Intro. [Recording date: March 11, 2021.]
Russ Roberts: Today is March 11, 2021, and before introducing today's guest, I want to correct a mistake I made in last week's episode [Leon Kass on Human Flourishing, Living Well, and Aristotle--Econlib Ed.] I misquoted, horrifying, a poem by Gerard Manley Hopkins. The poem is "As Kingfishers Catch Fire." The correct quote is
What I do is me: for that I came.
"What I do is me: for that I came."
And, now for today's guest. Max Kenner, Founder and Executive Director of the Bard Prison Initiative [BPI], which enrolls prisoners in academic programs that culminate in degrees from Bard College. The Bard Prison Initiative [BPI] was profiled in a four-part documentary on PBS [Public Broadcasting Service] in 2019, College Behind Bars. That's available on Netflix. I highly recommend it. And, the Bard Prison Initiative and the issues surrounding it are our topics for today. Max, welcome to EconTalk.
Max Kenner: Glad to be here. Thank you very much.
Russ Roberts: Give us a rough outline of what the program is. And, you started, I think, in 1999. Is that right?
Max Kenner: That's right. We launched in 1999. And we can get into a little more, as we have plenty of time this morning, the historical context of the program and how we got into it.
But, what we do, in many ways, is quite simple. We work to provide the breadth and experience and curriculum of an ambitious liberal arts education to terrific students at the undergraduate level.
We do that in unconventional places--primarily within state prison systems here in the United States. We have, therefore, uncommon and laborious administrative burdens. And we have wildly terrific, ambitious, and brilliant students as well.
Russ Roberts: And, it's funded how?
Max Kenner: Well, that's an interesting question.
So, overwhelmingly through our history, BPI [Bard Prison Initiative] has been funded exclusively privately, through philanthropic gifts and small donors.
However, we work in the context in which college had been standard operating procedure in American prisons for at least a generation. We can get into some of the details, specifics over time.
But, BPI emerged at a moment after that funding, public funding, government funding had been eviscerated, had been eliminated. And so, we worked for really, almost 20 years, serving at least two roles simultaneously. One was to do the work--as educators--because we think people and their education matters. And we don't prejudice people for being either in prison or being excluded from the best of higher education in a conventional context.
But, we had another role, and that was to show the country, to remind the country, that this kind of work was still relevant, still possible, still urgently needed. And to be an example for the country: That, if we are going to have this extraordinary and extravagant system of punishment that is what we now call mass incarceration, the least we can do is provide outlets within it that speak to people's hopes, ambitions, and the reality that they will share a future with us.
So, we have been successful just last year, in December, the last spending bill of the Trump Administration, after really 25 years of work after following the Clinton Crime Bill of 1994. We have restored government money, specifically Pell Grant eligibility for incarcerated people. We can talk more about that. And so, college in prison will return to the United States at a big scale.
Russ Roberts: So, I'm a big fan of private. But, regardless of where the money comes from--for a whole bunch of reasons--but regardless of where where the money comes from, you've got to attract faculty to come teach in the program. And, you're not really offering--in any one prison, it's a relatively small number of students.
Russ Roberts: How do you--I mean, in the documentary, the range and breadth of what these students are learning and talking about is mind--it looks staged. It's extremely inspiring. It's very moving. But they're studying chemistry, math, Plato, Shakespeare, even economics--you name it. In any one semester, how did--first of all, what do they have to choose from, and how do you decide what to offer? Who designs that curriculum?
Max Kenner: So, that's a terrific question, and there are many options available to me in how to answer it, because there's a lot at play.
First, administratively, and we shouldn't do too deep a dive, because it gets very technical very quickly. But, what we've done over 15 or 20 years, is built a liberal arts college kind of upon the shape, upon the structure of the state prison system in New York State.
So, it's not perfect. There are lots of bumps in the road. There are lots of imperfections. But, that has been our goal. And so, it's a funny constellation of students within different institutions, centered around one or two institutions where the program is much bigger.
We are able to collaborate and coordinate with the Department of Corrections in New York State, such that students' movement from one prison to another in New York and most state prison systems--you don't stay in one institution all the whole time; you move from one to another--that movement is coordinated with the semesters and with a student's academic progress.
