“To Examine Society and Try to Change It”

A Columbia University course serving formerly incarcerated men and women is grounded in an understanding of the powerful meliorative effects of education.
I take a seat near the middle of the table at 6:06 p.m. The room soon fills, students clutching coffee, shedding coats; someone brings gummy worms and sends them ...

I take a seat near the middle of the table at 6:06 p.m. The room soon fills, students clutching coffee, shedding coats; someone brings gummy worms and sends them around the table. At 6:10, everyone has arrived. It is time to begin. Our space on the sixth floor of Columbia University’s Philosophy Hall is long and narrow and dominated by a table that seats 12, leaving 5 students to sit around the periphery with books on their laps. Our community rule is to switch seats every class, preventing a hierarchy from forming between table regulars and the rest.

We started Othello a week ago. Annie, her tattoo sleeves covered by a sweater tonight, offers, “They are so racist!” Melvin nods. We leap into the text, examining the epithets: Was Shakespeare racist? Does racism mean the same thing to us as it would have to him? What might Shakespeare have wanted to teach us about the characters who make those kinds of judgments? We move into a conversation about why Desdemona and Othello’s relationship has to be derided by many of the play’s male characters, and how black male sexuality is still seen as threatening in our culture.

Annie looks up. “I know I sort of asked this already, but why are we reading things that are so upsetting? I mean, don’t take this the wrong way, but do you really want us to be reading things that make us so angry?” I look around the room, meeting the gazes of my students, from Germany, China, and England; from Colorado, Eritrea, South Korea, and the Bronx.

“I don’t mean anything by it,” she says, worried she has offended me.

I smile at her. “I think you are right to ask that.” I lean forward. “We are going to read lots of upsetting things in this class. There is terrible racist language in Othello. The things that happen in Lolita should make your skin crawl. What happens to Milkman and to the rest of the Dead family in Song of Solomon is the same systemic racism and disenfranchisement that W. E. B. Du Bois and James Baldwin and Claudia Rankine are asking us to face as well. Why read this stuff?”

Everyone waits.

With all the available evidence about the power of education, we could be forgiven for expecting prisons to look like high-security colleges.

Arman raises his hand: “Can I just say … not answering your question … but Shakespeare is really hard. I sometimes stop and realize I have read a whole page and have no idea what is going on.” Heads nod. Students laugh.

“So the first thing I’ll say about that is …” I pause to smile at him. “I’m sure you are not the only one who is struggling, so thank you for being vulnerable enough to admit it. The second thing I’ll say is that I think, and I’m not alone, the best way to understand Shakespeare is to read it aloud, to hear the words come alive.” Over to my left, Marvin sits up. “Really? Because, I’m not gonna lie, I was reading this aloud to myself at home and I felt crazy. I thought about taking that to my therapist!” There’s a lightness in the room, even with the dark and the cold outside.

In addition to the divide between those at the table and those on the perimeter, there is another split in this classroom, one we all work constantly to simultaneously honor and elide. Eight of my students are Columbia undergraduates; the other eight are Justice-in-Education Scholars, men and women who have recently come home from prison. According to the justice system in this country, they did their time and are now mostly free to begin again, and that’s what I’m here to help them do.

James Baldwin, in a talk he gave to teachers in 1963, claimed that “the purpose of education, finally, is to create in a person the ability to look at the world for himself, to make his own decisions. … The obligation of anyone who thinks of himself as responsible is to examine society and try to change it.”1

Our course, called Humanities Texts, Critical Skills (HTCS), is intended to do just this, asking students to read literary and philosophical texts from the past three thousand years of Western history through the lenses of justice, isolation, personal responsibility, and reintegration. We build concrete skills—annotating effectively, looking up words one doesn’t know rather than skipping them, reading aloud, making connections between texts—while examining the histories of social issues like inequality and disenfranchisement as a way to understand, and hopefully begin to undo, these pernicious problems.

This course is part of a program at Columbia called the Justice-in-Education Initiative, which is aimed at providing credit-bearing college courses and educational programs to formerly incarcerated men and women, and engaging the Columbia community in the movement to end mass incarceration. The JIE Initiative is grounded in an understanding of the powerful meliorative effects that education can have: a 2013 study by the RAND Corporation showed that participation in prison education was associated with a 43 percent reduction in recidivism rates, and others have shown that engagement with literature can do incredibly positive things for prison populations, both while they are incarcerated and once they come home.

With all this evidence about the power of education, we could be forgiven for expecting prisons to look like high-security colleges. They certainly don’t. Since the passage of federal tough-on-crime legislation in 1994, educational programs in prisons have basically ceased to exist, and most of the ad hoc programs currently operating are the work of dedicated individuals who have built them with cobbled-together private funding. In 2016, in an attempt to undo some of the damage done by the Clinton crime bill, the Obama administration announced a pilot program, called Second Chance Pell, to provide federal funds for a small group of people on the inside to study with an approved list of educational institutions. Some 14 months after the end of Obama’s tenure, what will happen to that initiative remains to be seen.

We’ve been working together, this sixth HTCS cohort of the JIE Initiative at Columbia, for about eight weeks. I am always unsure how the groups will blend at the beginning. Everyone knows about the differences in backgrounds and is a bit self-conscious, each wondering whether it is obvious who belongs to which group, wondering how to properly interact with those from the other.

