By Ross Van Ness, Ed.D., Prof. Emeritus, Ball State University
Consider the effect that the content of basic college classes can have on a person who has never opened themselves to academic knowledge. English literature brings exposure to the great ideas, thought, experiences, and descriptions of human experience; psychology opens the world of how the mind controls our actions; sociology brings insight into how humans interact; anthropology explores origins, customs, and cultures of the human species; history describes not only what has transpired, but the effects past events have had on our present living. Math and science bring understanding of the physical world, numeric relationships, operating systems in nature, and the bases for today’s digital devices. Art and music develop an appreciation for beauty and aesthetics. The list could be extended. Each subject area contributes to a convicted felon’s potential ability to think rationally, reason intelligently, and view the world as a possible place of potential order, beauty and reciprocal caring, rather than a place of violence and “get-others-before-they-get-you.” These “basics” begin to mold a mindset of self-responsibility, and of contributing to society, rather than taking from it. Another major point is that higher education helps any person, in or out of prison, “learn how to learn.” Thus, it creates a whole new set of skills to utilize future learning and/or training opportunities.
A few offenders (sadly, too few) are fortunate enough to have some technical or skill oriented training available. I had one student who had learned more about being a pest exterminator than any “Orkin Man” I ever met. His statement was: “The academic classes changed my head; the technical classes trained my hands to work with my head.” He looked forward after his release to working in a pest control company or opening his own business. Similarly, classes in refrigeration, electronics, metal working, or any other “trade skill” can provide the basis for marketable employment upon sentence completion or parole.
The total higher education experience can help change how a person thinks, and create a “paradigm shift” in how a convicted felon views the world. Many offenders enter prison self-centered, defensive, bitter, and/or looking to “get even” with the society and system that put them there. Higher education can create a growing awareness that as the Jimmy Buffet song says: “Well, it could be my fault,” and eventually, “It’s my own damn fault.”
Does higher education change all prisoners? Absolutely not. Nor does it erase from all those who graduate with one or more degrees all misguided beliefs or irrational points of view. It is far more effective, however, than simply “warehousing” felons, while providing them with only a meager prison library and little incentive to use it. Higher education is not a “silver bullet” to assure reform. Yet just as the stimulation of knowledge has transformed many a person outside of prison, it can and has changed the outlook, values, and attitudes of thousands of prisoners. As the great saying goes: “The human mind once expanded through learning will never go back to its original shape.”