And so, we have kind of satellites of the center. Eastern Correctional Facility, which was the main institution in the film, is the center. It's the place where we offer the most Bachelor's degrees, as opposed to AA degrees [Associates of Arts?], for example.
Russ Roberts: AA, that's an Associate's degree--
Max Kenner: That's an Associate's degree, conventionally a community college, two-year degree--takes our students closer to two and a half or three years to complete it. But we've built this sort of fabric of a liberal arts college woven into the parts of the prison system that we can't move. But, we have found willing partners in the New York State government, and always having the aim of what you just described: building the best, broadest liberal arts curriculum we possibly could.
Russ Roberts: And, you claim that--excuse me, sorry.
Max Kenner: [crosstalk 00:08:03] where this goes.
Russ Roberts: Yeah, yeah. You claim--I think quoted you in the documentary, which you appear in a couple of times, and it's certainly stated in the documentary--that these students take the exact same classes that students at Bard College take. And, the stuff that we're shown on-air is definitely high level college learning. Higher than many colleges. It's unbelievably impressive. How cherry-picked was that? I mean, again, it looks staged. It looks like you scripted these absurd moments where these prisoners in a maximum security prison--and we learn tragically that many of these prisoners are in for very serious crimes--they're learning Chinese, they're talking about advanced philosophical concepts, they're grappling with extraordinary texts that even the faculty sometimes I bet they have trouble with. Is that really what it's like?
Max Kenner: I can assure you that nothing in the film was staged. That is what it's like, and I was able to assure the filmmakers, as they were embarking on this long-term project for them, that the challenge they would face early in the process of making the film, the process of choosing characters, would be vexing not because it was so high stakes and that if they chose the wrong characters the film would fail, but that it would be hard because there were so many wildly terrific and gifted characters.
Russ Roberts: So, let me give you my reaction to the film. It's available on Netflix. I wept a number of times. It is an unbelievably powerful film. There's a emotional arc that the listener experiences. These people are so eager to learn, these prisoners. They're mostly men, but there's a group of women also in a women's facility, but the bulk of them are men, because the bulk of prisoners are men. And, they're on fire. They're so excited to be exposed to a real education for the first time in their life because they, like many, many non-prisoners were shortchanged by an inadequate high school and elementary school experience. They're tasting what I would call the opportunity to transform themselves through ideas, which is the idea of a liberal arts education. It is a--I hate the phrase 'liberal arts education.' I'm going, as listeners know, to Shalem College in Jerusalem to be the president there, and Shalem calls itself a liberal arts college.
Most people don't know what that means. So I'm going to say what I think it means; in a minute you could talk about you think it means. What I think it means is--
Max Kenner: Including undergraduates within liberal arts colleges.
Russ Roberts: Yeah, of course. Well, and probably some faculty, too. But, what I think it means is the opportunity to transform yourself by encountering the great questions and texts of the past.
And, these students are just--they're on fire, as I said. But, of course, many of them are there for murder. They're there for 20 and 30 years, or a life sentence. And, you're a little bit torn as a listener, and the film plays it very honestly. It doesn't soft pedal that, it doesn't whitewash it. It's very poignant and powerful to watch these people who made a terrible mistake at some point in their life, have a chance to grapple with that through education and to become human beings in a fuller sense than they did before.
And, of course, then they're going to go out into the world after entering this prison at 16-years old for being an accessory to a murder in a fight they were in, and now they go out into the world 20 years later with a degree in something that's not very practical--on the surface. They don't know how to code or be an electrician, which are what a lot of people advocate, and--
Max Kenner: Some learn to code, but--
Russ Roberts: Okay, they could, yeah. But, most of them in the film, and the ones who are [crosstalk 00:12:36] in the film don't.
Max Kenner: Not in the film.
Russ Roberts: And so, I'm sure the--and the film touches on this, of course. I want to hear it from you. There a lot of people say, 'Whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa. You're giving a free college education to a murderer. The guards don't get one. The guards often--not often, most of them, if any, they don't have a college education, either. They're just trying to serve society by keeping these dangerous people out of harm's way, our way. And, they don't get a free education, but you're giving a free education to people who kill people?'
