‘Prison Education’ by Robert P. Waxler

Bob Waxler is the Co-Founder of Changing Lives Through Literature based in Dartmouth, MA.

There is a long and progressive tradition in education that I support and that we all need to consider in terms of prison reform.

That tradition is rooted in the belief that the goal of education, as of life, is to create a compassionate community of concerned human beings, a democracy that celebrates “wisdom” over “smartness,” the depth of understanding and the patience of critical judgment over the cleverness of manipulation and the speed of production for quick effects. It is tradition that, if followed, could work as well in colleges or in prisons. Unfortunately, it is rarely celebrated these days.

Such a tradition favors the dignity of individuals over the spectacle of commodities. It is a tradition grounded in the belief that human beings desire to learn and, when given the chance, wherever they are, they want to create meaning for themselves and for those around them. They want to be part of something larger than themselves; they want to belong, to be part of a living community.

The 20th century will be remembered for its significant progress in science and technology, for its advancement in medicine and in its understanding of the biology and chemistry of the body. But I doubt that human beings have learned much of importance about the mysteries of the human heart, about compassion and community, about vulnerability or humility, about the meaning of that Socratic dictum to “know thyself.”

In a world that privileges celebrity rather than genuine heroes, images rather than substance, manipulation and power rather than dignity and love, speed rather than contemplation, I find little to celebrate and much to be concerned about. In such a world, human beings lose their way, pursue false idols, and begin to hallucinate.

The prison classroom should become a new neighborhood,, a place to reinvigorate the quest for human dignity and democracy. Language and literature, intelligent and passionate discussion, story and self-reflection are the central means to that end.

The oversaturated use of electronic devices — iPods, cell phones, computers and other screens — fosters distraction and robs human beings of their own original voices and imaginative abilities. Books, especially reading and discussing good literature face-to-face, serve as a way to encourage people to slow down, to be mindful of themselves and others, to find their place in the world.

When I talk about books this way, I am not talking about books silently sitting on the shelf, but something alive, something that calls to the reader, something that can excite the imagination, something that once actively engaged can stir the human heart and demand ongoing conversation.

Literature is very much like a mystery story, but it is better than most mystery stories. Its richly textured language is always filled with surprises, endless secrets each time the reader returns to it. For readers, there are always hidden clues, secrets to be uncovered, When one secret is revealed, another appears on the page.

That kind of reading experience does not end when the book ends. It continues to call to you, inviting you to read the story again, to discuss it with others, to move deeper into yourself, to extend yourself out to others. That is the activity of reading as I understand it, the activity of learning, the adventure of education in a meaningful classroom, a neighborhood  filled with possibilities. Such a neighborhood can give purpose to life—as Socrates said, “know thyself.”


For contact details and more information:

Robert P. Waxler

Co-Founder of the Changing Lives Through Literature Program

English Department

UMass Dartmouth

Dartmouth, MA 02747



Robert P. Waxler and Maureen Hall have just written a new book on literature and education: TRANSFORMING LITERACY: CHANGING LIVES THROUGH READING AND WRITING,  Emerald Group Publishing Limited, 2011

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