Philosophy as a discipline is capable of achieving some remarkable pedagogical effects.
From the outset, our curriculum was designed with the intent of addressing certain habits of reasoning, as reported in meetings with prison psychologists during the Crito Project's planning phase. They explained that inmates commonly showed distinct patterns of rationalising anti-social behaviour along relativist lines. The idea that there are no moral absolutes, and that our culture inflicts arbitrary laws that stand in conflict with the more self-interested ‘true nature’ of mankind, was reported as being rife in psychologists’ conversations with inmates.
The course was thus designed to begin from a rationalist account of the mind – one in which its innate faculties are made explicit. These faculties have been the regulative ideals by which we have begun the study of philosophy: always with one eye on the conceptual and linguistic life we share, and therefore also on our creativity, our apt & innovative actions within the dynamic environment of our world, and our unbounded potential for conceptualising that world. From these characteristics, certain ethical imperatives can be derived: the self-sovereignty of a free-willed and rational being can help to determine what our moral code should be, and the violation of a person’s rational self-determinacy becomes a strong basis for comprehending what morality means.
Happily, we have found that relativism and scepticism have abated, and in their place a curiosity and admiration for the capacities for human free thought and language have arisen. The effects, already noticeable in classroom debate, have led us to be hopeful that the long-term benefits of this course of education might be significant for its students.
Why Philosophy at Degree-level?
The Crito Project proceeds from the central premise that education is the most cost-effective and successful mode of reform available to our society. We believe this to be an uncontroversial truth that too often goes unappreciated.
In New York State, Bard College has run a prisoner degree program for over fifteen years. In that time over 500 inmates have graduated with honours; a remarkable achievement. Among these graduates, the rate of recidivism has dropped from the state-average of 68% to just under 2%. Their success is not only a lesson in the feasibility of delivering a degree level education within a prison environment, but it is also a startling testament to the power of higher education to transform people's lives for the better.
Higher education, understood either as a medium for reform or as a life opportunity, can and should play a contributing role in our own prison system. The Crito Project's mission is to bring lasting and positive reform to the opportunities to be found in - and hence also the efficacy of - our prisons. We want to work towards a society in which we can provide a first-class education to inmates, as a means to achieve reform that is real and lasting: reform on the level of an individual's concepts, self-esteem and life opportunities.