Thursday, August 11, 2011

Education as Essential

Two days ago, a young man with a British accent and a clipboard stopped me as I was walking through Manhattan after having lunch with my husband (! (Two weeks of marriage is not at all enough time to make this word mundane.)).

The young man was fund-raising for an organization that claims to "punch poverty in the face!" by provide basic care and education to children in impoverished countries. He asserted, in the course of his spiel, that education is the most important thing to get people out of poverty. When I looked skeptical, he demanded to know why. I didn't have a good answer. I mumbled about the primacy of food and water. It wasn't until I was walking away that it occurred to me that I believe knowing the true God is the most fundamental precondition for true success.

Anyway, I don't instinctively think of education as something that nourishes the human soul. "Learning," yes. "Education," no. But today I read this interview of a philosophy professor who teaches a course on hope in modern philosophy--at a maximum security prison! (Good read.) At the end of the interview was this exchange:

This program that you were doing is part of a Bard College Program to make a bachelor's-level education accessible for prisoners. Based on your experience, what do you think of the role of education for our prison population?

The facts are pretty compelling. The recidivism rate goes way down when people are involved in these kinds of programs—60 percent, I think, is the normal rate for people coming out of maximum security context, and it goes down to below 15 percent for people who've been involved in the Bard Program, and the ones who actually get the B.A. are even lower than that. For the ones who will get out of the prison someday, it becomes much more likely that they'll live productive or at least not-incarcerated lives in the future.

(From the Veritas Riff "Hope Unbound: A Philosopher Goes To Prison.")

If I had known those statistics, maybe I wouldn't have made such a face at the volunteer on Tuesday!

I wonder what the impact of more specific classes like the philosophy course discussed in the interview might be, statistically speaking...


sarawr said...

i'm biased, of course, but this makes me very happy :)

oh and congratulations again!

Collin said...

Lunch with your husband—how fun!

I like the concept, and this part might actually be true:

“The recidivism rate goes way down when people are involved in these kinds of programs…”

But… this sort of conclusion needs a control—because the participants in this program are self-selected. He says that out of 100 men released from the general prison population, on average 60 come back and 40 stay out of trouble. How does anyone know whether in his class of (say) 20, he didn't get 3 from the former group and 17 from the latter?

In other words, without a control, we can't know whether the 85% of his students who stay out of trouble aren't those who would have stayed out of trouble anyway.

I'm not advocating a controlled experiment, but I am saying that without a controlled experiment it's very hard to know what effect the class has on these inmates. OK, well, maybe I am advocating a controlled experiment, lest this wonderful program be another victim of the budget director's axe.