Max Kenner with Deirdre Faughey

max_kennerMax Kenner is the founder and Executive Director of the Bard Prison Initiative. He conceived of and created BPI as a student volunteer organization when he was an undergraduate at Bard College in 1999. After gaining the support of the College and cooperation of the New York State Department of Correctional Services, he has overseen the growth of the program into a credit-bearing and, subsequently, degree-granting program in 2001. In addition to organization management and program design for BPI, Kenner is responsible for fundraising and management of relations with New York State and the Department of Correctional Services. Here he speaks with fellow Bard graduate Deirdre Faughey about the origins of BPI, the college curriculum, and his beliefs about why it is a good idea to bring high quality college education to the incarcerated population.

DEIRDRE FAUGHEY

Thank you for agreeing to talk to me about the Bard Prison Initiative. I can’t believe that you started this all while we were at Bard, right?

MAX KENNER

That is still true…

DEIRDRE FAUGHEY

How did it all start?

MAX KENNER

Sure, well, I think the most important and most honest and the most revealing way to look at the work that we do is not so much through the lens of criminal justice, but to think of Bard as a place which is – like any educational institution should be, right? – in the market for fabulous students. So, whether it be the work we do on campus, or in early colleges we have in Newark or in New York City, or the various international projects that we have, the prison initiative should be understood as a way to find great students who are receptive and take advantage of what we do well here at Bard. Unfortunatly, it’s really tragic, but for educators the prisons are something of an opportunity because there are so many people within them, and so many talented people within them, and the waste there is just extraordinary, so we’ve done really well. And the academic programs we’ve built are all of the same quality and rigor and ambition as anything that happens on campus. We’ve got students who major in literature and economics, anthropology, mathematics, natural science and studio arts. It’s a full liberal arts college, and it all came from this idea of just bringing the education that we had, when we were undergraduates at Bard, to places where it wasn’t. And it was really that simple.

DEIRDRE FAUGHEY

And so what did you have to do to get this off the ground in the beginning?

MAX KENNER

Well, jailers are a funny bunch. They prefer people they don’t like and know, to people they don’t know. So it definitely took a couple of years, just weaseling a foot in the door. And that was quite a bit of work, but it was more persistence than it was hours because things would happen so slowly, and I really benefitted – and I think we really benefitted – from the fact that I was an undergraduate. Not that somehow I was better, but I wasn’t being paid for the work so there weren’t any expectations. So a couple of years of what would otherwise be considered real failure, were acceptable. We really benefitted from those years. And also we really benefitted because I had a real naïvete. Everyone in the world of education, and really everyone in the world of corrections, knew these programs were a good idea, but at that moment, the peak of the “tough on crime” frenzy, the peak of Governor Pataki’s real hostility toward anything positive happening in criminal justice – everybody was pissed off at each other. So, a naïve, non-aligned, 19-year-old, was someone who everyone was pretty receptive to back then.

DEIRDRE FAUGHEY

And did they tell you that it was impossible, that you couldn’t do it?

MAX KENNER

Everyone was skeptical. The atmosphere was really nasty, and people who were–there were various ways of being skeptical. There was certainly a widespread perception among criminal justice advocates and progressives that there was no way we could talk our way into the prisons. And I was convinced enough by that, even though I’d already gotten myself into the prisons, that I spent the full summer after graduating driving around New York State, from Rochester to Southport to Malone and back to the city, looking for an institution that would do this with us. It was an incredible waste of time. I didn’t find a place that wouldn’t. So that conception was completely wrong. Then there was the idea that even if you get your foot in the door, you’ll never be able to raise the money for it. And, you know, raising the money is the most unpleasant and persistent part of the work. It’s an ordeal. We have no endowment, no students to pay tuition, and we get no government money. So we’re always scrambling for cash, and that’s been a challenge, but not such a challenge. We’re still here, 12 years later. So, that was wrong.

But the most pernicious misconception was that somehow college education, or college opportunity, was something that was useful or desired by people in prisons of the past, but today’s people in prison weren’t interested, weren’t curious, weren’t up to it, what have you… and that view was widespread among people of every political stripe. And that this would only work for the older guys. These new kids just weren’t curious or interested. And that has proved untrue to a degree that I would never have anticipated. As the years go by, in fact, the younger and newer and fresher our students are the better they do. And that relates to broader questions of education, and broader questions about failure in the public schools, and we continue to find that the more you offer people, and the less we condescend to people, the better they do–irrespective of when they dropped out of conventional school, irrespective of the relative poverty they come from before they were in prison, irrespective of how they scored on the GED, irrespective of any measurable metric that I’ve ever been able to think of.

