Ellen Condliffe Lagemann with Deirdre Faughey

photo_LagemannDr. Ellen Condliffe Lagemann is Levy Institute Research Professor at Bard College and a distinguished fellow of the Bard Prison Initiative (BPI). Lagemann is a leading historian of education and a nationally known expert on education research. She taught at Teachers College, and in the Department of History at Columbia University. At Teachers College, she was director of the Institute of Philosophy and Politics of Education and editor of the Teachers College Record. Lagemann was also on the faculty of New York University, where she headed the Center for the Study of American Culture and Education and was founding chair of the humanities and social sciences department at the Steinhardt School of Education. She was subsequently appointed dean of the Harvard Graduate School of Education. Here she speaks with Deirdre Faughey, a graduate of Bard College and a doctoral student at Teachers College. This is the second installment of a two-part Esteem series on the Bard Prison Initiative, founded by Max Kenner. In this interview, Dr. Lagemann discusses how she became involved with BPI, the program’s approach to curriculum, and her relationship with the students.

DEIRDRE FAUGHEY

I was wondering what brought you to Bard, how you became interested in the Bard Prison Initiative, and what you do there.

ELLEN CONDLIFFE LAGEMANN

Well, those are really three separate questions. I came to Bard from Harvard. I had been Dean of the School of Education, and I was also in the History department at Harvard. We are really more New York people than we are Cambridge, or Boston people, and after I had served as dean, my husband and I were all set to go back to Columbia, where I was again going to have a joint appointment in the history department at FAS (Faculty of Arts and Sciences) and at Teachers College, and we decided that we really wanted to live up here in Columbia County. So, through Leon Botstein and Emily Fischer and a number of other people, I was lucky enough to come to Bard. I initially chose to be at Simon’s Rock, where I developed a seminar in which I wanted to have students partly do research in the field and partly do research through reading in sociology and other social sciences. In order to get some other faculty involved in doing this with me I said I’d do any topic that other people wanted to do. One of my colleagues said, “Oh, I’ll do it if we can do mass incarceration.” I had assumed we’d do something about public schools. I said that was fine, we could model for students how you could learn about a public problem. I knew nothing about prisons or anything having to do with mass incarceration. In the process of organizing that course I discovered BPI and I talked to Max, who persuaded me to teach, and so lo and behold in the summer of 2008 there I was at Eastern teaching a class. I loved it. It was the most fun teaching I had done anywhere. So, the rest is history. What do I do at BPI? I now do the fundraising with Max. Max and Daniel will be away next year and I will be running the program along with Megan Callaghan. I teach. I advise. I’m writing a book about mass incarceration. I do all sorts of things.

DEIRDRE FAUGHEY

I wanted to ask you in particular about the educational history that you’ve written about and how BPI fits in. So, for example, I was watching a video of the program online and some of the students were saying that they feel that as prisoners they are made to feel inhuman, they’re assigned a number, given a uniform, but when they study at BPI they are treated the same as any other student on Bard’s campus. I’ve been interested in different conceptions/philosophies of education throughout history, such as Charles Eliot who was described as a humanist, and then people such as George Counts, who was a social reconstructionist. When I first heard of the humanist approach to education–Charles Eliot’s approach–I thought of my experiences at Bard. It reminded me of the way I was educated there. But then when I heard about BPI, I thought about social reconstruction.  I’ve been mulling this over in my head and I’ve been trying to figure out how BPI fits in, and I thought you might be the perfect person to describe how you see BPI in this context.

ELLEN CONDLIFFE LAGEMANN

George Counts

George Counts

Well, I should warn you that I am sitting in my study at home looking at a picture of George Counts. I think of George Counts as my intellectual grandfather. But you know Bard is an interesting combination of progressive education and very much non-progressive education, what you’re calling humanist education. I would associate that more with the Great Books tradition of Robert Maynard Hutchens at the University of Chicago. Bard, as you doubtless know, went through a period when there was a man named Donald Tewkesbury who was the dean, who came to Bard from TC, and then returned to TC. He was very much a progressive in terms of pedagogy and introduced things like the senior project, advisement, and the small classes. Then, Leon Botstein, who as you know has been president for a very long time, came from the University of Chicago and brought with him First-Year Seminar, and some of the more Great Books traditional kinds of liberal arts educational ideas. And Bard today, in my opinion, is an amalgam of those two. There are a lot of distribution requirements, probably more than at most liberal arts colleges. First-Year Seminar is built around the idea of Great Books education, and yet every student has an advisor, there’s moderation, senior projects, small classes, discussion, all that, which is very much progressive. And BPI is very much a reflection of Bard. There are some constraints because of its setting in various correctional facilities, but it embodies all the curricular elements of a regular Bard education. So, it’s both progressive and what you’ve called humanist, just as Bard is. In terms of our students feeling that when they come to BPI–they say, “When I first came to Bard”–they are in a very different space, that is less because of any educational philosophy than a deep conviction that when people come to BPI they are students. What they’ve done in terms of the criminal justice system is not our business, and we don’t ask them. That’s not our business; that’s the business of the prison. Once the doors shut behind them, they are Bard students. I think that’s very important.

