Why Teach Liberal Arts in Prison?

Why Teach Liberal Arts in Prison?

Estimated reading time: 3 minutes

Liberal arts. Anyone studying this subject is frequently acquainted with an eye roll followed by, “And how are you supposed to get a job with that?” Liberal arts have a bad rap, and that is highly underserved. The truth is, liberal arts is among one of the oldest courses of study in the world! While it may not teach specific skills, such as machining, dentistry, or liberal arts, it does prepare students to think.

Liberal arts programs cover humanities and formal, natural, and social sciences. The student delves into what makes the world work, what drives people to make choices, and how the natural world influences humanity.

Once one has an education in liberal arts, they have a base for pursuing a more nuanced learning path (like biology, psychology, or astronomy). Unlike the perception that a liberal arts degree cannot lead to a job, many employers in this diverse world of global interaction and aggressive entrepreneurship like to see their job candidates pursue some form of education. That means the candidate has ambition, is invested in learning, and is knowledgeable about various subjects. Most importantly, however, liberal arts education brings students face-to-face with the tenets of humanity – and let’s face it, with the American prison system being what it is, “humanity” can be a powerful word.

In America, one in five incarcerated persons is behind bars for drug offenses. Bluntly put, those with robust access to healthy extracurricular activities, safe neighborhoods, sustainable jobs, healthy communities, and support systems are far less likely to engage in illegal drug activity than the disenfranchised. Therefore, the majority of persons in prison are disenfranchised. That means they spend much less time thinking about the world in a connected, global sense, thinking about what it means to be human and have a place in the world and understanding how the biological and physical world interacts and affects everyone. For the disenfranchised, the focus is not on their fellow man. The focus is on survival.

So, when initiatives like the Northwestern Prison Education Program, a partnership between Northwestern University and the Illinois Department of Corrections, show up to teach liberal arts to inmates, this is a significant endeavor.

The goal of prison is successful re-entry, but without education, re-entry fails. Inmates who are just locked away for a crime without access to education leave prison with no job skills other than what they learned from their fellow inmates – skills that got them locked up in the first place. However, learning about humanity and sciences? That changes a person.

Having the opportunity to learn about life the way liberal arts teaches gives inmates a chance to see beyond their cell walls, beyond the circumstances that brought them to jail, and beyond the sum of their sentence. With liberal arts, they see the bigger picture, develop a thirst to learn more, figure out their place in the world, and see that the world can be beautiful. They leave prison with skills applicable to a job or higher education, developing a healthier sense of self. They have much better cognitive and decision-making skills. The list of positives is endless.

The next time someone rolls their eyes and quips about a liberal arts degree leading right to a job as a barista, kindly remind that person that liberal arts started the higher education movement, and liberal arts are what will continue to transform the world, for those incarcerated and for those outside of the prison population. When you can think deeply for yourself, you make better choices and have a better life.