TO HEAR MY 17-YEAR-OLD TELL IT, IT ALREADY IS: College Should Be More Like Prison.
Never have I been more grateful to teach where I do: at a men’s maximum-security prison. My students there, enrolled in a for-credit college program, provide a sharp contrast with contemporary undergraduates. These men are highly motivated and hard-working. They tend to read each assignment two or three times before coming to class and take notes as well. Some of them have been incarcerated for 20 or 30 years and have been reading books all that time. They would hold their own in any graduate seminar. That they have had rough experiences out in the real world means they are less liable to fall prey to facile ideologies. A large proportion of them are black and Latino, and while they may not like David Hume’s or Thomas Jefferson’s ideas on race, they want to read those authors anyway. They want, in short, to be a part of the centuries-long conversation that makes up our civilization. The classes are often the most interesting part of these men’s prison lives. In some cases, they are the only interesting part.
Best of all from my selfish point of view as an educator, these students have no access to cellphones or the internet. Cyber-cheating, even assuming they wanted to indulge in it, is impossible. But more important, they have retained their attention spans, while those of modern college students have been destroyed by their dependence on smartphones. My friends who teach at Harvard tell me administrators have advised them to change topics or activities several times in each class meeting because the students simply can’t focus for that long.
My students at the prison sit through a 2½-hour class without any loss of focus. They don’t yawn or take bathroom breaks. I have taught classes on the Enlightenment, the Renaissance, Romanticism, George Orwell, South Asian fiction. We’ve done seminars on Adam Smith and Alexis de Tocqueville. Together we have read Montaigne, Rousseau, Keats, Erasmus, Locke, Montesquieu, Wollstonecraft, Byron, Goethe, Petrarch, Rabelais, Saadat Hasan Manto, Rohinton Mistry. The students write essays in longhand; during the pandemic I taught a correspondence class via snail mail. Some of them do read “Middlemarch,” and their teacher finds the experience far more gratifying than trying to land a 747 on a rural airstrip.
High standards mean a lot — and do read the whole thing.