In 1996, I found myself teaching honors sections on Plato’s dialogues at Indiana State University. After a couple of weeks, I received a call from an administrator asking if I would be willing to teach outreach courses at the State Penitentiary in Carlisle, Indiana. “Why not?” I thought. “It should be an interesting experience.” Little did I know.
I showed up on the appointed day and made my way through razor wire fences and electronic gates. I was then photographed and fingerprinted, and led by a guard down a long corridor of the Maximum Security Section, where the inmates were serving 20 years to life. We stopped at a door, and he said, “This is your classroom.” “Aren’t you coming in?” I asked. “Nope,” he said, “you’re on your own.” I entered the classroom with shaking knees.
There were 26 very big men in the room, mostly African Americans, and they sent waves of distrust and hostility in my direction. Most sat sideways so they didn’t have to look at me. With great trepidation, my voice 2 octaves higher than usual, I began to talk about Philosophy using the Allegory of the Cave from Plato’s Republic. After five minutes or so, a hand went up. “Wonderful,” I thought, “class participation so soon!”
“Listen, man,“ the student said catching my eye. “Are you just here to give us some more White Man’s Bullshit?”
He stopped me in my tracks. I had never had a question more relevant, more clear and direct, and more to the point. The elephant in the room was loudly trumpeting. I had only two choices: run and hide in the protective mantle of the Teacher, or do my best to match his authenticity. “OK,” I said, “I guess you noticed that I’m White.” A few chuckles. “And to be honest, I have my share of bullshit, but I don’t want to lay it on you. So if you catch me being insincere or dishonest, I give you absolute permission to call me on it. Will you do that?” “OK,” he said. “One more thing,” I said. “If I catch you giving me any Black Man’s Bullshit, I’ll call you on it. Do we have a deal?”
With the ensuing laughter, the ice began to melt, and the atmosphere in that room went from cold to warm to scintillating as these bright and spirited men found room to grow. They actually came to understand that Plato was talking about the idea that we were all “doing time” inside our own heads, and that he, like the Buddha, was suggesting ways to ease our pain. Most of these men were Black Muslims, and it was clear to me that they took their new beliefs seriously. We therefore read some poems of Rumi and Hafiz, and sections from Al-Kindi’s Treatise “On the Art of Banishing Sorrow.” The book, however, that most impressed them was the Tao Te Ching. Some days when I arrived at the classroom, the entire class was already heatedly involved in a focused discussion of Chinese Philosophy. One day a guy said, “This Lao Tzu is one cold blooded dude!” I think the Chinese Sage would have smiled.
It is ironic, I think, that the most honest question I was ever asked as a teacher came to me in a maximum security prison. That one adamantine question broke the prejudicial chains that imprisoned us in separate worlds, and transformed us into a group of men simply trying to help each other figure things out. It seemed to me that the man who asked the original question was exhibiting tremendous respect for himself, for me, and for the process of learning. He shone a bright light on the darkness in the room, and gave us all a chance to step into that light.
On the final day of the semester, every man stood in a line by the door, many with tears in their eyes, as they waited for a hug before returning to their cells. That marvelous question broke all of our hearts–and broke them open.