So, forget the political aspects of that, which of course, that's part of what you mention about the funding. Of course, it's always going to be a political football of some kind. But I'm curious how people react--if people react that way to the film, and how you react to them. And, to the initiative, obviously, when I say the film.
Max Kenner: Sure. Well, there's a huge amount in that question that I'd like to respond to--
Russ Roberts: Take your time--
Max Kenner: but I do not want to dodge where it landed. So, let's respond to that first, but I'd love to go back to it afterwards--
Russ Roberts: Yeah, we'll come back--
Max Kenner: all the questions of the content and the practice of the education, the experience of education for the students.
I'm going to nitpick with you a little bit here and refuse to separate out that personal or ethical critique from the politics of the critique. And, I'll tell you more why.
First of all, there are parts of that critique that are of course devastating, and withering. Not relating to the morality of the conviction or the severity of the crime, though that has its own gravity for sure, but from the perspective of the crisis, the obscenity of the lack of access, the unaffordability of higher education, of a reasonable education in the richest country in the world, right? Of course when, if you're me and you run this program, and you're faced with that in a personal way, that is something that requires a response that's patient, thoughtful, respectful, and serious.
I would say at least two things in response. First is: I'm not a president or a legislator or a autocrat. I'm an administrator at a college. And, fundamentally, what I see when I look at the landscape of the United States, I see a lack of access. I see a lack of opportunity. I see a lack of affordability. And most essentially, I see a failure when it comes to the leadership of our colleges and universities at engaging the breadth and the volume and diversity of talent and ambition in the United States.
And, what we do at BPI--it's radical in the extremity of it, it's radical in the symbolism of it, of how far we're going--but really what we're doing is creating a pathway to addressing that problem. Not the whole problem. I don't have it in my power or authority or talents to do that. But, to address some of the problem.
And, just because we can't address the whole problem doesn't mean what we do should be destroyed. It means what we do should be expanded. And, we can talk more about the ways we're working on that at Bard and at BPI, but it's a problem we have in the United States, is when we're thriving at something, just because it doesn't work for everyone, everywhere, we can often resent it. Right? So, that's the first thing. We're trying to address the problem you're describing, not create that problem. Number one.
Number two: Politically, as real that dynamic is on a personal level, politically the dynamic you're describing, Russ, is not just inaccurate: it's a lie in the way it played out politically, particularly in the 1990s. And, I'll focus on New York State where I was, where we are, and which really was sort of emblematic of current events in crime, punishment, and education in the country--certainly a leader in the space.
And, what we saw in the early 1990s was an increased political focus on the kinds of dynamics that you're talking about. And, we had somebody running for governor who made destroying programs like ours a top priority, second only to the restoration of the death penalty. And, he fueled the fire of the kinds of resentments that you're describing. But, he did something else: While he was doing that, and while he was focusing voters' attention on their resentment, that these people--people of color, people who've committed crimes, etc., etc.; people from neighborhoods they resent, etc.--were receiving a free education--and we should talk a little bit more about how that's perceived in America--he was cutting budgets for public universities for their children.
So, in 1988, we spent twice as much in the state government of New York on college universities than we did on prisons. And, by 1998, we were spending, depending how you count your dollars, between $300 and $800 million more on prisons than we were on college and universities. It's a little bit of Du Bois 101, right?, where we harness racial resentment and focus people's attention on those they are comfortable resenting. While we--
Russ Roberts: Yeah, you're talking about W.E.B. Du Bois. I'm not--
Max Kenner: I'm talking about W. Du Bois.
Russ Roberts: Yeah, I'm not so interested in that political dynamic. I know you've been immersed in it and had to deal with it, and it's obviously an enormous challenge for you, especially if you want to be publicly funded.
I'm [inaudible 00:19:20] talk about the ethical issue, when--in fact one of the people in the film, her mom, one of the prisoners in the film--her mom says, 'I don't like the idea that I would pay for your education. You made a mistake.'
