American higher education has to deal much with bad news, as any quick scan of the country’s front pages will confirm: skyrocketing costs, runaway debt, sexual violence, and sluggish students more interested in partying than learning. But consider the following description of Bard College students, by one of their professors:
Students report that classes are “totally absorbing,” which is clearly evident in the classrooms. The intensity of student engagement is seen in the consistently lively class discussions. The study rooms are always full. In one-on-one conversations with faculty, students often report having read several more books than the ones assigned in order to investigate the topics at hand more deeply. They regularly ask for comments on essays they have written not for class, but just to express their views about someone running for office or an event in the news. On occasion, they buttonhole professors to talk about some particularly challenging philosophical puzzle they have been contemplating, such as how one knows what is and is not fair. Others have wanted to discuss an idea they have for a book they want to write or an organization they hope to establish once they are home.
That’s not the kind of intellectual atmosphere you will find on most American campuses. But these students aren’t on Bard’s campus; they’re in jail. The tribute to them comes from Ellen Condliffe Lagemann, distinguished fellow at the Bard Prison Initiative (BPI), which provides college education to inmates at several high-security penitentiaries in upstate New York. The project was founded in 1999 by Max Kenner, an undergraduate at the time, with the backing of Bard’s president, Leon Botstein. Lagemann’s evocative book makes a convincing “case for college in prison,” to quote its title, carefully documenting the great many benefits that its graduates receive from BPI.
So does a second account by Daniel Karpowitz, the academic director of BPI and cofounder of a national network to promote liberal arts education in prisons. At the same time, both books also remind us how far our higher-education system has strayed from the humanistic ideal at the heart of the Bard prison project. By any conceivable measure, the education that these inmates receive is vastly superior to the standard academic experience of the roughly 20 million undergraduates in the United States. So these books also serve as an indirect criticism of mass higher education, not just mass incarceration.