Drew Leder on Why He Teaches in Prison

Drew Leder writes:

Why do I teach in prison? Well, I’ll give an answer (that might not seem so interesting) – because prison teaching is itself interesting. In oh so many ways.

The men who I work with, some 30-40 in my classes, not counting 5-10 of my undergraduates I bring with me, are passionately interested in what we are studying. This could be a volume of Jungian-style psychology on finding the hero-stories that have guided your life. It could be a book on the latest research exploring how we make (and botch up) decisions. Or the Tao te Ching, the ancient Chinese text for finding balance in a world not even the ruler can control. Or Epictetus’ Handbook, by the crippled Roman slave who taught a Stoicism focused on mastery of mental states.

Whatever we read, the men are interested, passionately engaged, and ready to apply the material to their own lives. How to build a good life as a “lifer”? How, while serving long time, to have time serve you? How, while being confined for decades on in a tiny cell, in a locked tier, in a razor-wire-fringed maximum-security prison – how to expand space and take flight? The men not only wish to survive in these tough surroundings – they wish to flourish, and need the resources, personal and intellectual, that will aid their quest. So they are passionately interested in our quest-ions and texts in a way my Loyola undergraduates rarely are. (Those undergrads who accompany me into prison learn something about how to learn.)

And all this interest makes me interested. I can choose texts and questions I really want to teach, less hampered by my conventional menu of college courses. I can converse with men from a very different background and life-experience than mine, and hear their unexpected viewpoints. At the same time, I learn about myself. If they can apply Buddhist methods to find happiness in their (incarcerated) here and now, who am I to mope around my luxurious house?

Prison teaching is one of the most interesting pedagogical experiences I’ve ever had. That’s why I’m still at it some 22 years after first tentatively poking in a toe.

“Interest” is an interesting word. Start with “inter.” It can mean “to deposit a dead body in a tomb.” In many ways, this is what our criminal criminal justice system does, with its harsh use of extended and discriminatory prison sentences. But the men – and the more enlightened prison administrators and staff – look beyond this and refuse to be the land of the walking dead. They choose life.

“Inter”, as a prefix, also means “between.” The word “interest” is actually from the Latin interesse, whose root meaning is to “be between,” and which also can be translated as “to concern, make a difference, be of importance.” (Hence “interest also takes on financial meanings.) The men I teach are “between” – between enslavement and freedom, imperatives of their past street-life, and their dreamed-of future; indeed between life and death, for those serving long sentences. And yet that “between” is where interesting things happen. Socrates taught in that in-between place, the agora, or Athenian marketplace, where people mingled, and he used the method of dia-logue, that is the speaking (logos) that only emerges between (dia) two living souls.

So, yes these classes are interesting – they exist in the between-world where our discussions, like the Latin interesse,  “concern, make a difference, are of importance.” At least I hope so, and this is what the men confirm time and again, time and again.

1 Comment

  1. Kate Lasko

    This was a fascinating read! My friend, Rachel Donaldson, alerted me to the work you guys are doing, and I’m really enjoying the updates and class reflections I receive in my inbox. It seems that you’ve really hit upon the true work of educating – rooted in the Latin, to lead out – especially when you call attention to the idea that the men are exploring “how to expand space and take flight”! Great teachers I’ve had (Rachel’s dad was one of them) always created those opportunities in their classrooms; great teachers challenge their students to dig in, do the work, and consequently let the work lift them above and beyond the confines of ignorance. Ignorance may be bliss, but knowledge is downright invigorating! Truly, there is no better evidence for this than the men’s responses to your class: that they are, indeed, passionately interested; they are, as you say, looking “beyond the land of the walking dead” and choosing life, instead.

    Just reading about the work you guys are doing is invigorating – it’s inspiring, important, and so very, very interesting. Again, I must say how much I enjoy following and supporting your and your colleagues’ work!


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