College Should Be More Like Prison — no phones or Internet. By Brooke Allen.
Never have I been more grateful to teach where I do: at a men’s maximum-security prison.
My students there, enrolled in a for-credit college program, provide a sharp contrast with contemporary undergraduates. These men are highly motivated and hard-working. They tend to read each assignment two or three times before coming to class and take notes as well. Some of them have been incarcerated for 20 or 30 years and have been reading books all that time. They would hold their own in any graduate seminar.
That they have had rough experiences out in the real world means they are less liable to fall prey to facile ideologies. A large proportion of them are black and Latino, and while they may not like David Hume’s or Thomas Jefferson’s ideas on race, they want to read those authors anyway. They want, in short, to be a part of the centuries-long conversation that makes up our civilization. The classes are often the most interesting part of these men’s prison lives. In some cases, they are the only interesting part.
Best of all from my selfish point of view as an educator, these students have no access to cellphones or the internet. Cyber-cheating, even assuming they wanted to indulge in it, is impossible. But more important, they have retained their attention spans, while those of modern college students have been destroyed by their dependence on smartphones. My friends who teach at Harvard tell me administrators have advised them to change topics or activities several times in each class meeting because the students simply can’t focus for that long.
My students at the prison sit through a 2½-hour class without any loss of focus. They don’t yawn or take bathroom breaks. …
The students write essays in longhand; during the pandemic I taught a correspondence class via snail mail. … We encourage them to treat different societies in history as experiments in time travel, where they try to understand the mores of particular eras as though from the inside. They are very open to that approach, unlike university students, who tend see the past only as one long undifferentiated era of grievous unenlightenment: not just one damn thing after another, but one damn oppressive thing after another. …
In many ways, it is the Platonic ideal of teaching, what teaching once was. No faculty meetings, no soul-deadening committee work, no bloated and overbearing administration. No electronics, no students whining about grades. Quite a few of our students are serving life sentences and will never be able to make use of their hard-won college credits. No student debt, no ideological intolerance, no religious tests — whoops, I mean mandatory “diversity” statements. And in our courteous, laughter-filled classroom there is none of the “toxic environment” that my friends in the academy complain about, and that I experienced during my own college teaching career.
If prison inmates, many of whom have committed violent crimes, can pay close attention for a couple of hours, put aside their political and personal differences, support one another’s academic efforts, write eloquent essays without the aid of technology and get through a school year without cheating, is it too much to ask university students to do the same?
Presumably they learn more than smarter, pampered students at expensive universities. No distractions.