Now my view, which I suspect is very close to your view rather than hers, my view is: people pay a price for a mistake. Doesn't mean they should pay an infinite price for every mistake. It doesn't mean a life sentence or a death sentence is a good idea for every crime, and maybe for no crimes. But I just think--I assume that you have to confront a visceral reaction that people have to this.
To me, set against that, is what appears to be--and of course, there's no way of knowing for sure--but what appears to be the remarkable transformative impact of that program. If it gave them candy and a day at the amusement park, I can understand why people wouldn't like it. It appears to change them in fundamental ways that makes them both deeply aware of the mistakes they made, deeply eager to repair them to the extent possible--some of them are irreparable--but to do what's possible with the rest of their life.
And, that part, to me is the essential--that's the most powerful lesson. I understand these issues about crime in the United States, education. Max, unfortunately, I think we over-subsidize education already; it's part of the reason it's so expensive. That's another story. Maybe we'll talk about it.
But that's not what I find interesting about what you're doing. What I find interesting about what you're doing, is just the level on a single human being.
Now, there's 50,- --at the time the films are made there's over 50,000 prisoners in New York State, and you have a few hundred in your program. And, a cynic could say, 'That's a drop in the bucket.' Not to the people you're helping. Every single one--if all you did was change the lives of the handful of people you did, you could argue it's a good program. And, of course, you're trying to change dozens, and hundreds, and more than a handful, But to me, that transformational piece of it is the payoff.
And, I'd like to hear you talk about it. I come back to the first part that I mentioned, about a liberal arts education, which is this amorphous thing that, you know, it's not practical. People would say--when I tell people I teach, that I'm President of Shalem, they say--and I describe what it is, two years of the Great Books added with Jewish thought, because it's in Israel, and they say, 'Well, that sounds nice, but what's it good for?' And, what they mean is, 'When you walk out of that program you don't have a stamp on your forehead that says lawyer, accountant. It's not a trade. What do you do with it?' My answer is 'Well, you think. You become a better human being.' But, maybe I romanticize it.
I'd like to hear what you think about it, and why that motivated you in 1999, when you were--what, seven years old? You were quite young--to start that program. It's an incredible thing.
Max Kenner: I'll just first say that I have trouble de-braiding--
Russ Roberts: I can see--
Max Kenner: education and punishment. Questions of racism and resources in the United States. That historically is a challenge.
But I won't deny, however, that there's also a human-level component that we have to contend with at every step. In terms of what inspired me to start the program, growing up in the 1990s, Russ, it was impossible not to recognize, not to feel the visceral relationship between punishment and education. And, when I finally did go away to college, I made a physical trip from New York City, up the proverbial river, to the Hudson Valley. And, I was someone who was never fulfilled or excited by being a student, by being an undergraduate. And, that changed for me at Bard. I was successful, and fulfilled, and happy in a way I had never been in my life. And, I immediately felt a few things.
I felt an obligation and gratitude and indebtedness to the institution for getting me to that state of happiness and fulfillment, to curiosity--a sense of belonging in and ownership of the world.
And, I also knew that there were countless young men precisely my age, making precisely the same physical journey I did from New York City to the Hudson Valley or other parts of rural New York, enrolled or incarcerated in institutions designed to do precisely the opposite. Not to expand their imaginations or their social networks or the possibilities of their future, but precisely to constrain them.
And, it seemed to me in recognizing both the struggles, and one might even say failures, of a place like Bard in engaging the full breadth of American society, that those awful institutions down the road or across the river might be an opportunity at engaging precisely the kinds of people--precisely the people, I should say--that we weren't enrolling at a college like Bard. So, from the beginning, that has been the effort.
Russ Roberts: So, address this question of a so-called 'liberal arts' education.
Russ Roberts: Why should people who got no education, real education, growing up, who made a mistake or were treated horribly by the criminal justice system in the absence of a mistake, why should they study Homer, Shakespeare, and these other things? Why wouldn't we give them a trade so they can thrive after they leave prison?
Max Kenner: First of all, a liberal arts education--whether that's the best way to describe it or not--but first of all, a liberal arts education is the best education for the workforce in the 21st century. Number one.
