Opinion

Divided We Learn: Swarthmore’s president on what it means to be poor, black and in prison

Addressing justice — and injustice

Valerie Smith

At a moment in our national history when we pay far too little attention to the extraordinary, transformative impact of teachers and education on our children and youth, families, and communities, it is worth taking the time to celebrate education and educators as we begin the new school year.

Education has had a powerful impact on my life and in the life of my family. I’m the eldest of three children of parents who were born and raised in the segregated south, specifically in Charleston, South Carolina. Both of my parents were raised in a community that believed in the value of education.

They were encouraged to excel academically and to attend college because they were surrounded by people who believed that education would lead them from poverty and a limited set of life choices to independence, fulfilling work, economic self-sufficiency, and the middle class.

The first in their families to go to college, my parents attended historically black colleges. After graduation, they married and moved to New York; like many African Americans they were part of the Great Migration from the South to the North, leaving Jim Crow segregation in search of greater opportunities for themselves and their children. My father went on to get his master’s and doctorate and become a professor of biology; my mother became an elementary school teacher and received her master’s degree.

Coming from a background shaped by educators like my parents, it is perhaps little wonder that I found my life’s work in the educational field. I’ve spent most of my career as a professor of English and African American Studies, teaching a variety of courses on topics such as modern and contemporary African-American literature, women’s writing of the African diaspora, black film, and literature and culture of the civil rights era. I’ve experienced my greatest sense of fulfillment when I’ve had students who enter my classes wrapped in timidity or self-doubt, shrouded in a sense that they don’t belong, and I’m able to help them discover their own power.

Although in my first year as president of Swarthmore I wasn’t able to teach, I was fortunate to visit a class where I saw the communal power of the intellectual exchange at work, when I sat in on the final session “The Politics of Punishment.”

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Taught by my Swarthmore colleague Professor Keith Reeves, the class examines questions such as:

  • Why are so many Americans either locked up behind bars or under the supervision of the criminal justice system?
  • What explains the racial and class differences in criminal behavior and incarceration rates?
  • What does it mean to be poor, a person of color, and in “jail” or “prison”?
  • How and why does criminal justice policy in this country have its roots in both the media culture and political campaigns?

Since the class I attended was the final session, the students — 12 women and 12 men — were asked to use the time to reflect upon their experience in the course and what they had learned.

One young woman said that she had learned so much about issues of inequality in our criminal justice system that, during the course of the semester, she decided she wanted to pursue a career that would allow her to work on these issues.

Another remarked that she appreciated the fact that the course didn’t merely address the problem of injustice in our criminal justice system; it also allowed students the opportunity to research and propose reforms in such areas as afterschool youth programs and resources for transitioning incarcerated persons back into their communities.

While a number of the students spoke about what they had learned from the content of the course, the majority reflected upon the personal and emotional impact of the class. Some mentioned that during the past semester they had undergone health issues or personal losses. The class was a lifeline for them — they looked forward to their developing relationships with the professor and with one another during a period of grief and suffering. Another thanked the professor and his fellow students for taking him seriously. It was the first time, he said, that he had felt confidence in his own ideas and the quality of his thinking. One said that the class taught him how to be vulnerable with other people; another said that it gave him back his humanity. All of the students felt that it was the most rewarding academic experience they had ever had, and as they said goodbye, several were moved to tears.

In many ways this class represents the highest ideals of our educational system. Not only did it teach important, meaningful content but it helped students develop crucially important skills while also providing them with opportunities to get to know things about themselves, to respect others’ viewpoints, and to work collaboratively with people who are different from themselves.

What made this class particularly unusual and special is that it didn’t take place on the Swarthmore campus. It took place in the State Correctional Institution at Chester (Pennsylvania).

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The class was taught under the auspices of the Inside/Out Prison Exchange initiative. Half the class — the women — were Swarthmore students; the other half — the men — were incarcerated.

The Inside/Out Prison Exchange provides a remarkable opportunity for incarcerated persons and regular college and university students to learn together from dedicated, world-class professors. Both groups of students receive the benefit of working, studying with, and learning from people who may be very different from themselves. Both receive the opportunity to experience each other as human beings — not as stereotypes.

And yet, even as I felt inspired and moved by the students’ intelligence, empathy, and eloquence, I couldn’t help but feel that in an ideal world, this program wouldn’t need to exist. How many of the men who are in this facility, or in facilities like it across the country, are there because the educational system failed to engage them intellectually, made them feel unintelligent, less than human? In an ideal world, all young people would have access to schooling that provides them a rigorous and well-rounded academic preparation; nurtures their emotional and physical health and well-being, creativity, and moral and ethical development through a rich array of extracurricular activities; and gives them confidence in their ideas, their humanity, and in other people by fostering mutually respectful relationships.

Related: College graduation rates rise, but racial gaps persist and men still out-earn women

In an ideal world, the quality of education would not depend upon family racial background, financial circumstances, or the amount of property taxes paid in one’s district. In an ideal world, these men would not have to be incarcerated to be intellectually engaged.

Nelson Mandela once said: “Education is the most powerful weapon you can use to change the world.” We must commit ourselves to fighting for a fair, equitable, and just education system in our country and across our globe.

When we resolve to provide educators and administrators with the resources they need to educate the whole person, and we commit to providing all young people with knowledge, skills, confidence, empathy, and compassion, we will be making the highest and best investment in our shared national and global future.

Valerie Smith, a distinguished scholar of African-American literature and culture, is the president of Swarthmore College.

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Valerie Smith

Valerie Smith, a distinguished scholar of African-American literature and culture, is the president of Swarthmore College. See Archive