Interview with Rob Colter: Stoic education in Prisons

The wise man will not pardon any crime that ought to be punished, but he will accomplish, in a nobler way, all that is sought in pardoning. He will spare some and watch over some, because of their youth, and others on account of their ignorance. His clemency will not fall short of justice, but will fulfill it perfectly.” – Seneca

I asked my 9 year old daughter today, if she knows what “Justice” means. I was delighted that her response wasn’t something to do with “punishment”, as this view takes one of the most beautiful concepts in human history, and equates it with revenge.

Her response was “It’s something to do with saving the world”.

Today I have a beloved member of the Stoic community here, Rob Colter, here to talk about what he is doing in Wyoming prisons, teaching Stoicism to inmates.

(Me) Jason: Hey Rob, thanks for joining me. Let’s start with this question,
 When did you start teaching these Stoic prison classes, and why?

Rob: Sometime early in 2017, I was approached by a colleague who was involved in the University’s fledgling prison education program, and asked if I might have something to contribute. I immediately said yes, and that I thought what I had been doing at Wyoming Stoic Camp might be easily adapted to the prison setting. In the Summer of 2017, we did our first pilot program at a minimum security facility here in Wyoming, and got rave reviews from both the inmates and from the prison administration. So, I first did it because it sounded interesting and I thought I could do it. I soon discovered that it was one of the most rewarding things I have done.

J: What hurdles did you have to overcome to do these courses?
R: The first hurdle was convincing the DOC that it was a good idea to have a philosophy class. Their first response was, “why would we want that?” I think they were thinking in terms of jobs, as many people do when thinking about the practicality of philosophy. We decided to approach it in a “philosophy as a way of life” manner, which was good enough for them to let us do the pilot. After that, my Stoicism course become the most requested course at every facility in Wyoming! Of course my syllabus and readings have to get approved, but I’ve developed enough trust that I don’t think they are too worried about my courses, anyway. Other hurdles are just the sort of things one might expect – background checks, getting searched, being careful about what can be brought inside.

The two biggest hurdles for our program are these, though: One is simply finding enough money to pay for the expenses to put on the classes, to have adequate technology, and to have the time and man-power to do it. These are resource issues that just about any venture has, but especially prison education. There are political hurdles involved. Some people who hold purse-strings are rather disapproving of programs for the incarcerated. They think that some don’t “deserve” programs and higher education. This is also something that I think all similar programs face.

J: What do you think it would take to make a class like this more widespread?
R: What do I think it would take to make this sort of thing more widespread. Well, the pat answer is people and resources. In particular, people who are qualified to teach this stuff – which is relatively rare – and the money and time to make it happen. Along, of course with the will. So, awareness is one issue, which I’ve been trying to raise through doing things like this and the other things I’m doing! Another thing I’ve been working on is to standardize a curriculum for teaching  philosophy as a way of life in settings like correctional ones. Then it could be shared widely. I like that idea, but … I worry about pedagogy. Not that I am the only one who can teach this stuff to these audiences, but I am pretty Socratic in my approach to teaching. I believe strongly that philosophy is not so much a noun as a verb. That is, philosophy is not some body of information that we can just pass around, but is rather something we do, preferably with others. I’ve got a bunch more that I could say about that, but it might be a tangent.

J: This is very helpful information. Please go on a tangent! I think a fair number of my audience would be interested in doing this kind of work, or supporting it.

So, anything you want to add to this last answer, would be great

R: Well, the idea is one that can be found in Socrates and runs through the Stoics as well. Knowing stuff is fine. Facts are fine. That’s all great and stuff, but facts are not sufficient to live a good life. One has to be able to take the principles, ideas, facts about the world and one’s place in it and turn those things into right action. Epictetus makes this point emphatically in the Discourses: Theory, logic, etc., are great. But none of that really matters if you don’t turn it into action. So, on this account, what really matters is what you do with the knowledge you can glean about these theories, not merely having the knowledge. So, the teaching of Stoicism and other philosophies of life needs to involve that transformative power in some way. Thus, I think of teaching in general, and especially with  philosophy as a way of life, as something resembling coaching a sport more than researching at a library or something.

That’s also why the “assignments” I give, especially in the prison setting, are not so much about “What does this thinker claim in this work, and why?” It involves some of that, because we can’t react to something we don’t understand. Rather, the assignments are more like, “How does what this thinker says or argues affect how you think of yourself and your life?” It’s a very different thing than the more common regurgitative approach, and, in my experience, massively more impactful.

J: That’s beautiful Rob. Thank you for sharing this.
What challenges have you faced within teaching this course?