DEIRDRE FAUGHEY

I wonder why you think that’s important, because at TC we think a lot about ideas such as culturally relevant pedagogy, the concept of “funds of knowledge,” and the idea that as teachers we need to research the students in order to understand how best to teach them. These ideas are generally in much of what I read, and I feel that it is not the case at Bard, especially since you have to cut-off part of what you know about the students and the prison–

ELLEN CONDLIFFE LAGEMANN

–It’s not that we cut-off what we know. We don’t ask. But many of the students in BPI I now know very, very well. I’ve taught them for years. And I know exactly what they did because they’ve told me, but we treat that as irrelevant. In terms of culturally relevant pedagogy and all that, I must tell you I am not a great fan of that. I am a deep believer in John Dewey’s philosophy of education and he always said, “Remember you’re not teaching subjects, you are teaching students.” I think that’s correct. But to me that doesn’t mean you modify the subject matter to necessarily start where the student is. If we did that with students in BPI they would not get the richness and the rigor of the academic education they get. It’s what they value, and what enables them to do so well when they get out. So I think you can be sensitive to who your students are, in terms of being people, and each person has different strengths and weaknesses as a learner and as a student–I think it’s very important to take those into account–but we definitely do not try to do anything like culturally relevant pedagogy. If we were to do that, we would start with their experiences in the prison and use those to build out toward the more academic material we teach, and that we absolutely don’t do. We feel strongly against that in the prison. We don’t teach about incarceration. It might come up in a conversation about social policy or something, but that’s not what we focus on.

DEIRDRE FAUGHEY

I am interested in the experience of teaching within the prison in the sense that BPI is sort of an institution within an institution. I was wondering how the prison affects the college experience. One way that it must is that there is a separation based on gender. You have all-male and all-female classes because of the way the prison is set up, but I wonder about other effects on what you do.

ELLEN CONDLIFFE LAGEMANN

In some ways it’s more difficult because any time you want to take a book in you have to tell them ahead of time that you are taking it. You can’t just decide, “Oh, I want to show them a picture in this book.” That’s not allowed. The scheduling is very rigid, so the classes start and stop when the bells ring. When the class is over, you can’t talk to students. They have to go back to their cells to be counted. If you want to see students about papers, or something like that, you have to get special clearance to go in to meet with them. So, the rules and regulations of the prisons make the logistics more difficult, but in terms of anything else, I would say that the fact that our students are adults, rather than young adults–they tend to be older than traditional students at Bard, for example–that means they’re very motivated. They want this education. Sometimes undergraduates will wonder, “What am I doing in college? Why am I here?” I remember doing that myself. But that’s not as likely to happen with our students. Our students know why they’re there, and they’re very focused, very motivated. There’s not an inclination to sometimes just not do the homework. They’re prepared when they get to class. With age comes a little more maturity, and I think teaching mature students is often somewhat different from teaching younger students. But it’s hard to explain. I think their curiosity is such that they’re not afraid to ask questions. They really are very interesting students.

DEIRDRE FAUGHEY

And is that what makes it such a great teaching experience, as you said before?

ELLEN CONDLIFFE LAGEMANN

Yes, in my opinion it is undoubtedly the students that make it such a great teaching experience. They are bright, they are interested, they are curious, they are motivated, they come prepared. If they do something wrong in a paper they want to know what was wrong and they want to fix it. They are very eager to learn, and that is very exciting. As a teacher, what more could you ask?

DEIRDRE FAUGHEY

And do you attribute that only to their age? I wonder about their previous educational experiences.

ELLEN CONDLIFFE LAGEMANN

Well, they vary. We have very few who began college before they were incarcerated. We did a survey some years ago and only 17% reported having graduated from high school before coming to prison. Virtually all of them have either a high school diploma or GED certificates that they earned in prison. So, they’ve had that, but they come with very minimal academic skills. When we read admissions essays it’s rare that you find a complete sentence. The misspellings would be on a par with an urban elementary school. The math literacy coming in is very low, for most of them. There are exceptions, but by and large the academic preparations is very low. And one of the very interesting things about BPI educationally is that we don’t do remedial education. What people in community colleges call developmental education. We don’t do any of that. The second somebody is admitted they’re handed a grammar book and they’re told to learn it. Then, during their first year, there are some grammar and composition classes, but at the same time that they might be in a grammar and composition class in their first semester, they might be in a regular history or philosophy class. So, whatever it is, it’s quite different from the way most under-prepared students enter college. We really need to find a way to examine why it is that works, because it does.

