Plato in prison

By Jay Jamison

Has it already been thirty-four years? That thought crossed my mind as I began another semester teaching introduction to philosophy. I’m now teaching as an adjunct instructor at Lincoln Land Community College’s Jacksonville campus.

I taught my first philosophy classes for MacMurray College on a rather unusual campus, the newly opened Jacksonville Correctional Center. The line-up –sorry, bad choice of words– my class offerings were introduction to philosophy and contemporary ethical problems. That’s right, I was teaching Plato and Aristotle, along with an ethics course, to felons. Getting to class was not exactly a brisk walk from my car to the classroom. As memory serves, I had to pass through at least three separate heavily-armored doors, each closing with the bolts’ loud clacks behind me, as I passed into the prison. Add to that stimulating feeling of uplift, the possibility of being stopped for a pat-down. Come to think of it, the closest comparison to going to my class at the correctional center over thirty years ago is the contemporary experience of passing through airport security. This may explain my lack of enthusiasm for flying these days.

I have found over the years that teaching Plato and Aristotle to contemporary classes has some students as mystified, but also intrigued, by the writings of the principal founders of Western philosophy, as were my incarcerated students three decades ago. However, it was in my contemporary ethical problems course where I got tripped-up, in an unintended role reversal. I was a young, inexperienced instructor in 1985, and I deeply wanted to connect with my students, to speak in terms they might understand. I set up a situation of a man who was down on his luck, who had convinced himself that his only alternative to getting back on his feet again was to attempt to rob a liquor store. I was spinning this narrative off the top of my head (big mistake). I had their complete attention, but for the wrong reason. My made-up story was supposed to be a setting for a more in-depth discussion of responsibility and justice. In my narrative, the guy enters the liquor store and raises his gun to the person behind the counter. The clerk behind the counter responds by pulling out his gun. Now the clerk was threatening the robber. Here’s where my off-the-cuff story went off the rails. “So, he shot the clerk with his shotgun,” I said. A guy in the front row shook his head in disappointment. I jumped at the possibility of discussion, asking my front-row student if he’d like to comment. He replied with something like, “You never use a shotgun on a job like that.” The rest of the class nodded in agreement. I succeeded in stimulating discussion, but instead of talking about justification and responsibility, I was getting a graduate seminar on how to properly rob a liquor store. At that point, I was the amateur and they (at least some of them) were the professionals.

That incident taught me many things, not the least of which is never talk down to students, no matter who they are, because the time may come when they may reveal your own unacknowledged ignorance. Such occasions can be painful, but they can also be instructive. To a certain extent, this is what philosophy does.

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