Number two: I'd be inclined to ask you the question, why shouldn't we? But, you're interviewing me, so I won't do that--
Russ Roberts: No, I--
Max Kenner: But, you've referred to the Talmudic sort of approach that saving a single person is saving the whole universe. We've had various religious and spiritual leaders visit our program, from Reverend William Barber to Cardinal Dolan, the Archbishop of New York, who both referred to the endless expanse of any of our interior lives, and the value therein. The freedom that can't be taken away from anyone, whether in a prison in the United States, or in Russia, or Germany, earlier in the century. There's endless literature about this that we should take more seriously in the United States.
But, also, you know, you talk about whether our classes for the film were staged; and I think we should talk more about what those students have gone on to do professionally, which proves the authenticness of their learning and their ambition, and their engagement with the breadth of those ideas from science and the arts and history, literature, poetry, what have you.
But, I'd also say, Russ, you know: we in the United States, over the course of the Early National Period, developed a faith in education, and precisely a kind of education that was broad, that lasted over a longer period of time in a person's life than education in the Old Country. That delayed the burden of somebody choosing what they would do with their life until--one doesn't have to decide whether they're going to be a plumber, or a physicist, or what have you at age 12 in the American system, right?
Russ Roberts: Yeah.
Max Kenner: It happens towards the end of your undergraduate career.
And, it also developed with the idea that it's not just good for Russ or for Max that he was able to benefit from the luxury of a broad liberal arts education. It's good for Russ and for Max when Rodney and [Iwan? 00:28:42] and Giovanni and Shantae and Trizzie benefit from a liberal arts education, because we live in a democracy together.
And, if we can't make informed decisions collectively, we are going to fail. The experiment of democracy will fail.
So, it's both selfish and its charitable, or Christian, or generous, at the same time.
And, I just want to point out, and this may aggravate you and I apologize in advance, but--
Russ Roberts: [crosstalk 00:29:16] show is about, Max--
Max Kenner: to the politics or the history of what we do. If you think of all those things that an American undergraduate education in liberal arts, undergraduate education, are girded in--the set of ideas, the set of ethical commitments--mass incarceration is the opposite of that. It's about defining someone at the youngest possible moment in their life by the worst thing they've ever done in their life and constraining their future in civil society and in the workforce, both.
Russ Roberts: Yeah. I don't disagree with that. I don't like the term 'mass incarceration.' It comes with too much--I think it's a blunt term for a more subtle thing. Where we agree is that I think there are too many people in prison in the United States for crimes that aren't harmful to people and should have been left alone.
But, that's not, again, what I want to focus on. I want to come back to this question of our shared interest in this.
And, I would add, because it's where I'm going to come to, that our current criminal justice system is a failure, not simply because of the volume of people that are passing through it, but because of its failure to transform people.
The whole idea of rehabilitation, which your--the BPI, Bard Prison Initiative--is actually trying to dent, and doing, it appears, effectively. So, I want you talk about recidivism: the idea that people come back to prison or commit crimes again after leaving prison. That recidivism in the--at least in the film--is something like 50% within, say, three years--I think was the number that's in the film.
Tell me about your graduates. First, tell me how many there are. How many AA, roughly, AA [Associate of Arts] and BA [Bachelor of Arts] students have successfully gotten diplomas from Bard in prison, and what do we know about them afterwards?
Max Kenner: Well, let's dwell on the recidivism question for a second, if you don't mind, and I'm obviously glad to talk about our alum and their achievements after.
Because there is such a long history of college in prison in the United States that was wiped out in the middle of 1990s, there's also a large volume of sort of sociological, social-scientific literature about it. It is overwhelming, in my view, overwhelmingly kind of stilted--a little condescending, focused on one or two metrics alone. Recidivism being one of them. We could do a whole episode of why I'm a skeptic of the concept of recidivism. We don't need to dwell on that now, but just for the record, there always have been.
But, it has been proven, for what it's worth, that nothing did more in our criminal justice system, our systems of punishment in the United States, nothing does more to reduce recidivism, reduce violence in the prison, restore relationships between a person in prison and their families, increase the likelihood of employment, decrease recidivism irrespective of future employment, etc., etc. That is well-established in the literature; and it's well-established that college does all of those things more cheaply, less expensively, than all the other things we do that are more expensive and less effective. Okay?
