Newswise — American poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow long ago heralded, "The love of learning, the sequestered nooks, And all the sweet serenity of books."
Thanks to a recent partnership between Middle Tennessee State University, the Tennessee Department of Correction and the Great Books Foundation, a nonprofit educational organization, prisoners at three Nashville-area prisons recently had a chance to explore "the sweet serenity of books" by participating in a nine-week program titled Great Books in Middle Tennessee Prisons.
The program's weekly book discussion, which began in the selected prisons in late March, were conducted at Riverbend Maximum Security Institution, the Lois M. DeBerry Special Needs Facility and the Tennessee Prison for Women, with the teaching and literary guidance of volunteers from MTSU's English faculty, including Dr. Philip E. Phillips, associate professor of English. Phillips applied for and received an MTSU Public Service Grant for $2,701and $250 from the College of Liberal Arts for the pilot initiative.
The initial groundwork to enact the program in the prisons began in January when Dr. Daniel Born of the Chicago-based Great Books Foundation visited the Riverbend and DeBerry facilities, where Sharmila Patel, head of the education department for the Tennessee Department of Correction, took him on a tour of the prisons and described the need for programs such as Great Books in Tennessee prisons.
"The reading and discussion of great books expands our educational opportunities for incarcerated men and women. It enlarges minds, and it also creates a sense of community," Patel said.
Prior to beginning the weekly prison-based book discussions, Phillips, who was named coordinator for the Great Books in Middle Tennessee Prisons, said Born, vice president for post-secondary programs, provided training for English faculty in the Shared Inquiry method. Developed by the Great Books Foundation, Shared Inquiry is a discussion method in which the leader starts with an open-ended question about the meaning of the book selection, and then follows up with questions to help participants develop their ideas. Shared Inquiry is distinguished from the Socratic method by the fact the basic discussion question is one the leader doesn't know the answer to.
Regarding his desire to help oversee the Great Books program in area prisons, MTSU's Phillips said, "Educational opportunities that include critical examination of texts and thoughtful discussion of great ideas abound at Middle Tennessee State University, and such opportunities enrich our students' minds and lives, preparing them to reflect critically upon the choices that they make and the values that they embrace. There are many in our society, however, who have had few, if any, meaningful educational opportunities to cultivate their minds in this way or even to see the value of the 'examined' life.
"Some of those citizens have made bad choices in life, sometimes resulting in incarceration for their actions," he continued. "(And) while it may be the desire of many simply to 'lock prisoners up and throw away the key,' the reality is that 97 percent of all inmates in state and federal prisons will eventually leave prison and rejoin the larger community as our neighbors."
In addition to Phillips, MTSU English faculty—working in two-person teaching teams in the three prisons—included volunteers Warren Tormey and Drs. Becky King, Laura Dubek, Rhonda McDaniel and Tricia Gaitely.
Although King can't pinpoint precisely why she opted to volunteer for the program, "I like to try new things and teaching in a prison sounded like a real challenge, especially since I did not know much about what it would entail, so part of the reasons were selfish," she said. "I also think that we should all do things to foster the well-being of others, and this project appealed to me as possibly contributing to that end."
Also, Phillips added, "It seems to me that we have a moral obligation to our community and to our fellow human beings to do all that we can to rehabilitate those who are incarcerated, and one of those ways is through education: specifically, teaching critical thinking through reading and discussing Great Books."
Working with the prison-based discussions groups, Phillips said he and his colleagues used a textbook from the Great Books Foundation, "Great Conversations 1," that included readings from authors such as Michel de Montaigne, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Walt Whitman, Alexis de Tocqueville, Frederick Douglass, Henrik Ibsen, Tillie Olson, Alice Munro and Joseph Conrad, among others.
Referring to the preparation needed to co-teach the course with Phillips at the Riverbend Maximum Security Institute, King said they "presented one class per week, for an hour, (which) involved preparing for the discussions of the readings and then guiding the questions and discussions."
"In general, our class sizes ranged from 10 to 15 students," Phillips observed, "and those who remained in the classes were active and enthusiastic participants: they asked questions, raised interesting points and listened respectfully to others with whom they may or may not have agreed.
"A precondition to participation was having read all of the assigned reading for that day's class. My colleagues and I were very much impressed with the dedication and interest demonstrated by our students," he continued. "Indeed, Dr. King and I, as well as all of the others involved in the project, came to look forward to returning each and every week. For us, it was one of the real joys of our week."
King, an associate professor, said the Great Books experience was rewarding for both teachers and discussion members, the latter of whom participated on a voluntary basis and earned no college credit for doing so.
"The feedback we got was so very positive, including comments that the participants want to continue the program. Each night after class, students would shake our hands and thank us fervently for conducting the classes," she said.
"The students were so eager to discuss the texts in each class, and all of them contributed with their insights. "¦ I was impressed with how much these men supported each other, how polite they were in making sure all were able to express their ideas and opinions and with how easily they shared their experiences and observations.
"(The) men who came to class each week having read and engaged with the texts were there because they wanted to learn. These men read and thought avidly, and I was especially impressed with what they read. "¦"
Born said the recent prison book discussions that Phillips oversaw set "an important precedent for the Tennessee initiative." Further, this program "provides motivated prisoners with the kind of intellectual stimulation that is sorely lacking in many of the nation's prisons," he noted.
As for future involvement with the program, King, for one, expressed a desire to continue such an outreach.
"I would like to see this project extended, and I think MTSU can benefit from continuing support of it, particularly in terms of connecting very disparate communities who can learn from each other, extending the university into the community in practical ways. I am certainly eager to continue participating," she said.
Because of the success of the local pilot program, Phillips, too, hopes to continue on, he said, and plans to maintain the partnerships he's established and seek external funding to ensure its continuation—something Dr. John McDaniel, dean of the College of Liberal Arts, also favors.
"I certainly will be supportive of a reprise of the program," McDaniel said. "As I have said publicly and often, this is a wonderfully innovative outreach —or 'inreach'—program that combines the best of service with the best of liberal arts ideals."