R: I assume you mean when I’m actually teaching inside? Well, one challenge, relative to teaching in a university, is that there is usually an extremely broad range of abilities and backgrounds. I’ve had students who have just barely passed their GED, just the month before. I’ve also had students with multiple graduate degrees. So, it can be hard to reach that whole range at once. Many of them have never been in a philosophical discussion, other than with their cellmate maybe – and those are usually not very well structured. I do have to set some ground rules: We can say just about anything in class, but reasons and arguments will be expected, and expect vigorous scrutiny and challenge, based on critical thinking criteria. That holds not just from me, but from the other members of the class as well.
I’ve never had any of the problems that one might be led to suspect from TV and movies. No fights have broken out or anything, although we go through some training about what to do if that happens. Maybe I’ve just been lucky in regard to that, but I suspect it has at least something to do with setting expectations. I’ve had students who’ve committed the whole gamut of crimes, from financial stuff to multiple murderers. I’ve never felt threatened, although there are a couple of students I’m not sure I’ve wanted to ever see on the outside.

J: What progress in your students have you seen from teaching this course?
R: On progress: Well, what I directly see is pretty short term. Since, in the way I’ve been doing it here in Wyoming, I’m only with the students for 5 days. However, I see pretty remarkable stuff even in that short time. I see them better able to take a look at their own values and reasons. I see them being able to ask themselves why they think the way they do. They are almost universally grateful for the experience, although there are always some I am unable to reach. When I have returned to the same facility, I hear that some people are still reading and talking about Stoicism since the last time I was there. That’s really gratifying.

I will share one specific story. There was a student in the Stoicism class the first time I taught it, let’s call him Jones. Jones was a pretty scary-looking dude. Tattoos everywhere, including neck and face. I don’t recall exactly what his crime was, but it was pretty violent – murder, attempted murder, something like that. He was pretty quiet in class, until the 4th day. The other guys in class were pushing him to talk about what happened, and finally he did.

Apparently, even the other inmates were pretty wary of him. He’d been known to have outbursts, get in conflicts with the guards and other inmates, etc. Well, he had a favorite chair, a blue chair, in his cell. He really liked this chair, but it turns out he wasn’t supposed to have it in his cell, and especially not to keep it (it belonged in the prison library or something). Apparently, the day before he told this story (and the 3rd day of our class), the guards decided to take the chair back, and removed it while  Jones was away from his cell, maybe even in class with me. When Jones returned, everyone (including the extra guards they posted for this event) was expecting him to go off like an explosion. And, according to Jones himself, he even thought about it. But, while he was thinking about it, he decided to just sit on the floor, and said to himself, “It wasn’t mine to begin with. I have just given it back” – which is of course a reference to Epictetus’ Enchiridion 11, which we had talked about. Everyone was amazed, including Jones. He was pretty proud of himself when he shared that with us.

Finally, I have heard from the various wardens, and this is pretty anecdotal, that at least for a little while after I leave, they seem to have less “trouble” with the students in my class, and even with those that my students associate with. I think that’s a big reason I keep getting asked back.

J: Plutarch said that “Ignorance is never voluntary” what gaps in our education or development do you think Stoic philosophy can provide?

R: Ooof! That’s a big one! Well look, here in the US at least, philosophy in general has been neglected in our educations system for as long as I can remember. Most high school students have never heard of philosophy, or if they have, in some sort of caricature of a guy with a beret and a thin moustache smoking a cigarette in a coffee house and espousing the meaninglessness of existence. Even at the university level, at most institutions, philosophy is one of the smaller, overlooked programs, if one exists at all. I think all this is hugely problematic, for lots of reasons, but I think the most salient one for our conversation is that treating philosophy as an afterthought at best fails our students. The sort of job-training, STEM based approach may have some value, but it lacks “values.” What I mean by that is that the current approach starts from an assumption that certain things (jobs) are valuable, and are what should be provided by education. It is philosophy where we can really question that, and the Stoics are among the best at doing so. “So, you want to be a friend of Caesar?,” Epictetus challenges us. “Remember all that that entails.” Pretty stern warning about taking values for granted! 

Another thing that I think is important is about taking stock of the world and our place in it. Stoicism excels at this, although other philosophical views are interesting here too. Stoicism is a truly systematic philosophy, although much of our discourse about it in public fora [market] today probably doesn’t emphasize that. What I mean is that it is a complete world-view, about the universe, human-nature, and whatever. And it’s all interconnected in a very strong way, stronger than most of its systematic rivals. It is because of the nature of the universe that the suffering of a child in Africa matters. It’s not merely because I get upset watching a charity commercial on TV. Stoicism has a story to tell us about that interconnectedness, and I happen to think it’s a pretty compelling story!
But, even if Stoicism is not for you, I think it still offers us a challenge, and it’s the challenge that Socrates first offered up: Who are you? What are you doing? Why? Account for yourself!  I think this challenge is perhaps the one that we all need to face up to, and I’ve found that Stoicism offers a pretty good framework for framing our answer to this challenge in living our own lives. Ultimately, the answer is not merely verbal, but is answered by the life you live. I think that’s pretty cool.

Jason: To close, I’d like to suggest the world think more deeply on teaching ethics and philosophy as a part of criminal rehabilitation. Thank you so much Rob for being willing to do this interview.

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