Education Opinion

Who Gets to Learn?

By Christina Torres — July 02, 2017 1 min read

For many of us, we’re spending our summers relaxing after a grueling year in education. We relish being away from our classrooms, out of the gaze of our students, and having a second to step away from reading, writing, and grading.

Compulsory education is a birthright we are striving to provide as well as we can to our students.

As Clint Smith III reminds us in The Atlantic this week, though, learning is something essential that can be provided for everyone, not just our students and selves. In, “The Lifelong Learning of Lifelong Inmates,” Smith writes compellingly about the prisoners he works with, those sentenced for the rest of their lives, and the importance of continuing to provide them with education opportunities:

Education is a human right—a recognition of dignity that each person should be afforded. It isn't merely something that attains its value through its presumed social utility—or, worse, something that society can take away from an individual who's convicted of breaking the social contract. That's true even for the men I work with, nearly all of whom are serving life sentences, as are nearly 160,000 other people across the country for crimes ranging from first-degree murder to stealing a jacket. This reality—that those I taught would never leave the prison's premises—recalibrated my understanding of the purpose of prison-education programs. Do those serving life sentences deserve access to educational opportunities never having a future beyond bars? The answer is yes and necessitates that in-prison education serves additional goals beyond reducing recidivism.

As Smith notes, not only does providing them with an education serve a greater and moral good, but also acknowledges the fact that race, class, and the school-to-prison pipeline have a nefarious way of stripping rights from those least able to fight for them.

In the current output-driven world much of education has tended towards, this also served as a beautiful reminder of that value of learning simply for its own sake. Not “because [reading an Emerson essay] statistically enhances her likelihood of staying out of the criminal-justice system... because there is something to be gained from reading literature and exchanging ideas that tell [us] something about who [we are] in the world.”

Who’s to say, then, who deserves the right to this development and joy? When we see our own students as numbers and data points, it can be easy to decide some of them aren’t worth the time or resources—a smaller version of what many of these inmates face.

Still, if we see education as a “human right,” then we begin to understand the importance of not merely providing it in spaces traditionally oppressed, overlooked, or forgotten, but also giving it space to truly thrive. Not just to increase the percentage of graduates or to raise test scores, but merely because it is good for the souls of our communities. That, too, should be something we strive to provide.

Photo by Dawn Endico

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The opinions expressed in The Intersection: Culture and Race in Schools are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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