U.S. Intellectual History Blog

another perspective on the fate of the humanities

After the subject of the dire employment situation in higher education, the most common topic for discussion among my friends in academia is likely the perceived lack of interest in the humanities among our students. The latter concern has been officially validated by the New York Times, which recently reported on the increasing need of the humanities, in the wake of the current financial crises, to justify their very existence. Making a similar point, but from an opposite perspective, is Bard College president Leon Botstein, who has written a short article that appears in the March 23 issue of The New Republic.

Botstein’s piece concerns the Bard Prison Initiative, which allows prisoners to earn associate’s or bachelor’s degrees, by studying “not a technical trade, but the full range of liberal arts subjects.” For most of these students, however, after earning their degrees “years will pass before there is even a consideration of parole.” Thus, in an ironic twist, these prisoners are “freed” from the economic pressures that plague students in more conventional situations. And what do they do with this freedom? According to Botstein, they study the humanities! One  of the recent graduates, for example, wrote his B.A. thesis on the origin of black conservatism, and another on the ethics of language use.

At the most recent commencement ceremony, wrote Botstein, several of the students addressed their fellow graduates, and “[e]ach spoke about the liberation of the mind that comes from confronting the rigorous demands of disciplined study…[and] the struggle they encountered in learning how to write closely reasoned arguments that forced them to reconsider deeply held prejudices and facile notions based on ignorance.”

While the program certainly represents a positive development in the lives of the incarcerated, the college president cannot help but recognize that the ceremony also points out “how weak the love of learning is among those for whom the privilege of moving seamlessly from high school into college is taken for granted.” By juxtaposition, the prisoners highlight “something we rarely see on our own campuses: recognition of the deep value of the pursuit of inquiry for its own sake.”

I certainly hope that a prison sentence is not a necessary condition for becoming aware of the intrinsic value of learning. Perhaps instead we can isolate whatever it is that inspires these inmates, and export it from the prison to the campus.