Teaching in Prison

Bettina McGimsey, Development Associate, Experimental Study Group

For many years, Experimental Study Group (ESG) philosophy instructor Lee Perlman has taught his signature course, ES.112 (The Philosophy of Love), to a wide range of MIT students. Using classic works of literature and philosophy, Perlman leads his students on a personal exploration of the nature of love. Offering intellectual rigor outside of the hard sciences and technology, the class is much beloved at MIT.

This semester Perlman is shaking things up by offering the course to a mixed cohort of MIT undergraduates and prisoners at MCI Norfolk, a medium- to high-security prison. Each week, Perlman and his MIT students travel by van to the prison to engage in discussion and study with their imprisoned fellow students. The class follows upon an afternoon forum, held at ESG in the spring of 2016, in which Perlman moderated a discussion among MIT faculty and staff engaged with the prison system.

The innovative setting of classes in prison is intended to broaden perspectives around issues of life and social justice. By that measure, the class has been a success, as illustrated by freshman ESG student Eva Lisowski’s description of her experience:

“The opportunity I had to visit Dr. Perlman’s ‘Self and Soul’ prison class was one of the most life-changing and influential opportunities I have ever had. It was an experience unlike any other. Although I have always supported rehabilitation in prisons, as I know many others do, it is hard to fully understand what that means. It is too easy to dismiss prisoners as just an unfortunate societal statistic without feeling true sympathy or understanding for their condition. Being able to actually look into the inmates’ eyes and have an intelligent discussion about advanced philosophy readings with them completely changed how I view them. I have no doubt that Dr. Perlman’s classes, and those of other professors who teach in prisons, are truly making a difference in the lives of those who need it.”

Clearly, these classes also make a difference in the lives of the MIT students who share in this learning experience.