Talking About Love. In Prison.

In June of this year, I began teaching a six-week program at the Central Florida Reception Center as part of the Florida Prison Education Project. The course was entitled “Love and Faith, Family, and Friendships.” The plan was to cover the topic of love from multiple perspectives, which was typical of an interdisciplinary approach.

I approached this course with a great deal of trepidation. I did not know what to expect, but I was very pleasantly surprised. I had never even been inside a prison before, and I had (and still have) no idea what crimes the inmates committed or how long their sentences were. I did not ask, and they did not volunteer. For two hours per week, for six weeks, thirteen male inmates and I met to discuss love.

What surprised me the most was how engaged and motivated the students were to explore what probably appeared to be a rather superficial topic at first glance. The students read the material carefully. They respectfully challenged each other, and they respectfully challenged me. Should every class I teach be so enthusiastic I would be the happiest teacher ever. Indeed, in their final reflection, one student wrote, “I never thought that love was such a complex issue that we could talk about it for 6 weeks. I was wrong.”

The course syllabus stated: “This course on love has been designed to provide an interdisciplinary introduction to the concept of love. As such, it examines the philosophical, cultural, and religious influences on various concepts of love. Students will examine and analyze how these influences shape ideas and expectations of love in the contexts of faith, family, and friendships.”

The course objectives were:

  1. To provide students with an introduction through the humanities to various concepts of love within the contexts of faith, family, and friendships
  2. To explore the concept of love from a philosophical and religious studies lens
  3. To develop key analytical skills through exercises in close reading and argument development
  4. To provide students with foundational tools for critical thinking and essay writing

In the first class, I introduced the Socratic Method in an abbreviated form: Question everything. For me, learning is more about getting good questions than getting true answers. I introduced the learning mindset (essentially, this is what is referred to Interdisciplinary Studies as “The Cognitive Toolkit”). The key elements of this mindset are open-mindedness, humility, intellectual courage, empathy, and curiosity. We went on to discuss common love tropes and their accuracy and relevance in different contexts. We discussed love as life, and how love can inspire us to open up and connect to others. We discussed love and social action (e.g., MLK and Gandhi), love and consumerism, love and language (how our language impacts not just what we think and understand, but how we act as well), among other things. Interestingly, we discussed romantic love very little in comparison. In many ways, it’s the least interesting concept in a culture super-saturated by the prominence of the love equals sex trope.

The unintended outcome of this course was much more significant than the intended ones. I did not explicitly state that one of the course outcomes would be increased open-mindedness. This outcome is always my hope, but I rarely see much progress among people in this regard (students or otherwise). In fact, blatant closed-mindedness of several people I love and care about has been a source of a great deal of discouragement and frustration as of late. These people are both smart and good yet closed to seeing the world in all its diverse glory. This class provided me with some much-needed hope.

Open-mindedness is not simply the willingness to listen to another’s perspective. It’s the willingness to be moved by another’s point of view. It is a willingness to be convinced, to change your mind if need be, or at the very least, to find value in one’s point of view even if (or especially if) you do not agree.

Open-mindedness entails empathy: People believe, see, and do things for a reason, and if we start with the premise that most people are good, we will be compelled to search beyond the surface for the goodness inherent in their perspectives. This, in my view, is the very heart and soul of learning.

Open-mindedness entails empathy, yes, but it also entails humility. I always explain humility as, simply, the willingness to be wrong. Sometimes, in Interdisciplinary Studies, we refer to this as an ignorance-based worldview. An ignorance-based worldview requires the conscious and intentional uptake of an intellectual position that acknowledges that regardless of what one thinks they know for sure, or how much one knows about a topic, there is always a chance that they could be wrong or at least learn more. This intentional intellectual move creates a gap between knowers and the known, and this gap is a space rich with potential for growth, both individually and collectively.

Such a worldview, I have argued, is the basis of love (at least a type of love) because in moving from conviction to maybe we allow ourselves to step into vulnerability, which is one place that is renowned for the facilitation of human connection. This move can be very difficult for men, however, because gender norms teach us that vulnerability equates to weakness, and weakness is dangerous and/or evil. It is definitely not masculine. Culture tells us that it should be staved off with violence, aggression, conquest, and/or possession. Yet, vulnerability is a crucial part of the human experience that we deprive men of when we stringently police masculinity with the policies of social norms and gender expectations. Beyond facilitating a broader capacity for learning, radical open-mindedness, including empathy and humility, might just be the one competency essential for addressing the compounding complexities of a world being torn apart by violent dogmatism and polarizing conflict-ridden politics.

