Tag Archives: Maximum Security Prison

A Prisoner’s Honest Question


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.



When I passed my flight test to become a Certified Flight Instructor, the FAA examiner turned to me and said, “OK, John, you are all set to go. Now your first 10 students will teach you how to fly.” The same has been true in my university career.  It is a cliche that teachers learn as much or more than their students, but there is more than a modicum of truth in this. A provocative question or a lively discussion can inspire ideas in me that I had never known before, and in many classes I heard myself saying things that I found surprising. I have often thought, “Where in the world did those words come from?” Sometimes I even found myself rushing back to my office after a class to take notes on what I or my students had just said before I lost the ideas. I have already written about the daily gradual illumination that teaching offers in this blog’s essay on Teaching as Improvisation. In this essay, I would like to share a few thunderclaps that changed how I taught, how I thought, and how I was in the world. Interestingly, the experiences I am about to relate left me with stimulating questions rather than answers, and these questions have remained with me as vital catalysts during my subsequent 45 years of university teaching. It is my hope that you might find these experiences and insights transferable from the classroom to the everyday living of life.

What and Why am I Teaching?
I began teaching at St. Michael’s College in Vermont in 1967. My early attitude toward teaching embodied what Paolo Freire calls the banking method: I had knowledge the student didn’t have; I deposited it into the student’s mind; the student regurgitated it on a test, and I rewarded him or her with a grade. One of my earliest and brightest students said one day that I was not teaching them Philosophy. I was teaching them how to play the game called student. I felt a jolt of recognition and an almost desperate longing not to be that kind of a teacher. My external behavior might not have immediately changed, but my internal landscape was shaken. I began seriously to ask myself what I thought I was doing when I entered a classroom. What was my intention? What would make the next 90 minutes valuable for my students and for myself? I continue to ask these questions today, as they nurture an ever-deepening awareness of the meaning of teaching.

What do I Think I Know?
My formal training had been in Greek and Medieval Philosophy, and my first teaching covered the years from 400-1400 CE: St. Augustine to William of Ockham. For a good five years I taught the words of these great thinkers with confident authority. One day, however, I was teaching St. Augustine’s explanations concerning predestination. Essentially, I understood him to say that God knows the future because His reality is eternal Presence, but that does not determine the future. After listening for a while, a student said, “I don’t get it.” I was shaken by my next thought: “Neither do I.” I had been mouthing these words for years, and I suddenly realized I had no idea what I was talking about. It sounded like nonsense to me, and I realized that I had been teaching students and grading them on ideas of which I had little grasp. Moreover, I also realized in that moment that I really didn’t care about these ideas. That traditional Western God had become more and more abstract, dry, and remote. He was way too masculine and intellectual. My soul longed for a gentler, kinder experience of Divinity.

I therefore began to ask myself why I was teaching what I was teaching. Why should I teach ideas that made no sense and held little meaning for me? Why should I require students to read books that had no fire for me? Why should I require students to memorize answers to questions that neither they nor I had asked?

These questions have informed my teaching for over four decades. My interests shifted away from the medieval period and back to Plato and the Greeks, forward to Existentialism, and to the Eastern philosophies of Taoism and Zen. (In fairness, there are fine thinkers, such as Matthew Fox, who write about St. Thomas Aquinas with sensitivity and intelligence. My point is simply that I personally find more “juice” in other ways of thought.) At any rate, I think it was in that class that I began the slow process of becoming a lover of wisdom.

Lightning Strikes
After  a few years of teaching, however, I was honored with a grant from the Carnegie foundation.  I was to have one of my classes video-taped, and then bring it to Boston for a week’s seminar with 10 other honored teachers from around the country.  Throughout the week, I saw many examples of magnificent teaching.  On Friday morning, it was my turn.  I had chosen a lecture on Sartre’s play “The Flies,” one of my favorite platforms for waxing eloquent.   But 30 seconds into my video, I could have died. I wanted to crawl under the table. There I was for all to see: “Mr. Hotshot Professor.  Mr. Ego.”  I can’t express the pain of that moment, as I saw myself so clearly self-involved as a flashy performer, but a truly lousy teacher.  The experience was so painful for everyone that the leaders of the seminar mercifully turned it off after just a few minutes.  Everyone was most kind, but equally clear that I had some changing to do.

That was the last straw.  From that very day, as I crossed the threshold of my classrooms, I reminded myself in a nearly audible whisper, “It’s not about me. If Love is missing, this will be a waste of time.”  I’m pretty sure that things started getting better.