessions over the course of a week, seven and a half weeks in all.
"Jim is someone I admire as a student, and even more as a person, so I jumped at the chance," says Walsh. "I knew the program would be successful because Jim is the kind of person who follows through, who does not accept 'no' for an answer."
Walsh, whose specialty is comparative literature, taught a class called Piety and Justice in Plato's Euthyphro and came back for a second week, later in the summer, to teach stories by the Argentine novelist Jorge Luis Borges. One was The House of Asterion, told from the point of view of the Minotaur, the mythological half-bull, half-man who lived in solitary confinement in a labyrinth designed by Daedalus.
"One of the things I learned in that first week with Plato was that much of their life in prison is spent waiting. Waiting to move 20 feet from block to block, waiting to be released to the prison yard. Usually, in literature, the Minotaur is the bad guy, the monster. But Borges is famous for giving voice to those on the margins. This is essentially a story about a monster waiting for his redeemer."
All of the teachers were a little apprehensive, going into the prison. Only Brien, who taught a course called The Ethics of Buddhism, had been inside a prison, though not a maximum-security facility. Most of the 32 students were serving life sentences.
"I agreed to do this without thinking too much about it, simply because I wanted to support Jim," says Goodheart, whose course was Ethical Historicism: Can We Learn from History? "As the day approached, I realized I was nervous: going into a prison is scary. But then I realized that my nervousness was kind of exciting, since it made me rethink what I do. I had chosen to teach Frederick Douglass - he's one of my favorite authors and favorite figures in American history. But teaching a writer whose work is all about freedom and the lack of freedom, in a place which is the ultimate deprivation of freedom, was going to be enlightening."
Goodheart says he had always imagined a prison entrance as a "huge security checkpoint with people with guns all around you and a huge gate that clicks behind you. The strange thing is that it wasn't like that at all. You go through a series of doorways and then through a little corridor that feels like the back entrance to a public middle school, with bland linoleum floors and metal lockers. Then you go through another door, and then another and another. And then you are standing in the prison yard, with the inmates playing soccer behind coils and coils and coils of razor wire. When we came into the yard, they all stopped what they were doing and just looked at us. It was a very powerful moment."
All of the teachers agree that the students were a delightful surprise – more polite, more completely engaged, and probably a lot more appreciative than the average undergraduate. "Everyone did the homework, everyone came to class prepared," says Schelberg, who taught a course called Ethics in War and another called Truth, Theory & Ethics. Some students had saved up for typewriters, but most wrote out their assignments in longhand. Some had been to college, others had been institutionalized since they were 16.
"We had very serious and intense but really rich-textured and substantial discussions," says Brien. "There was great interaction, some brilliant insights. One of the great things Jim has done with this program is to have affirmed, not only that these men are persons, but that they have minds worth valuing and developing, even if they are in prison. I told them, 'I know very well that you don't like to be in here; but I am really glad to be here, because I love to be with students like you.'"
McColl, whose class was titled Ethics of Art & Art History, says he has been fascinated for years by "the complex relations between art and crime – from the confraternity to which Michelangelo belonged that offered comfort by holding an image before those about to be executed, to current debates around the repatriation of illegally obtained antiquities. Thanks to Jim, I have moved from the abstract to the real.
"I'll not soon forget our wideranging discussions of ethics, art, crime and punishment, by which I learned much, and am reminded of the statement by Camus: 'To assert in any case that a man must be absolutely cut off from society because he is absolutely evil amounts to saying that society is absolutely good, and no one in his right mind will believe this today.'"
None of the teachers was paid. Walsh said he wouldn't want to be paid for doing it. "It was an incredible experience, humbling and uplifting," he says.
As someone who teaches and writes about slavery, Goodheart says he thought he knew something about the loss of freedom. "But what I'd never appreciated is how a lack of freedom takes away your individuality in a thousand tiny ways, moment by moment, every single day. I had an epiphany the morning I was getting dressed to go to the prison for the second time, when I was picking out a shirt from my closet and it suddenly occurred to me that these guys never pick out a shirt, they never get to decide to sleep in, to take a late lunch, to go to bed early with a book, to take a bath just because they feel like it. All of these decisions that go into the course of a day are not theirs to make, so when you read Douglass with them, you approach it differently."
After that class, Goodheart says several students gathered to talk. "I told them, 'You think more often and more deeply about freedom than we do on the outside. You have to be thinking moment by moment how to bring more freedom into your lives.' One of them said: 'Yes, we find it here,' as he swept his finger around, indicating the four walls of the classroom, 'and in here.' And he tapped his finger against the side of his head. It was one of the most powerful experiences I've ever had as a teacher."
"TEACHING FREDERICK DOUGLASS, WHOSE WORK IS ALL ABOUT FREEDOM. . . WAS GOING TO BE ENLIGHTENING."
"JIM IS THE KIND OF PERSON WHO FOLLOWS THROUGH, WHO DOES NOT ACCEPT 'NO' FOR AN ANSWER."
Joan Smith, former books editor for The San Francisco Examiner, is a freelance writer living in Chestertown.
Read the full article at http://onlinedigeditions.com/article/Partners+In+Philosophy/896563/90103/article.html.