According to the students, open-mindedness was indeed the most significant outcome. I really have no idea how this happened, as I just did what I always do. Here is what the students had to say:

“This class has been a game-changer for me. By that I mean how now I’m able to see things from many different angles. That has been my biggest take-away. A lot of times when I learn something I say “I know” then without thought I put limitations on myself and there is not more room for growth. With the topics discussed and how this class was conducted the methods learned here has changed how I approach people, conversations, how I argue/debate and so many areas. I would argue that courses like this one are essential not just for inmates but the world as tools to lay a solid foundation in our everyday lives for growth.”

“In the beginning, my mind was already made up. At this point, I’m not so sure. I’m not sure that I even like the uncertainty, but I am open to. I guess that’s the first step.”

“I have benefited from this class in that my eyes have been opened a little bit to the fact that I may not be right about some things and to leave some space in my mind to listen and learn from others.”

“I’ve enjoyed every minute of this class, not because it made me feel uncomfortable, but because it made me question some old concepts I’ve had. It also made me dig in a little deeper on others.”

“Thank-you for showing me how to accept-What if.”

The increase in open-mindedness as an outcome of this course was not just theoretical. It impacted how the students interacted with each other within the facility and beyond. This outcome was unintended, but I am thrilled. This was brought to my attention by one of the guards who was charged with accompanying me throughout the duration of my class.  In front of the students, and again after they had left the room, the guard mentioned that she had noticed a difference in communication patterns and interactions.

In their own words:

“Come to find out, this six week program wasn’t entirely about love, and was more about developing critical thought…Here it is, week six, and I’ve put some of the ideas in this class to work and have been able to open or expand myself to other people’s ideas or thoughts. And, if you listen closely enough to what people are saying, you’ll find out that their point may be left in what they don’t say.”

“To my surprise, this class wasn’t solely about romantic relationships. This class implored us to incorporate love into all aspects of life. It taught me to identify some of the different types of love…but most importantly, it pushed me to think innovatively. To challenge my own thoughts. Why do I think this way?”

“I’m most appreciative because it’s had a positive effect on my relationship with my youngest daughter who always seems to argue with me about something at visitation. Well, she told me after our last visit that I seemed to have changed a little, not so steadfast in my opinions on things. I must thank you for that.”

To the extent that open-mindedness and human connection are part of my core values, I guess they are always intended outcomes of every interaction both in the classroom and beyond, but rarely do I see a direct impact. Usually, it’s some type of faith that propels my belief in and commitment to these values. I still do not really understand what happened here.

My experience with this course far exceeded my own expectations, and these men have had a profound impact on my life. Yeah, I always talk about this stuff, but it rarely gets this kind of reception. After every class, I came away feeling uplifted and edified. Although I did tell them directly, I am not sure if they truly grasped their positive impact on me. I have a renewed faith in humanity, and this is not an exaggeration by even a little. During their final presentations, their gratitude was overwhelming, and tears flowed amongst us. I am truly humbled and grateful for this opportunity. I do not know what they have done, and I don’t want to know. All I can say is that for two hours a week, for six weeks, all thirteen men in this class did good in the world. That’s all I ask of anyone.

 

 

 

2 thoughts on “Talking About Love. In Prison.

  1. SHIRLEY ANN PETERSON says:

    I commend you so much for everything you have done in the prison system! The world needs more people like you that give people a second chance and don’t judge them from their mistakes. Indeed, you even admitted that you learned things from the inmates and were impressed by them. My son is 23 and is about to begin a 5 1/2 year sentence so I was perusing the FL DOC website to ascertain what education materials will be available to him. I am so glad I ran across your article and all that UCF has to offer. Thank you!

  2. Betsy (Susan's Scrupski's friend) Herp says:

    Great article and impressive that you were able to take the initiative to educate in this setting. I grew up having inmates from Federal prison in our home as my dad was an “educator” within the county Sheriff’s department. I knew what they were convicted of and to this day I have respect for them and their lives as men who lived the majority of their lives behind bars.

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