Newsletter: September 2022

[Note: I post my monthly newsletters to the blog with a one month delay. If you’d like to get them when they’re first shared, join my mailing list.]

Hello everyone,

September is the month when school starts up again in many places. But I won’t be doing any teaching this month. We wrapped up our summer course on modern philosophy earlier in August and the autumn course on freedom doesn’t start until early October.

But let me tell you, that autumn course will be worth the wait! It was a mouth-watering challenge to whittle a rich menu of possibilities into ten selections for the course. I’m very excited to discuss the final selections with you. Here’s a flavour of these offerings in one-sentence sound bites.

  • Epictetus: Did this former slave invent the idea of free will?
  • The Mahābhārata: A child dies and a debate unfolds as to who was responsible—and even Death shows up to say it wasn’t his fault.
  • Harry Frankfurt: Freedom isn’t a matter of doing what you want but wanting what you want to want.
  • Jean-Paul Sartre: We can’t help being free—but the experience of freedom gives rise to anxiety.
  • Christine Korsgaard: True freedom means being subject to the law—but a law you make for yourself.
  • Fyodor Dostoevsky: The fictional Underground Man explains why he’d rather shoot himself in the foot than restrict himself to being rational.
  • Isaiah Berlin: The idea of political liberty takes two different forms and they have very different implications.
  • Nancy Hirschmann: What does women’s freedom look like in a world constructed by men?
  • The Alagaddūpama Sutta: To achieve spiritual liberation, you need to liberate yourself from wrong views—which include grasping the Buddha’s teachings in the wrong way.
  • Friedrich Nietzsche: A free spirit doesn’t aspire to get things right but to have the courage to call everything into question.

The course includes these readings, weekly video lectures and reading guides, and a 75-minute discussion group over Zoom. Book early and book often! And do please pass the word along if you know anyone you think might be interested.

The cost for the course is $349 CAD, which works out to about $270 USD, €270, or £230. More than 75% of the participants in past courses have described this as excellent value for money. But I recognize that not everyone can afford it. For that reason, I offer a limited number of no-questions-asked pay-what-you-can slots. Let me know if you’d like to enroll at a price you can afford.

In other news, I added a post on Shakespeare and Wittgenstein to my blog this month. I’ve also been getting outside a lot. British Columbia in the summer is magnificent. I marked the end of my summer teaching with a two-night trip to Strathcona Provincial Park on Vancouver Island.

This autumn will be the second time I teach a course on the theme of freedom. I first conceived of a course like this in the summer of 2017 when I signed up to teach at Stateville Correctional Center.
Stateville is a maximum-security prison about an hour’s drive from Chicago, where I was living at the time. I was scheduled to teach a seven-week course to fifteen of the men incarcerated in the prison. Teaching is always an opportunity to learn and the love of learning feeds my love of teaching. If I was to teach in a prison, I asked myself, what’s a topic on which I stand to learn as much from my students as they stand to learn from me? The answer announced itself at once: freedom.
I drove out to Stateville each Thursday with three other teachers working with the Prison + Neighborhood Arts/Education Project. Chicago’s suburban sprawl gradually gives way to open farmland. The prison stands in the middle of a vast and immaculately mowed field. From the road, one sees only a featureless concrete wall about thirty feet tall punctuated by guard towers. The entrance building for visitors is a red brick affair that could pass for an old schoolhouse were it not for the imposing wall looming on both sides of it.
I passed through three security checks on the way to our classrooms. Once I had checked in and received my day pass, I was ushered into a windowless room where a guard patted me down. Then the four of us passed through a pair of heavy security gates—the kind of thick barred gates that open with a harsh buzz and a guard shouting “clear!” The guards flipped through our teaching materials. We could bring only paper into the classroom with us, and written materials had to be submitted in advance for inspection.
My classroom looked like a classroom, but one in very poor nick. The blackboard was rough and hard to erase, the bland linoleum floor and low ceiling didn’t exactly invite the mind to explore, and the chair-desk assemblies were cheap and too small for the men who squeezed into them. This was the Illinois summer, so hot and humid. No air conditioning—instead a single large standing fan blasted us with such a roar that we had to shout to make ourselves heard.
Mine was one of four classrooms off a wide central hall. A prison guard with a view into all four rooms lounged at a desk. The classroom door stood open at all times.
In the room with me were fifteen men: eleven Black, three Hispanic, and one white. They ranged in age from twenty-something to fifties or sixties. Despite their hardened looks—a necessary survival tactic in prison—it was clear from the start that I was working with a tremendous grant of goodwill. The prison routine was tedious and degrading. These classes were about the only occasion where the men could relax, think and speak freely, and feel like human beings. No one wanted to blow the opportunity. They were all on their best behaviour.
Class discussion was vigorous. I was used to teaching University of Chicago undergraduates who were afraid to take a strong stand on anything. The men at Stateville disagreed with each other loudly and openly but almost always in a friendly spirit—only once or twice did a disagreement become heated.
One topic that recurred in the discussion was the question of whether a person can be free in prison. Some of the students argued that freedom is a state of mind. If you can rise above the constraints of prison life, you could be free even there. (Epictetus says pretty much the same thing—and he had experienced the bondage of slavery.) Others responded that this view was complacent. The only proper response to incarceration was resistance, they said. The day you come to accept your incarceration is the day you give up the struggle.
What is freedom? The question felt concrete and urgent in the prison classroom in a way that it doesn’t in a university seminar.
My journey to and from the carpool pick-up point took me by bus and train through Chicago’s South Side, a part of the city scarred by poverty and crime. The demographic make-up of the trains resembled the one in my classroom. Most of my students came from these or similar neighbourhoods. If you’re a young man in a rough neighbourhood, joining a gang can give you a sense of belonging and friends to watch your back. Gang membership brings its own perils, though. Hundreds of young men are killed in Chicago each year. Hundreds of others do the killing—and some of them end up in Stateville.
It was hard saying goodbye on the last day of class. I’d spent fifteen hours in conversation with my students at Stateville. In class discussion and in written assignments, they were brave and forthright. I learned a lot about their past and about the challenges they faced in the present. We’d shared our thoughts and our experiences and now I was going to walk out of the prison, as I had every week, and they were going to stay behind.
That last day in the classroom was my girlfriend’s birthday. As we exchanged handshakes and hugs, one of the men asked what I’d be doing later that day and I told them I’d be taking Priya out to dinner. “Tell her happy birthday from me.” “You make sure to treat her right.” The idea that I could walk out of that prison, get in a car, and have a nice dinner with the woman I loved later that day—all this felt impossibly precious. As the car headed back into Chicago’s suburbs, I texted Priya with my students’ birthday greetings. I’d never felt so free.

Share this:

Like this:

Like Loading...
%d bloggers like this: