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Innovative Carolina programs are bringing philosophy to prisons, retirement homes and high schools.

A man's shadow (sitting down, leaning forward with hands on knees) is seen behind the bars of a prison cell.
(Shutterstock image)

Isolated in his high-security prison cell, James* thinks deeply about the ethical questions posed in a correspondence course that is part of Carolina’s efforts to help people of all sorts practice philosophy in their everyday lives.

Not his real name.

James is among 120 Polk Correctional Institution offenders, ages 18 and older, who have enrolled during the past three years in either for-credit or noncredit courses in which philosophy faculty, graduate students and undergraduates correspond or teach. His behavior in prison caused his transfer to the Butner, North Carolina, facility’s most secure unit. Now, philosophy offers James a chance for reflection to counteract his limited social contact.

Fulfilling the University’s public service mission

Prison-outreach is just one program in a historically robust array offered by the College of Arts & Sciences’ philosophy department. Carolina philosophers also hold discussion groups in retirement communities, engage high school students in nearby counties and involve UNC undergraduate and graduate students in the outreach. It’s all part of the department’s efforts to fulfill the University’s mission of public service.

The department and UNC’s Parr Center for Ethics are using their intellectual resources to help people think about ideas, commitments and practices that shape their lives. They are expanding the scope and breadth of philosophical inquiry by bringing new voices into the conversations with faculty members who who are committed to serving students and sharing their expertise outside of Chapel Hill.

Offenders participating in other philosophy courses include women at Swannanoa Correctional Center in Black Mountain and at the North Carolina Correctional Institution for Women in Raleigh, men at Foothills Correctional Institution in Morganton and at the Orange Correctional Center in Hillsborough. The offenders and their correspondents in Chapel Hill are making anonymous exchanges by mail on topics such as anger, forgiveness and the merits of practicing philosophy.

Their reasons for taking the courses vary. Some Polk Correctional inmates describe their participation in different ways. One wrote he seeks “an understanding of what philosophy is. I realized that I could do it and I actually liked it.”

“It helps use my time in a better way,” wrote another.

“It means a chance to discuss things that may have deeper meanings,” another wrote.

One simply wants “education, study, mental exercise.”

The pandemic’s distinctive toll of social isolation has only heightened the need for the department outreach, said Michael Vazquez, a teaching assistant professor and director of outreach in the philosophy department and at the Parr Center for Ethics.

A sampling of revamped outreach efforts includes:

  • virtual discussion groups in four retirement communities: Chapel Hill’s Carol Woods and Carolina Meadows, Durham’s Bartlett Reserve and a group of older adults across the Triangle Area organized by the Orange County Department of Aging;
  • a service-learning course in spring 2021 semester in which undergraduates will teach and learn alongside older adults, a course inspired by the Orange County Department of Aging’s Master Aging Plan and UNC’s Partnership and Aging program;
  • a fall 2020 service-learning course (PHIL 292) that brought ethical reflection to high school students in under-served communities across the country;
  • a virtual philosophy club with Phoenix Academy, an alternative high school in the Chapel Hill-Carrboro School system for students with special needs who would benefit from smaller classes, guided instruction and positive behavior;
  • a virtual public philosophy series on skepticism at Wake County’s Northeast Regional Library entitled Suspicious Minds; and
  • a philosophy discussion program on Plato’s “Republic” for juvenile offenders at Cabarrus Youth Development Center in spring 2021.

Faculty and students working in the programs are motivated by the conviction that philosophical activity helps people flourish and live on their own terms, Vazquez said. “We also believe that the skills and dispositions cultivated by philosophical inquiry are integral to a thriving civic sphere.”

The programs address some main tenets of the University’s strategic plan, Carolina Next: Innovations for Public Good: promoting democracy, serving to benefit society and building our community together.

“We take that charge quite seriously,” said Vazquez. “Ideally, outreach is about brushing shoulders with one another, being in the same room and talking. The pandemic rendered that impossible to do in a safe way.”

After the University switched to virtual classes and programming in March 2020, the department soon transformed familiar outreach programs into new forms through Zoom meetings and by U.S. mail.

For-credit and noncredit classes

For the prison program, the department partners with the North Carolina Department of Public Safety and the University’s Friday Center for Continuing Education on classes for college credit and noncredit correspondence courses.

