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  • The Continuing Challenge of Progressive Thought:Lessons from a College in Prison
  • Ellen Condliffe Lagemann (bio)

Today in the United States, more than two million people are in prison, with no less than twenty million carrying felony convictions that will most likely diminish their earning capacity, bar them from certain occupations, and, depending on the state in which they live, prevent them from voting. These stark statistics are not just numbers to me. For most of the last decade, I have been deeply involved in the Bard Prison Initiative—commonly known as BPI—which is a full liberal arts program, leading to Bard College degrees, that operates in six New York State prisons. Spending time in these prisons and some others, getting to know people who are being held there or who have been in custody, and learning about the massive buildup in rates of incarceration that have occurred in the US since the 1970s, has taught me a great deal—and in what follows, I will share some of what I have learned from this experience and then briefly discuss how that connects to what I would call the continuing challenge of progressive thought.

I will begin at the beginning. On a hot July day in 2008, I was escorted into a maximum security prison located in the Catskill region of New York State. I had never been inside a prison before. This particular facility, which looks like a huge sandstone fortress, holds about 1,000 men, most of them serving relatively long sentences for serious, often violent felonies. I was going to this prison to teach a seminar on the history of American education, using a syllabus I had last used with Harvard College undergraduates during the fall of 2006.

Although I tried to look nonchalant, I was somewhat scared by all the security—not only metal detectors like those at an airport, but also a series of locked doors and gates, and correctional officers posted at corners all along the corridors. As we walked through those long cinder-block corridors, men in green prison uniforms streamed past, some chatting, others shuffling along. All were going out to spend time in the yard, where there are cement benches and tables, basketball hoops, a running track, weight machines, and telephones to place collect calls home. I did not know whether to smile or look away as some of the men looked at me quizzically and others simply marched along, a few chatting with friends. [End Page 3]

When we finally arrived at the wing of the prison known as "the school," the Bard colleague who was escorting me took me to the door of my classroom and turned on his heels, saying: "Here we are. Enjoy." I looked through the glass window of the door and saw sixteen men in green uniforms, sitting in a semicircle. I felt like running back through those gates, but before I had time to think, one of the students opened the door, and said: "You must be Professor Lagemann. We've been waiting for you." I had no choice but to walk in, put my books down, and start teaching and, before the class ended two hours later, I had totally forgotten where I was. The students were bright, engaging, very good humored, and polite. Teaching that class had been great fun—and that has been the case with almost every class I have taught in prisons ever since.

My new students were a varied bunch. Some were extremely well-spoken and articulate, while others were shy and reticent. A few had taken a number of history classes previously, but most had never taken a college history course. Some wrote final papers that were strong substantively, well organized, and totally grammatical, while others handed in writing that was more superficial and difficult to follow. The best papers were on a par with some of the very good papers I had read at Harvard, and all were at least competent at what might be described as a college level.

The students I had in that seminar, and BPI students generally, are representative of the New York State prison population. They are disproportionately African American...