During my first year of teaching, I would spend two nights a week at the federal penitentiary in Atlanta and two nights at the Phillips Correctional Facility in Buford, GA. I had to pass through considerably more steel gates at the penitentiary than in Buford, where the only obstruction was a high wall topped with barbed wire. It wasn\'t too long before I found out those walls were not high enough to stop bags of drugs being thrown over every evening.
Catholic Online (www.catholic.org)
2/26/2014 (11 months ago)
Published in U.S.
Keywords: instruction, education, teaching, prison, beauty, classics, urgy, love, relationships, priesthood, culture, enthsuiasm, renewal, reform, Catholic Culture, prison, Phillips Correctional Facility, classrooms, Deal W. Hudson
WASHINGTON, DC (Catholic Online) - During my first year of teaching, I would spend two nights a week at the federal penitentiary in Atlanta and two nights at the Phillips Correctional Facility in Buford, GA. I had to pass through considerably more steel gates at the penitentiary than in Buford, where the only obstruction was a high wall topped with barbed wire.
It wasn't too long before I found out those walls were not high enough to stop bags of drugs being thrown over every evening.
My class of ten state inmates met in the weight room. I sat on the bench press, my students on folding chairs in front of the iron bars. It was a cozy setting if a bit on the minimalist side. Nine of my students were African-American; one was a young, white man named Llewellyen with floppy blond hair, an angular nose, and a smirk that made him look like a refuge from a Flannery O'Connor short story.
The course was Ethics, the assigned texts were Aristotle's Ethics and the Treatise on Happiness by St. Thomas Aquinas. These two books, plus the Consolation of Philosophy by Boethius would become important in my eventual entry into the Catholic Church four years later. But perhaps just as important, was the day I realized all my students were laughing at me behind my back.
The first class meeting was rather perfunctory, mostly a time devoted to sizing me up with me trying to act like it was perfectly natural to be teaching ethics in a state prison weight room. When I handed the students their texts, they glanced at each other with sly grins and flipped through the pages as if they were cards about to be dealt. I didn't think much of it; we all felt awkward, and both the topic and the setting did nothing but underscore how out of place we all felt.
I began the next class with the concept of virtue, discussing the basic notion of good and bad moral habits and classifying those habits according to the actions they governed such as justice, temperance, and courage. As the two-hour class came to a close the snickers, which had at first been muted, became more and more audible even to me with a hearing loss. So, I just blurted out with a smile, "Ok, what are you guys laughing about?" No one wanted to tell me. I then proceeded to ask each inmate one by one if he would tell me the reason for the laughter, until I came to Llewellyn who sat at my far left.
I knew that he liked to be called "Lew," so I pleaded with him, "Come on, Lew, let me in on the joke - it's going to be a long semester if somebody doesn't tell me what's going on!" Lew decided to show me mercy. "Dr. Hudson, we're not laughing at you. We think all this talk about virtue and goodness is just a sham." He went on to tell me, as the rest of the students nodded, that the only reason people talk about morality is that they want to appear to others as a "good" or "virtuous" person. People, he explained, need to look that way in order to be successful in life, earn money, and gain respect.
"Are you telling me that there is absolutely no reason to study ethics other than preparing yourself to deceive other people into believing you are a good man?" I asked. "Exactly," Lew said, and then some of the other students chimed in. I was stunned. As I look back now, perhaps it was my naiveté, my youth, or my inexperience that made this message such a surprise. I realized then that there were such people as Lew described, but to say the only reason to learn ethics was to fool other people surprised me.
I listened to the inmates until our class time was over and left telling them I was going to think it over and come back with a response the next class. In a daze I left the prison, collected my car from the gravel parking lot, and drove the forty minutes home.
Two days later I walked into the weight room, dropped my briefcase on the floor, and said, "I want to tell you a story, then ask you a question, OK?" They nodded and seemed amused that I had remembered my promise to respond to their complaint. The story I told was about a solitary man living on an island in the middle of a large ocean. The island contained everything he needed to live comfortably - food, water, shade from the sun, moderate weather year round, and an environment so pure he never became ill. But there were no other people, no animals, and no God. (Needless to say, that last one raised a few eyebrows!)
I asked the inmates if they understood that here was a man living a life where there were absolutely no other "eyes" on him - he did not "appear" to anyone. Therefore, whatever he did or did not do, other people's opinions of him did not matter. Neither did God's. Then I asked the question: "One day this man had a sudden urge to take a large rock in one hand and smash it down on his other hand until all the bones were broken. Is that the morally right, the virtuous thing to do? In other words, did the man have any moral relationship to himself, regardless of whether anyone was watching"
I asked for a show of hands. Several hands stayed down, while most of the class thought the man could do anything he wanted to himself, "After all," one said, "he's not hurting anybody else." "But does he have the kind of moral obligation to himself that he has to others, not to hurt himself?" I asked. Then I saw a light come on in Lew's face, and his hand went up. "I see what you mean, Doc," and he restated my argument with even more clarity than I had presented it. By the time Lew was finished all but a few had changed their minds. Lew had convinced them by using the illustration of drug addiction, namely, that everyone knew it was "bad" to overuse drugs. "Man, you can get really screwed up, you can die, or you can end up in here," and everyone laughed.
We took a break, and I walked out into the hall to the water cooler. Lew was waiting for me by the door as I walked back to class. "Hey Doc," he said, "how much money do you make? Can I ask you that?" When I told him I was making $10,000 that year his jaw dropped. "You're kidding, and you're a doctor?" I explained teaching was what I had always wanted to do, and it was a start. Lew stopped me, "Doc, I can help you make an extra couple of grand every month." "Really," I said. Lew explained that since I was around college students all I needed to do was pass along some of his "junk" and I could easily make the extra money. "You mean drugs," I asked? Lew had to stifle his laughter, "Yeah, yeah, of course." I paused a moment, "Lew, I can't do that." "Why," he asked, "I'm sure you need the money." "It's just wrong, Lew, but thanks for caring about me." And we went back into the classroom.
During the second hour of class, as I tried to restart a discussion on Aristotle's view of happiness, I noticed several of my students' eyes had changed - they were teary and red, but it wasn't from crying. "Are you guys, Ok?" I asked, only to see them look at each other and chuckle. "What did I miss this time?" Lew came to my rescue again, "Doc, junk gets thrown into this place every night, that's how we survive." Then I realized half of my students had gotten high during the break. "Let's go back to Aristotle's explanation of good and bad moral habits," I said, and the class could hardly contain their laughter.
It was those student inmates who taught me, as a teacher, always to listen, to listen for whatever it is the student needs for understanding. In this case, it was a notion more fundamental than Aristotle's Ethics: Is there a reason to be good to yourself?
© Deal W. Hudson, Ph.D
Deal W. Hudson is president of the Morley Institute of Church and Culture, Senior Editor and Movie Critic at Catholic Online, and former publisher and editor of Crisis Magazine.This column and subsequent contributions are an excerpt from a forthcoming book. Dr. Hudson's new radio show, Church and Culture, is heard on the Ave Maria Radio Network.
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