Three different faculty members teach the for-credit classes: Ian Cruise at North Carolina Correctional Institution for Women, Francesco Nappo at Polk Correctional and Michaela Tiller at Orange Correctional. Raphael Ginsberg, associate director for correctional education at the Friday Center, has cultivated partnerships with prisons to make the courses possible, Vazquez said. Those efforts included helping faculty and graduate students design readings and assignments specifically for mail versions of traditional philosophy classes.

In the noncredit program, teams of faculty and Carolina students work with offenders at Swannanoa Correctional Center for Women, Foothills Correctional Institution and Polk Correctional Institution. After each round of responses from the three facilities, the Carolina teams will choose a new set of readings and discussion questions to begin another conversational thread.

Of 100 offenders who wanted to participate in fall 2020 across the three facilities, 25 were chosen for the noncredit program. That number matched well with the number of departmental volunteers, Vazquez said.

Brooke Wheeler ’95, an educator for 25 years, is principal of the school at Polk Correctional. Wheeler said that the by-mail course was good to try with high-security inmates, who rarely have any educational outlets except library books. “No other prisons are doing this the way we are,” Wheeler said.

Prison officials assess every piece of correspondence sent to and from inmates and their Carolina correspondents. “It’s been a really positive experience,” Wheeler said. “In addition to writing to their corresponding partner, inmates have written to me to say how grateful they are for the opportunity and how it’s helping them expand their thinking.”

Before the pandemic, instructors taught for-credit classes at Polk in person. Students usually were people who, according to Wheeler, never thought they would be able to attend college. This time, Nappo conducts class totally by mail. No Zoom sessions. “It was amazing to see how the instructors were able to change the class and to see the growth in these guys,” Wheeler said. “They realize the class is a gift and are willing to do the work. It’s so good to see the excitement they have from being in a college class.”

‘These women are isolated.’

For the Swannanoa Correctional courses, Associate Professor Jennifer Morton is on the team corresponding with offenders. She helped curate readings for Swannanoa that include essays ─ Audre Lord’s “The Uses of Anger,” Martha Nussbaum’s “Beyond Anger” and Morton’s “Philosophy as an Antidote to Injustice” ─ to help participants think about what can be gained from learning and practicing philosophy.

“The women are isolated and lack contact with the outside world,” said Morton. “They have a lot of time to reflect on their situation and on the nature of justice and injustice. It’s a natural place for us to engage with people in the community and to be participants in thinking through the issues that the women in this correctional facility are interested in discussing with them.

“In the first round, my correspondent wrote insightfully about anger and how sometimes it can be useful as a motivator. She suggested that the downside of anger — its self-destructive nature — might depend on the person and their circumstances,” Morton said.

Vazquez said that he hears from prison administrators of a despair that can set in during isolation, so it is important to provide opportunity for reflection and meaningful social interaction. “One principal told me about a particular student she works with in the program. His spirits lifted pretty quickly when he heard about the prospect of doing something like the philosophy class by mail.”

Questions, answers and responses to readings vary across prisons and correspondents. Participants’ hand-written responses in letters reach Vazquez in batches by a deadline. He scans them and distributes digital copies to Carolina correspondents.

Group assignments vary. One group’s readings include “The Myth of Sisyphus” by Albert Camus and Plato’s “Allegory of the Cave.” The Swannanoa group, as mentioned, focuses on anger, forgiveness and the effects of emotions on life.

“There’s a conversational dimension with chances to bring in philosophical expertise, interesting examples or distinctions, and to do work that philosophers do in the context of each letter,” Vazquez said.

It’s all done anonymously; participants and correspondents avoid names, use pseudonyms or first names with no other personal identifiers.

‘Meaningful social dimension’

Morton said that the department’s approach takes philosophy beyond the places one might immediately think of, such as public lectures, media interviews or writing for magazines. “Those instances of public philosophy reach college-educated people who are already interested in what we’re working on,” she said. “These programs are about reaching those who are marginalized by the education system and might not have straightforward paths to our work, though they do not lack the interest or motivation.”

The department’s programs provide opportunities for philosophical reflection. “It’s important for people to think carefully and clearly for themselves about their commitments, about the shape of their lives,” Vazquez said. “Humans are naturally disposed to inquire, so everyone brings a distinctive share of expertise to the table. There’s also a meaningful social dimension to these programs. We find fulfillment in thinking in community and alongside others.”

By Scott Jared, The Well

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