DEIRDRE FAUGHEY

Would you say that most of the students have dropped out of high school?

MAX KENNER

Certainly the majority. Most got their GEDs in prison. And that’s really a large majority. But the most extraordinary thing that we’ve seen–it’s both distressing and cause for real optimism–is that the students we have who are most intellectually ambitious, the most driven, the most curious, the ones who have learned to read German because they want to read Hegel in the original, or the ones who’ve gone from algebraic illiteracy to calculus and well beyond to become math majors, the ones who learned computer science or the lab sciences, those students, however old they are when we have them, are most often the same people who as children drop out of conventional school the youngest. That is to say, really bright kids who recognized how little there was to benefit from attending a really lousy school, who hit the road, find themselves in trouble, and once they’re in prison, for the first time they find themselves in a classroom where they respect the teacher as an authority, they’re excited by the material, they don’t feel condescended to, and they respond in an entirely different way. And in a sense, if you boil it down, that’s one way of summing up what we do.

DEIRDRE FAUGHEY

There are a lot of people now in education who talk about changing the curriculum of school so that it’s more in line with what kids are interested in and, for example in literacy, the kinds of literacy practices they have in their homes, and sort of making that connection in that way, but from what I know of Bard, it is a traditional liberal arts curriculum in a pretty old fashioned sense, I guess, in that you’re learning the classics and you’re writing papers, and there’s a really high expectation level for those things. So, what’s your take on that? From what you see, do you think that the curriculum needs to be changed at all? Or, is it that the curriculum, the way it is, is something that the students really want to get a handle on?

MAX KENNER

I would first of all say that I have no expertise in primary or secondary education, and won’t presume to guess what the curriculum should be at those levels, but I would say that at the college level we are allergic to the kinds of experimentation that you’re describing. Some of that is specific to the prison setting, some is not. I’ll tell you from my experience, if you put liberal faculty of any background, send them into the prison and say “Go teach to the level of the students,” I assure you that very often the presumptions that person will make will be condescending and, frankly, bigoted, such that many potentially excellent students will not benefit. The prejudices and presumptions that I find inherent in the kind of practices you are talking about assume so little of students, and assume so little of what they’re capable of and what they might be interested in. So when you talk about going to the students, going to their level, going to where they’re at, obviously that sounds great, but where the student is, where the student might be in the future, and where educators think that student is, are never the same thing. You know, it’s slightly macho, it’s slightly take-it-or-leave-it, and in the prisons we certainly benefit because it’s not a competitive marketplace, there’s nothing else to do, but at BPI we do what is done at Bard, and if it works for 15 students, or 250 students, or 5 students, we’re going to continue to do it. Someone else, another educator or institution, might well do something different, but this is what we have to offer and we’re going to stick with it.

DEIRDRE FAUGHEY

That’s really important to see that it’s really working there at the Prison Initiative. I wonder, with the students… you’re talking about kids who dropped out of school, got their GED… is the Bard education a shock to them? Can they write the kind of papers that they need to write for the professors? In terms of skills, do they need some kind of assistance with that level of work?

MAX KENNER

We have a first-year curriculum, which begins with The Language and Thinking Program, which is a month-long, intensive seminar for writing and reflection that makes people feel comfortable with the practice of writing, and then the students jump into a college curriculum that is as intensive and as ambitious as really any first-year college curriculum. When people apply to the college we see all kinds of levels of illiteracy and generally a real lack of preparedness. So the first year curriculum does mix a certain amount of remedial education, that is to say introductions to the basic principles of grammar and algebra, and intensive writing instruction, but it melds those with a genuinely challenging, really ambitious, content-oriented curriculum, because it’s our belief that you can’t convince people that grammar is exciting in a vacuum, but if you convince them that there is a world out there that is relevant to them, and exciting to them, then they are motivated on their own to master the tools and language that empower them to live in that world. That’s the first-year challenge, to make students feel that they are a part of the discussion about American history, or politics, or literature, or classics, or what have you…

DEIRDRE FAUGHEY

And that’s the challenge at any level, right? I try to teach grammar to my own students and it’s impossible just to teach a grammar lesson…

MAX KENNER

(laughs)

DEIRDRE FAUGHEY

(laughs)…but if I can show them that there’s a reason for it, if I can make it seem worth their time…

Well, now this is a big picture question and I don’t know what you’ll think of it, but I just wonder… why you think this is necessary? Why do you think that it’s important to go into prisions and provide the highest level of college education to the prisoners?

