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An “Impossible Profession”? The Radical University in Prison
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An “Impossible Profession”? The Radical University in Prison

It carries to their greatest intensity all the procedures to be found in the other disciplinary mechanisms. It must be the most powerful machinery for imposing a new form on the perverted individual; its mode of action is the constraint of a total education: “In prison the government may dispose of the liberty of the person and of the time of the prisoner; from then on, one can imagine the power of the education … which, in short, takes possession of man as a whole, of all the physical and moral faculties that are in him and of the time in which he is himself”.

Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punish1

You say you’re a balla! Real ballas have educations.

DOC will pay for your education now! Take Advantage, Man! Take Advantage.

message on a purple bookmark for Washington State prisoners

Sixty years ago, Michael Oakeshott could write in his essay “The Idea of a University” that the university had “not yet sunk so low” as to have made it necessary for it “to advertise itself as pursuing a particular purpose”—as if addressing “people so ignorant that they had to be spoken to in baby-language.”2 Our own times no longer warrant such composure. Prison university programs, in particular, must rationalize their activities to students, prison administrators, legislators, and potential donors: a motley crowd with many who may neither understand nor support liberal learning generally and many who may well be suspicious of anything radical. As a student and Teaching Assistant in University Beyond Bars, the college program at the Washington State Reformatory, I have been asked to defend the value of the program before such audiences. On these occasions, I have somewhat mischievously resorted to the authority of Allan Bloom (that bête noire of what is sometimes called the cultural Left and, more importantly, of many of my teachers) for the idea that the purpose of college is to force students to ask themselves, “What is wrong with me? What is so missing or damaged in my humanity, so broken or absent in my soul, so deficient or corrupt in my upbringing and schooling, that four years of study and the massive social mobilization involved in university education should be required to repair and reform it?”

I have taken this tack not purely out of mischief, but because Bloom’s theory of college conflates education with reformation, something rather helpful to students stuck in a reformatory. Indeed, Bloom’s approach to education actually has more in common with critical pedagogy than it does with the pedagogy of those, such as Stanley Fish, who argue that college and university teaching should comprise nothing but the transmission of bodies [End Page 10] of knowledge and traditions of inquiry, along with the analytical skills that makes independent research in those traditions possible.3 Bloom regards the modern university as, in essence, a powerful and successful Enlightenment conspiracy to preserve the life of the mind by bringing about the total reconstitution of “political and intellectual life under the supervision of philosophy and science.”4 Thus, he shares with radical teachers of the Left both a sense of responsibility for the direction of students’ inner lives and the conviction that the university is a vital source of political and social subversion. Such an exacting, exalted understanding of higher education’s significance is antithetical to the now flourishing debasement of college into worker training,5 but it can accommodate a range of other possibilities: the transformation of universities into “democratic centers of humanistic social change committed to combating and to eradicating racism, sexism, imperialism and social injustice,”6 for instance as well as the older ideal of Bildung as the formation of the self and the attainment of humanity through culture.

The difficulties attending such ambitions for education might well be thought formidable enough whether students are imprisoned or not. Plato’s Republic, perhaps the first attempt to describe the educational transformation of minds and characters so as to commit them to a radical utopian state, is at the same time the first intimation of the impossibility of the project7...