We begin with The Odyssey, whose first books focus on the hero’s son, Telemachus, a young man left in “pain and lamentation” by his absent father and who wishes he “could have been rather son to some fortunate / man, whom old age overtook among his possessions.”2This abandoned son is sick of watching his mother be pursued by rude, voracious men who desecrate both the home and the memory of his father. The text pulls us around the Mediterranean, following this man of many ways as he tries to get home, and when he does, he finds a deeply inhospitable situation awaiting him.

the classroom is the ideal place for dissenting views to come into respectful contact, for students to realize that their ideas have been shaped by their lives and circumstances

One night, during perhaps our third class of the term, as we are talking about the challenges Odysseus will face when he tries to reintegrate into his family and reclaim the rule of Ithaka, Marvin begins a sentence with “When I was inside …” And so, tentatively at first, students start to share what it was like to come home after a long time away, to meet their children again, this time as adults, to be used to the company of men and to return to a family; and how, after you get released, after you regain the freedom you’ve waited so long for, you end up in a shelter and on parole.

Then we come to Antigone, reading the first scene aloud in class, listening to the heroine’s claims that in order to “heap / the burial mound for him, my dearest brother,” she is willing to defy the law of the king ordering that he be left unburied, on penalty of death, so that she may uphold the laws of the gods instructing burial of all bodies.3 Rick asks: “So she’s asking what you do when both choices leave you totally screwed?” Many heads nod in recognition.

We talk for a bit about situations that don’t seem to have a “right” choice, about what you do when faced with conflicting laws. I bring up Dr. Martin Luther King Jr’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” and Marvin nearly jumps out of his seat: “I was just thinking about that!” So we end up talking about Augustine and Thomas Aquinas and definitions of law for 20 minutes before we go back another thousand years to the argument between these two sisters, Antigone and Ismene, the cursed daughters of Oedipus. After class, Rick tells me, “You know, I really like Antigone. She’s like, ‘Fuck these wrong laws.’” I smile. Then Roosevelt calls me over to show me his newly minted student ID. I say, “You’re official!” He grins.

Back to Annie’s question: What is the point of reading things that bother us? Part of what I hear implied in that question is, Why can’t we just read things that we agree with and that have happy endings?

I don’t teach to upset my students. I don’t want them to leave class angry or upset. I do not think that linguistic microaggressions, vitriol, or shaming have any place in the classroom. Much has been said about the need to find a middle ground between free speech and safe spaces on college campuses, and about how, in our impulses to protect young people, we may be creating a generation of delicate “snowflakes.” As John Stuart Mill so brilliantly says, dangerously unexamined ideas, or “dead dogma,” are created when people “have never thrown themselves into the mental position of those who think differently from them … and consequently they do not, in any proper sense of the word, know the doctrine which they themselves profess.”4

I agree with Mill’s exhortation to examine our ideas through debate, and I believe that the classroom is the ideal place for dissenting views to come into respectful contact, for students to realize that their ideas have been shaped by their lives and circumstances, that people with different paths are going to have different ideas, that rightness may be on either side or somewhere in the middle.


The Future of Diversity on Campus

By Catharine R. Stimpson

It is possible to read The Odyssey as a story of a handsome and courageous hero who endures the anger of the gods to make it back home to his honorable wife, Penelope, and his brave son. It is also true that Odysseus is an unfaithful husband, a battlefield trickster, a leader whose men disobey him. The Odyssey ends not just with the romantic reunion between husband and wife but also with the execution of Penelope’s 12 handmaidens. As punishment for their relations with Penelope’s suitors, they are hanged with “their heads … all in a line … / struggl[ing] with their feet for a little, not for very long.”5 My goal with the Justice-in-Education Scholars, and with all my students, is to present, as much as my own subjectivities allow, these important conflicting interpretations of texts and of our world so that the students can see the gray and the middle ground.

So, on the sixth floor of Philosophy Hall, twice a week, in my classroom, we’ll cultivate James Baldwin’s capacity for criticism and revolution, and his hope for education as a tool for social change; instead of paralyzing sorrow at the current state of the justice system in our country, we’ll have the poetry of our interactions.


This article was commissioned by Sharon Marcus and Stephen Twilley. icon

  1. his talk was delivered on October 16, 1963, as “The Negro Child—His Self-Image.” It was published in the Saturday Review on December 21, 1963, as “A Talk to Teachers,” and reprinted in The Price of the Ticket: Collected Nonfiction, 1948–1985 (St. Martin’s, 1985).
  2. Homer, The Odyssey of Homer, translated from the Greek by Richmond Lattimore (Harper & Row, 1965), 1.242, 1.217–220.
  3. Sophocles, Antigone, translated from the Greek by David Grene and Richmond Lattimore (University of Chicago Press, 1954), pp. 80–81.
  4. John Stuart Mill, On Liberty, Utilitarianism and Other Essays (Oxford World’s Classics, 2015), pp. 42–43.
  5. Homer, The Odyssey of Homer, 22.465–472.
Featured image: Auguste Rodin’s The Thinker in front of Philosophy Hall on the campus of Columbia University (2007). Photograph by bfishadow / Flickr