MAX KENNER

I would give a two-part answer to that. The first relates to just who we are as educators, and in particular college educators, and I don’t think you can find anyone in the United States who thinks we’re – broadly speaking – succeeding at this level in training a new generation of people to lead the institutions that need to be taken care of in the 21st century. So, as a school, as a society of educators, we should be in the market for great students, we should be seeking them out. The conventional way of doing college admissions has failed us. Now, we need more college access, more college opportunity, and that goes without saying, but even with the limited resources we have, we need to be scrambling that process and getting people of real capacity and real curiosity into those institutions however we can. So the prisons are one way of doing that, but so are, and I’m ad-libbing here, but members of labor unions, or people coming back from foreign wars, or suburban housewives who are bored to death, right? There are all kinds of people in America who are eager to take advantage of a real opportunity, but who weren’t the perfect student in high school, or who didn’t have access to real loans, or didn’t have someone who was going to encourage or pay for them to go to college, and are in their 20s or early 30s, and really want to do something different. So, how do we find them? I think adult education, and different ways of finding people and bringing them to real education, are real challenges for us, and really animate us at BPI and also at Bard.

The second answer just relates to criminal justice in particular. We’re less interested in it than in the first response, which is purely about education, but obviously the prisons have become among the most important institutions we have. They’re the largest growth industry in the public sector over the last 30 years, and they’ve consumed untold numbers of people, particulary young people, and when you talk about mass incarceration it’s not just the total number of people who are in prison that’s extraordinary, but it’s the fact that huge majorities of those numbers of people come from very small pockets of society. So the famous seven neighborhoods in New York City, inner cities all across the country, so if you really think about this–okay the total number is the biggest in the world and then not remotely evenly spread across the US, but they actually come from these tiny segments of society, then you have to realize just how wide the net is cast within those communities, and how many people, particularly young men, get caught up in them. And then you think, well there really must be people of great capacity there. If you set your mind to that for a moment, you realize it relates to this question of who our best students are and when they dropped out of school, right? If you’re a young person, a man or boy from those communities, very often the way you express your ambition and the ways you want to distinguish yourself, are outside of the law and might lead you to go to prison. And so we’re in the market for collecting that kind of ambition and finding those people at different moments in their lives, and creating people who are not only tax-paying middle class citizens, rather than dependent on the state, whether it be Medicaid or housing or of course prison itself (nothing is more expensive than that), but also training a generation of leaders in the academy and in not-for-profits and in government, who reflects the experience of this generation. There will be, in New York City for example, a whole slew of leaders–every not-for-profit that work in criminal justice, many who work with HIV/AIDS, many who work with the homeless–will all have Bard alumn in leadership positions who all came to the college via the prison system. When they’re hired their prison time will be an asset to the institution, but they won’t be tokens. They will be as prepared, or more prepared for those jobs, as anyone who applied in an old-fashioned kind of way.

DEIRDRE FAUGHEY

I just want to clarify something you said. It’s not just boys and men, right? You’re working with women as well, right?

MAX KENNER

Absolutely right.

DEIRDRE FAUGHEY

And was there anything about your own education experience, not just at Bard, but in general that made you passionate about this and made you want to do this in the first place.

MAX KENNER

I would say that the combination of conservatism and real dynamism that characterizes Bard is something that really speaks to me, but most of all I was someone who not only didn’t succeed, but also didn’t really try whatsoever when it came to primary or secondary school. I was very lucky to get into Bard. I’m someone who can’t really imagine, quite honestly, being interested in school at age 13 or 14 or 15. But I was always interested in matters of public concern, in history, in the arts. Finding alternate routes to real learning and real democratic participation for people who, as adolescents, were up to anything but school, is something that really speaks to me.

