Friday, February 26, 2010

On Lecturing in a Prison, Where Minds Are Free

A friend brought this article to my attention. It resonated so well that I thought I'd share it.

I, too, have had experiences like Mr. Cowie. I've never taught in a prison, but I have often taught classes and engaged in conversation with people who are not formally educated and/or from low-income neighborhoods where deep, theoretical conversations are unexpected. Yet, when we start talking about books or movies or news that has a concept that affects people in these communities, I have engaged in conversations, mostly with young people (teens and college students) that would stimulate any intellectual's mind. I'll try to write about one of those conversations in a future post.

On Lecturing in a Prison, Where Minds are Free
By Jefferson Cowie
On a sweltering afternoon last August, I had the professional thrill of giving one of the kickoff lectures of Cornell's New Student Reading Project, an annual effort to knit the entire campus together in the shared intellectual experience of reading a single book. The uncomfortably hot crowd of thousands of students and faculty members assembled in the field house was the largest gathering I had ever addressed, complete with big-screen projections of the lecturers, like academic rock stars, floating over the stage.


The topic was close to my heart: my favorite character, Tom Joad, grappling with the teachings of Preacher Casey, from one of my favorite books, John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath. The issues of migration and family, environment and social crisis, economic calamity and occupational justice, it seemed to me, made the book extraordinarily relevant to the problems of today.


Then in October, I gave the talk again. I shivered more from nervousness than the cool autumn air as I entered another strangely cavernous space—an almost 200-year-old maximum-security prison, Auburn Correctional Facility. Behind fortresslike walls rising above the small, historic town of Auburn, the state of New York incarcerates its murderers, thieves, and gangsters; put the first electric chair to use; and still stamps out license plates. As I worked my way through security to the prison chapel, I couldn't help recalling that the central characters of my talk had done time for murder and spent much of the book in violent scrapes with the law, much like those people I was about to address.


On the Cornell campus, every time I'd attended the huge opening of the reading project, I was struck by the students' indifference and boredom. Whether the book was by Sophocles or Garry Wills, F. Scott Fitzgerald or Jared Diamond, the students seemed incapable of engaging with the lectures. A colleague blogged: "I saw students asleep, milling about, talking on their cellphones, texting, talking and laughing with others, and what seemed to be a precious few engaged by the presentations." The students' restlessness led him to ask them, "What are you doing here at Cornell?"


The inmates who filtered into the prison chapel, on the other hand, knew exactly what they were doing at Auburn Correctional Facility: hard time, often for violent crimes they had committed when they were quite young. I arrived skeptical that my presentation would mean anything to them; I was motivated more by curiosity and civic obligation than grand pedagogic hopes. Clearly, these guys had bigger problems than literature and history.


The 60 inmates enrolled in the Cornell Prison Education Program were, in contrast to the Cornell students, hardly bored, restless, or indifferent. They were on fire. They sat attentively without PowerPoint photos to keep them entertained, autumn walks through the gorges to look forward to, or fancy careers to anticipate. They occasionally tossed questions to me during my talk, testing my mettle. Then, when I finished, their hands shot up. For the next hour, I got a vigorous intellectual workout—an exhausting barrage of questions any teacher would relish.


The questions came from every direction. How could Tom Joad, asked one, be the quintessential American working-class hero (as I had suggested) if Steinbeck had ignored the Asian and Mexican workers who had done most of the agricultural labor in California? Another, responding to how land got used in Oklahoma and California, asked if the constitutional system functioned in a way that enforced inequality. When I showed how Okie iconography was used in advertising and television in the postwar era, another asked if advertising and consumption were designed to prevent popular revolts. An inmate even asked whether the dollar was grounded in human labor, and whether human labor can be considered a commodity like any other.


One prisoner asked a multipart question that I did not fully grasp. I dismissed part of it and moved on, but his hand went back up. Though it was rough around the edges, in academic parlance his question was this: Was the type of civil society that Preacher Casey struggled for ("Maybe all men got one big soul everybody's a part of") possible, given the social atomization brought about by computers and technology?


I turned my head to the program's director, Jim Schechter, with an incredulous look—was this for real?


Before the night was over, the inmates' questions had me delving into constitutional theory, Lockean property rights, spirituality, political dissent, the tensions between civil rights and economic rights, and the use of state power. Granted, there were a lot of grandstanding, polemics, and semiarticulated ideas floating around, but these guys were serious about what they were doing. At one point, carried away with the moment, I even delivered a spontaneous mini-lecture on Antonio Gramsci's Prison Notebooks, which had been scrawled on scraps of paper while he was imprisoned in Fascist Italy. Gramsci tried to figure out, I told the prisoners, how market culture creates a common sense that ensures the consent of the governed. They murmured. They nodded. They got it. Rarely had I felt so alive as a teacher.


After each of the big panels at Cornell, a small handful of the several thousand students would come up to ask the panelists follow-up questions. In fact, the open-mike question period of previous years had been eliminated because the bulk of students used the opportunity to make a quick exit. After the prison talk, in contrast, the men filed up to introduce themselves, thank me for coming, and ask if I'd teach a class in the program. Most simply looked me in the eye with affirmation, shook my hand, and headed back to their cells. Their humility was humbling.


I wondered if it was simply the boredom and constraint of prison life that had the prison students so motivated; the well-prepped Cornell kids, of course, had every media device and distraction imaginable to draw them away from us droning professors. Maybe the Cornell students had worked so hard to get in that they now felt complacent, having made the grade. Maybe the Cornell kids were indifferent because the reading project was not a graded assignment.


Yet the prisoners had also studied hard to get into the prison-education program. They were not simply looking for ways to pass time. They had other things to distract them if they chose, and they attended graded classes as well. My lecture had been purely voluntary for them.


The experience at Auburn got me thinking about entitlement, motivation, and the life of the mind. It forced me to ask troubling questions about status and reward in our academic system. It made me wonder what I was doing with my life and my career, now in midpassage. The contrast between the free minds of the imprisoned bodies at Auburn and the imprisoned minds of the free bodies among some of the nation's most gifted college students could not have been more stark.


Marcus Rediker, a visiting scholar at Cornell last year, also gave a lecture at Auburn, on slave ships. I heard that he rocked the house (the inmates do, after all, call Auburn the "slave ship"). Summing up his experience, he reported: "Most of all, I was impressed by the intelligence, the thoughtfulness, the engagement, the curiosity—in short, by the life of the mind—that I found among the people inside Auburn Prison. That mind, I am pleased to report, cannot be imprisoned."


I wondered what the bars were made of that seemed to imprison my Cornell students, and what it would take for them to begin emancipating themselves.

Jefferson Cowie is an associate professor of history at Cornell University. His latest book, Stayin' Alive: The 1970s and the Last Days of the Working Class, is due out from the New Press in September.
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