DEIRDRE FAUGHEY

They must be really independent learners, and that drive that you were talking about must be part of it.

ELLEN CONDLIFFE LAGEMANN

I think it’s that. I think it’s also that the students are willing to ask for help and the faculty is willing to give it. They also do a great deal of peer interaction. You know, the ones who are a little further along help the ones who are coming along. Peer teaching is very powerful, and there’s a lot of that in BPI. We also have all sorts of tutors. We’ve now trained some of our own students to be tutors for less advanced students, but we also have tutors who come from Annandale. So, there’s a lot of support, but the standards are high – at least as high as they are on the main campus.

DEIRDRE FAUGHEY

And do you find that their experiences at BPI and in the prison system have a direct influence on what they go on to do? I’m sure not all of them are released from prison immediately after–

ELLEN CONDLIFFE LAGEMANN

–Oh no. We have students who finished BPI many years ago and are still incarcerated. One of the challenges for us is keeping them mentally engaged while they are in prison before they go home. They will go home, but many of them are held for long periods of time. We’ve developed post-college work, in public health and technology. We’re working on developing food studies. But it’s a challenge to keep them involved afterwards. In terms of the impact of BPI on what happens when they do go home, I think it’s pretty profound. Our rates of return to prison are almost zero, and the average nationally is somewhere between 50-70%. Not only that, our people by and large hold good jobs, go on to graduate school… they do extremely well and that’s not typical. And we stay in touch with them. Just today I was on email about a number of them. There’s hardly a day goes by when we aren’t talking about them – “Have you been in touch with him? Have you been in touch with this one? This one needs a phone call…” So that follow-up makes a big difference.

DEIRDRE FAUGHEY

And when you say “follow-up,” you mean that a personal relationship has developed? Or are you communicating with the people they are working for?  How are you involved?

ELLEN CONDLIFFE LAGEMANN

Jed Tucker is the person who runs our re-entry program, and he can describe it to you at length. We have a re-entry program that begins before they go home, if necessary we meet them at the prison gates when they are released, we make sure they have places to live. Many of them go back to family, but not all of them, and if they don’t have family to go back to we help them find housing. We actually have a place called The Redemption Center in Brooklyn now. Then we help them with jobs, with returning to school, with finishing the degrees if they haven’t finished. We stay in touch with them in a whole variety of ways. And Jed is a point person for that.

DEIRDRE FAUGHEY

And I wonder how you handle it personally, knowing that your students have committed crimes–and I understand that it might be any range of offenses–how do you handle that when you are interacting with them as students? How do you block out that part of their lives?

ELLEN CONDLIFFE LAGEMANN

The first half-hour I was in the classroom I thought to myself, “Oh my goodness, I’m sitting here with murderers.” But after my first class I just don’t think that way anymore. They’ve totally become students and people and friends. I mean, I’ve had any number of them at my house. I’m meeting two women from our women’s program for lunch at Gigi’s and shopping in Rhinebeck next Sunday. They are people who have made serious mistakes and they’ve paid for them. I think they should pay for them. I’m not sure they should pay the way they have paid. I mean, I think the way we incarcerate people in the United States is nuts, but if you’ve done the kinds of things they’ve done I think there should be a price. I don’t believe you should just get off. But I also think that there should be a chance to change your life and turn it around, and that’s what we’re focused on. We’re not focused on what they have done; we’re focused on what they can do and will do.

DEIRDRE FAUGHEY

Well thank you. I don’t want to take up too much more of your time.

ELLEN CONDLIFFE LAGEMANN

You’re welcome! I hope sometime we get to meet face-to-face.

DEIRDRE FAUGHEY

I would love that.

Deirdre Faughey

Deirdre Faughey

Deirdre Faughey (Founding Editor, Publisher) is a doctoral candidate in the Curriculum and Teaching Department at Teachers CollegeColumbia University. She 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 works as a high school English teacher, and is the Managing Editor of International Ed News. Contact her at df2145@tc.columbia.edu if you have any questions about Esteem.

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One thought on “Ellen Condliffe Lagemann with Deirdre Faughey

  1. Pingback: Nancy Lesko with Laura Vernikoff | Esteem

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