Behind bars, the study of theology builds self-respect

I teach in a theology program in prison. After funding was cut in 1995 for all higher education in New York state prisons, scattered pro bono offerings were all that remained.

In the institution where I teach, this theology class represents the only chance for inmates to go beyond a general equivalency diploma (GED). It's a demanding one-year undergraduate course modeled on a graduate program, with classes in Old Testament, New Testament, theology, church history, pastoral counseling, ethics, world religions, and sociology of religious communities. Classes meet five nights a week.

Some participants are religious, some not. But they all want an education.

In many ways, it's a teacher's dream. Attendance is virtually perfect. Hands wave every time a question is posed. Students are eager to express themselves; being listened to has been a rare experience.

On the other hand, following instructions is a developing skill. Changes in routine throw them off. They lack practice with disciplined study habits. Assignments that are in the least creative (describe Abraham's sacrifice of Isaac from Isaac's point of view) are new to them and have to be explained more than once. Yet, in the end, they excel at the more creative assignments.

There are gaps in their educational background. Many draw a blank, for example, when the term "cold war" comes up. There are gaps in their philosophical development. The ethics instructor points out that "crisis" in Chinese is represented by two characters, the one for "danger" and the one for "opportunity," then asks for elaboration from the class. A student offers, "Like when you fall down in the supermarket and then you can sue the place?" His eyes widen when the instructor emphatically points out that this is not what is meant.

Successful students earn a certificate. But what's the real upshot?

Well, they may not remember all the details of the Schism of 1054 or the fine points of the Catholic Counter-Reformation. But learning is defined as change – a change in behavior, perception, attitude. And I see changes. Changes that take me by surprise.

When a student responds with an answer no one else knows, or simply happens to say something profound, heads turn. Waves of respect roll toward him. I see self-respect being built.

Intellectual curiosity, absent at the beginning, begins to emerge after students acquire a basis of knowledge. They start to ask questions that stump the teacher, not to stump the teacher, but because they are curious.

Over two semesters, students' individual gifts become apparent: in the writing and delivering of homilies, in organizing task groups, in social skills, in empathic skills. They begin to see what they have to offer.

A sense of community develops. It takes a long time, but on the last day of class many say this is the best thing about the course.

"This is called a correctional facility," one long-term inmate told me despairingly at the outset, "but no one gets 'corrected' here." He wasn't completely right. Effective education works as a catalyst for change – even more so in prisons than on the outside.

• Katherine Meeks is a college teacher who lives in New York City.

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