DEIRDRE FAUGHEY

Me too! (laughs) In some ways it’s really hard to imagine being really passionate about school when you are 13/14 years old, when it seems like everything else is more interesting.

MAX KENNER

It’s certainly my recollection. But the contribution we make is that we can acknowledge that, but it doesn’t mean that what we provide for these students who are adolescent and bored with learning grammar is only… rapping or a drum circle… or something like that. Real history, real literature, real engagement, we think is more effective rather than less, when we think about how to engage those people.

DEIRDRE FAUGHEY

Well, I agree and I think that this whole program is so amazing and I thank you so much for talking to me. Thank you for your time…

MAX KENNER

The only thing I should add is that, aside from what we’re doing in New York, for about four years now we’ve been in the business of recruiting and cajoling and bribing and lying… somehow bringing other excellent schools of some means, nationally, across the country, into this field. So, we’re working with Weslyan University in Connecticut, Grinnell College in Iowa, Goucher College in Maryland, University of Notre Dame and Holy Cross College in Indiana, and we expect to be in 10 states within a year or two. So, we’re doing this very much at the national level, not just bringing Bard to those places, but trying to use our experience as a way of compelling other first-rate education institutions to do this themselves.

DEIRDRE FAUGHEY

And do the professors volunteer their time? Or, is this part of their teaching assignment?

MAX KENNER

We raise the money to pay them. We think it’s important to pay people, not just because it’s important to pay people for their work and that’s the key, but also because one of the real challenges of what we do on a day-to-day basis, because you know the jails are never easy, fundraising is a horror, the real fundamental challenge is convincing the liberal faculty that the work they do for us isn’t charity. They’re not doing this in lieu of doing something for Amnesty International, or building a home for the poor somewhere. They’re doing the same thing they would do if they were taking an add-on class at Vassar, Yale, or NYU. And if you don’t pay people, that’s not how they will perceive it.

DEIRDRE FAUGHEY

And how do the professors respond to the teaching?

MAX KENNER

It’s one of the completely unforeseen benefits of what we’ve done for Bard itself. It re-energizes a lot of the senior faculty who might have had tenure for years and kind of got bored with teaching, or forgotten why they had decided to dedicate their lives to this sort of thing to begin with, and the truth is, when you visit one of our classrooms, or you teach one of our courses, you’re engaged with a group of students who, for a whole host of reasons, have much more at stake than students on traditional campuses. People love teaching for BPI.

DEIRDRE FAUGHEY

I can imagine they would. I’m in a doctoral program and I see the same thing, in that the people I want to be in the program (the experienced teachers that I work with in schools) are not there as students because most teachers can’t – you know, it’s time and money to go to school. It’s not easy. So, I can see what you’re saying in many different levels of academia…

MAX KENNER

It’s time and money, and it’s too much money, and the cost and the debt and all of that are real problems. But if the education community is going to really take on these issues and really think of how we’re going to prepare young people to be convinced of the value of the arts, and convinced of the value of scientific literacy, all the stuff that we say we value, it’s not just a problem of money, and the debt, and the cost. It’s about convincing people that this really matters and is relevant to their lives, and the way to do that is to stop condescending to people. Bubble tests are not going get us there.

DEIRDRE FAUGHEY

I agree, and that’s a really powerful statement to make. Thank you for making it.

Deirdre Faughey

Deirdre Faughey

Deirdre Faughey (Founding Editor, Publisher) is a doctoral candidate in the Curriculum and Teaching Department at Teachers College, Columbia University. Deirdre completed a Masters degree in the Teaching of English from Teachers College, and a Bachelors degree in Literature and Creative Writing from Bard College. She currently teaches 10th and 11th grade English.

3 thoughts on “Max Kenner with Deirdre Faughey

  1. Pingback: Ellen Condliffe Lagemann with Deirdre Faughey | Esteem

  2. This is a little off topic, but I’ve always wondered why we couldn’t turn the acres and acres of land surrounding prisons into organic farms. Not everyone is meant to be an academic. The prisoners could be outside, growing their own food and selling the surplus to the surrounding communities or donating it to charities. It would be a way for prisoners to redeem themselves with the community – earning their own keep, being outside, working, giving back. Heck, we used slave labor for 2 1/2 centuries to work our fields. We still use immigrant labor for most farm work. Some prisoners might welcome the opportunity.

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