The Liberating Power of Higher Education

How A Liberal Arts Education Helps Felons Become ‘Civic Beings’

In her new column, IHS President Dr. Emily Chamlee-Wright speaks with University of New Orleans professor Dr. Chris Surprenant about mass incarceration and considers what Ken Burns’ new PBS series, “College Behind Bars,” can teach us about “the liberating power of higher education.”

Dr. Chamlee-Wright writes:

Emily Chamlee-Wright

For those of us who believe in the liberal ideal—that anyone, regardless of the circumstances of his or her birth, can flourish—the social cost of mass incarceration is deeply troubling.

– Emily Chamlee-Wright, IHS President and CEO

Dr. Surprenant and Georgetown University professor Dr. Jason Brennan are publishing a new book on mass incarceration, Injustice for All, that explores innovative ways to change the financial incentives of the criminal system. But in the meantime, how should we address the 2.3 million Americans currently incarcerated, many of whom will soon return to their families and communities?

The answer may be in higher education. Dr. Chamlee-Wright looks at four-part miniseries “College Behind Bars,” released in November, which follows New York State prisoners who are pursuing humanities degrees through the Bard Prison Initiative.

“What college does, it helps us learn about the nation,” inmate Rodney Spivey-Jones says in the miniseries. “It helps us become civic beings. It helps us understand that we have an interest in our community, that our community is a part of us and we are a part of it.”

– Rodney Spivey-Jones

“What better reminder of the liberating power of higher education than to hear incarcerated men and women describe their experience?” Dr. Chamlee-Wright writes.

For their crimes the students of the Bard Prison Initiative have lost their liberty and been removed from civil society; but through a liberal arts education, they have developed new relationships with history and philosophy, figures living and dead, and the agency required to form conclusions of their own. And those developments empower incarcerated students to be, as Rodney Spivey-Jones said, “civic beings.”

– Rodney Spivey-Jones

Read the full column on or additional pieces by Dr. Chamlee-Wright and the Institute for Humane Studies at

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