Publication Date

January 1, 2011

Retirement should bring liberation. Who could have anticipated that one of my first ventures after stepping down from a professorship in history at the University of California, Berkeley, would land me in San Quentin prison? Yet prisons are not entirely inhospitable to historians.

The Prison University Project (PUP) at San Quentin is a model of its kind, providing college-level classes to inmates, leading, if sufficient credits are accumulated, to an Associate of Arts degree, a critical springboard for further education or enhanced employment opportunities to those who are released. The PUP was instituted in 2003 under the leadership of Jody Lewen, an energetic, committed, and effective activist who remains its executive director. A nonprofit organization, the PUP recruits and trains volunteers, assists instructors with curriculum development, provides resources, and offers invaluable guidelines on personal conduct, behavior toward inmates and prison guards, and appropriate attire (no denim, for instance, lest one be mistaken for an inmate in an emergency situation!).

Approximately 250 students are enrolled in a variety of science, math, and humanities classes that range from college preparatory courses to reading and composition, introductions to diverse disciplines, and more advanced instruction in a number of fields. Most of the volunteer teachers, approximately 60 per semester, are graduate students at UC Berkeley, Stanford University, San Francisco State University, or other institutions in the Bay Area. The program runs three 13-week semesters through the year, staffing approximately 12 three-unit courses per semester. This is a substantial achievement for an operation run on a shoestring, a real testament to the vision and engagement of Jody Lewen and her collaborators. No money is available for books. But Penguin publishers made available at no cost any book on their list in whatever numbers are required. For humanities classes this is a godsend. Supplementary texts or passages are photocopied or scanned (sometimes at the expense of the volunteers). It works.

Not all inmates are eligible for the program. For security purposes, prison rules ban the really hard-core convicts from the classrooms. Nevertheless, we are mindful of the fact that prisoners in San Quentin were not sent there for shoplifting or petty larceny. San Quentin provides no information on the offenses that brought any of our students to that penitentiary, and we are instructed to refrain from asking (not that I would want to know!).

I had participated in this program on an ad hoc basis, delivering occasional lectures in courses during the years of my teaching at UC Berkeley. Retirement, however, offered the opportunity to engage in it more fully, planning and implementing a class together with four outstanding graduate students. We organized the course (as fully equal collaborators) to serve as an introduction to the ancient world. Not knowing exactly what to expect, we looked ahead with eagerness—and some apprehension. We knew that students had passed basic requirements in reading and composition. Hence they were prepared to analyze texts, discuss them intelligently, and write about them coherently. A good start.

The experience proved to be unexpectedly rewarding and satisfying. Covering the ancient world in 13 weeks, of course, presented quite a challenge. Selectivity had to be our guiding principle. We broke down the subject into four discrete modules, each organized around a theme, with texts selected to address that theme. The first, “The Invention of a Legendary Past,” treated the flood saga, the conception of Israelite origins, and the tale of Troy, with parts of Gilgamesh, the Books of Genesis and Exodus, and the Iliad being assigned as readings. The second module had as motif “The Shaping of Israelite and Greek Identities in the Age of Persia,” which involved reading in Esther, Isaiah, Ezra-Nehemiah, Aeschylus’s Persae, and Herodotus. The third segment, “Carthage, Rome, and Greece,” was more of a stretch and looser in structure. It looked at political theory in Aristotle and Polybius, and the shifts in Roman self-perception brought about by the Punic wars, as reflected in writers like Sallust, Livy, and Plutarch. The fourth module, “Literature and Power in the Invention of a New Regime,” sought to examine the refashioning of the Roman image and ideology in the age of Augustus through Augustus’s own writings, Virgil’s Aeneid, Ovid’s Metamorphoses, and the cynical reinterpretations in Tacitus’s Annals. The course’s reach may have exceeded its grasp, but the division into separate though related modules allowed for focused and occasionally quite lively exchanges. Reading assignments were demanding, students were expected to participate actively in the discussions, and three papers were required, each of which was read in draft by at least one (usually two) instructors, and read again in final form. All three papers received grades, as did class participation, and the overall grade was reached by consensus of the instructors (no exam).

The structure seems reasonable in retrospect. But the realities of prison life intervened to require trimming of assignments, rethinking of schedules, and frequent improvising (especially when the occasional prison lockdown occurred just before class was to begin). Cancelled classes occurred more than once to play havoc with neatly structured schemata. But the course managed to survive—if not unscathed, at least intact.

The first day at work in San Quentin can be a pretty anxious one. The mere clanging of the heavy iron gate behind one is enough to create a few shivers. Entrance into the class on that first day with a room full of unknown inmates (for a course in ancient history at that!) can only raise the level of anxiety.

But the nervousness evaporates quite rapidly. The Prison University Project and the San Quentin authorities make a point of creating a genuine classroom atmosphere. No guards are conspicuous or in the immediate vicinity. The room is arranged for educational purposes; instructors and pupils alike step immediately into familiar roles as in a university setting. The inmates in this context are simply students, polite, serious, and genuinely interested in learning.

The results (at least from my vantage point) were overwhelmingly positive. Students with little background in the subject (almost all of them) showed eagerness to fill in the gaps, to gain knowledge of unfamiliar but intriguing material, and to offer their own thoughts on it. They also brought their own special experience to the classroom, with a comfortable self-awareness that was quite impressive. In response to a question about the different ways in which people express their identity, one student suggested “either as law-abiding or as criminal”—a rather moving reply that few instructors or students outside that context would have thought to make.

On the whole, students were conscientious and industrious. In individual conversations about written work, we found them to be intensely interested in improving style, content, and analysis. In class, we got pointed questions, sometimes thoughtful, even searching ones.

To be sure, there were ups and downs. In some sessions, it rapidly became clear that most had not done the reading, or had done it only superficially. On one occasion, we got little class participation or involvement by students who had evidently paid no attention to the assignment, thus wasting everyone’s time. As a result, they were sharply rebuked. My instinctively harsh reprimand brought a sudden silence. Only later did I remind myself that this verbal rap to the knuckles was delivered to hardened criminals! A somewhat alarming thought in retrospect. But it testifies to the remarkable success of the authorities in reproducing an authentic learning environment. And this led to perhaps the most touching and welcome result. In the following session, without prompting, we received apologies—heartfelt, genuine, and sincere. Students paid tribute to the fact that we were donating our time and effort, expressed contrition and a determination not to let it happen again. I don’t recall that ever happening among undergraduates at Berkeley.

Erich Gruen is the Wood Professor of History emeritus at the University of California, Berkeley. His publications include Rethinking the Other in Antiquity(forthcoming from Princeton Univ. Press) and Diaspora: Jews amidst Greeks and Romans(Harvard Univ. Press, 2002).

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