Penn State vs. The State Penn?

I used to joke that it costs as much to house an inmate in the California state prison system as it would to send the same person to Stanford, but that sending the inmate to Stanford (at least in the humanities) would be bad for the inmate.

Turns out this may not be such a joke after all.

I missed the story a couple weeks ago about a debate staged between three inmates from the New York state prison system and three students from the Harvard College Debating Union. The inmates won the debate. Here’s the Wall Street Journal report:

NAPANOCH, N.Y.—On one side of the stage at a maximum-security prison here sat three men incarcerated for violent crimes.

On the other were three undergraduates from Harvard College.

After an hour of fast-moving debate on Friday, the judges rendered their verdict.

The inmates won.

The audience burst into applause. That included about 75 of the prisoners’ fellow students at the Bard Prison Initiative, which offers a rigorous college experience to men at Eastern New York Correctional Facility, in the Catskills.

I especially like the debate topic and how the winning argument unfolded:

Ironically, the inmates had to promote an argument with which they fiercely disagreed. Resolved: “Public schools in the United States should have the ability to deny enrollment to undocumented students. . .

Judge Mary Nugent, leading a veteran panel, said the [prison] team made a strong case that the schools attended by many undocumented children were failing so badly that students were simply being warehoused. The team proposed that if “dropout factories” with overcrowded classrooms and insufficient funding could deny these children admission, then nonprofits and wealthier schools would step in and teach them better.

The Harvard team members said they were impressed by the prisoners’ preparation and unexpected line of argument. “They caught us off guard,” said Anais Carell, a 20-year-old junior from Chicago.

Why were elite Harvard students “caught off guard”? The simplest explanation is that they suffered the defect of an elite university education, whereas the prison inmates had the challenge of thinking for themselves. Golly—the private sector might do a better job of educating kids? Yes indeed, that is an unheard-of idea at Harvard. I think there’s a broader lesson here about how ideologically monochromatic universities do a great disservice . . . to liberals.

There’s a great passage in Churchill’s My Early Life about his own self-education that indirectly gets at the defects of the smug uniformity of liberalism in American colleges:

It was a curious education. First, because I approached it with an empty, hungry mind, and with fairly strong jaws; and what I got I bit; secondly because I had no one to tell me: ‘This is discredited.’ ‘You should read the answer to that by so and so; the two together will give you the gist of the argument.’ ‘There is a much better book on that subject,’ and so forth.

In other words, Churchill was able to let great books talk for themselves, instead of being mediated badly by the professoriate. It’s one thing for a professor to have a distinct point of view, but of course the problem at most colleges in the humanities and social sciences is that most professors have the same point of view. This is a great advantage to conservative students, ironically, because conservatively inclined students have to think and work harder to arrive at alternative understandings of issues and subjects, whereas liberal students have all of their prejudices reinforced in a superficial way rather than ever being challenged.

Before I arrived at Colorado a couple years ago some students and faculty were quoted in the press saying, “We don’t need any conservative faculty; conservative views are presented just fine by liberal professors.” Maybe this is true here and there, but in the main, people who think this way will buy ideological swampland in Florida—and lose debates to prison inmates who aren’t handicapped by this kind of insularity.

By the way, I note that in my year at Boulder that I met senior economics majors who had never read Hayek, Friedman, Buchanan or other conservative Nobel Prize winners in any of their courses.

So here’s another idea: maybe some of those debate-winning inmates ought to be given teaching fellowships at Harvard and elsewhere. The book could be, “From the State Penn to Penn State.”

P.S. I once suggested as a college reform idea that freshmen courses in the humanities should meet without any instructors or professors for the first three or four weeks of classes, and let the student discuss the texts among themselves. It would completely ruin the ideological professors who want to squeeze Shakespeare into the “patriarchy” box, for example. Pretty soon the best students would recognize that, like Churchill, their education will be better off without any professors at all.


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