Liberal Arts Prison Education

Liberal arts. Anyone studying this subject is frequently acquainted with an eye roll followed by, “and how are you supposed to get a job with that?” Liberal arts has a bad rap, and that is very underserved. The truth is, liberal arts is among one of the oldest courses of study in the world! While it may not teach specific skills, such as machining or dentistry, liberal arts, it does prepare students to think.

Broadly speaking, liberal arts programs cover humanities along with formal, natural and social sciences. The student delves into what makes the world work, what drives people to the choices they make, and how the natural world influences all of humanity.

Once one has an education in liberal arts, he or she has a base for which to pursue a more nuanced path of learning (like biology, phycology or astronomy). Unlike the perception that a liberal arts degree cannot lead to a job, many employers in this diverse world of global interaction and aggressive entrepreneurship like to see that their job candidates pursued some form of education. That means, the candidate has ambition, is invested in learning, and is knowledgeable about a range of subjects. Most importantly, however, liberal arts education brings students face-to-face with the tenants of humanity – and let’s face it, with the American prison system being what it is, “humanity” can be a decisive word.

In America, one in five incarcerated persons is behind bars for drug offenses. Bluntly put, those with robust access to healthy extracurricular activities, safe neighborhoods, sustainable jobs, healthy communities, and support systems are far less likely to engage in illegal drug activity than the disenfranchised. Therefore, the majority of persons in prison are disenfranchised. That means, they spend much less time thinking about the world in a connected, global sense; thinking about what it means to be human and have a place in the world, and understanding how the biological and physical world interacts and affects everyone within it. For the disenfranchised, the focus is not on their fellow man. The focus is on survival.

So, when initiatives like the Northwestern Prison Education Program, a partnership between Northwestern University and the Illinois Department of Corrections, shows up to teach liberal arts to inmates, this is a very good thing.

The goal of prison is successful re-entry, but without education, re-entry fails. Inmates that are just locked away for a crime without access to education leave prison with no job skills other than what they learned from their fellow inmates – skills that got them locked up in the first place. However, learning about humanity and sciences? That changes a person.

Having the opportunity to learn about life the way liberal arts teaches it gives inmates a chance to see beyond their cell walls, beyond the circumstances that brought them to jail, and beyond the sum of their sentence. With liberal arts, they see the bigger picture, develop a thirst to learn more, figure out their place in the world and see that the world can be beautiful. They leave prison with skills that can be applied to a job or higher education, and they develop a healthier sense of self. They have much better cognitive and decision-making skills. The list of positives is endless.

So, the next time someone rolls their eyes and quips about a liberal arts degree leading right to a job as a barista, kindly remind that person that liberal arts started the higher education movement, and liberal arts is what will continue to transform the world, for those incarcerated and for those outside of the prison population. When you can think deeply for yourself, you make better choices and have a better life.

About Christopher Zoukis, MBA

Christopher Zoukis, MBA, is the Managing Director of the Zoukis Consulting Group, a federal prison consultancy that assists attorneys, federal criminal defendants, and federal prisoners with prison preparation, in-prison matters, and reentry. His books include Directory of Federal Prisons (Middle Street Publishing, 2020), Federal Prison Handbook (Middle Street Publishing, 2017), Prison Education Guide (PLN Publishing, 2016), and College for Convicts: The Case for Higher Education in American Prisons (McFarland & Company, 2014).