So, we know all of that over time. There's also a preoccupation in this kind of bizarre literature that evolved over the course of the 20th century about people in prison--about deviance, etc., stuff that I'm not especially interested in--about what causes or what reduces crime.
And, there was a whole kind of moment where the catchphrase was: What works? And, I just want to dwell on it for a second, because we believe college works precisely because it doesn't make an attempt to work. It's not done to Russ, or to Max, but it's done with and by Russ or Max, facing a better future, not just a egregious past. Right? It's about a person's potential. And the more room we give that student, that person, that inmate, the room to be free in their interior life, the more utilitarian the outcomes will be. But, only if we don't pursue utilitarian outcomes.
Russ Roberts: Yeah, I love that paradox. Always have. It arises in lots of places in economics. My favorite version is that if you try to maximize your profits, you're not going to be very successful, probably. If you try to serve the customer, you'll find your profits do pretty well if you do a good job. The great quote from the CEO of Merck, which I will dig up, that says that better than I can--I don't have it by heart.
But, you said something very profound that I think that I want to focus on, because you talked about the freedom, the interior freedom, the freedom inside of a person. I would call it their fulfillment, their ability to flourish. That's the 'liberal' in 'liberal arts education.' It's not a political term; it's not a statement about tolerance. Although, of course, these are all relevant to the conversation. It's a statement about your ability to be a free human being in the world, to have liberty in the world. And, again, I'm going to butcher the quote, but we had this quote from James Buchanan recently: 'Man,' talking in an older time, we've [?] human beings, 'Man wants liberty to become the person he wants to become.'
And, I think that's what you're providing. You're providing people a glimpse of what they can be, giving them the tools to explore that. Not telling them who they should be, but giving the tools to discover who they should be. That to me is what a liberal arts education is all about. Do you agree?
Max Kenner: You said it better than I could, Russ. And, if you're fixated--and I'm not--if you're fixated on moving a person to a place where they can contend with and speak to the mistakes they made that landed them in prison, a liberal arts education gives them the freedom, the space, and the tools to do that. If you're fixated--and I'm not exclusively fixated on that either--on helping someone find success in the workforce, same thing, right?
But, fundamentally, at BPI, our approach, our philosophy is rooted in a agnosticism about quote/unquote "results." And, what we try to do is not approach the incarcerated students with any assumption about what's good for them, what they're capable of, what they're interested in, what's relevant to them, etc.
Our goal, and the project can succeed or fail at any moment, but our goal is to provide the same education in this context that we do for students on campus, for the students that we treat with that much respect and that much dignity and that breadth of learning and opportunity. And, we hope to replicate that in the prison and not assume people in prison need or want or deserve a certain thing other than that.
Russ Roberts: So, I'm deeply respectful of that. It makes my heart sing. I'll quote one of the people in the film who said, 'This idea of expanding our mind, critical thinking, that's what we get from the liberal arts education.' And, like I said: The maturing of the soul, I think we all feel that compared to three, four years ago, we're not the same person we were.
And, that's a glorious thing. Someone else said, 'This is not like just getting a degree. This is changing fundamentally the way I think, I behave, the way I interact with other people.' And, that's a beautiful thing, too.
Now, a bad economist--I hope I'm not one--but a bad economist would say, 'That's lovely, but this is expensive.'
And, college is expensive, by the way. College takes up years of your life, it requires the resources of people's time teaching and grading and monitoring and stamping people on the forehead that they've successfully leaped through all these hurdles. And, we've had Bryan Caplan on the program and others would think education in the United States is mostly just a signal: Nothing really happens. You don't learn anything that's of value or that's useful. It's just a way to prove to the outside world that you've put your nose to the grindstone, you can follow orders, you can do what you're told.
And, you're suggesting something profoundly different, that I'm deeply sympathetic to. What do you say to the people who say, 'Well, this is just too expensive for the soul or making you a better person. That's nice, but for $40,000, $50,000, let's say $25,000 a year, that's a luxury. If it doesn't translate into higher earnings, this is obviously a bad investment.' What do you say to that?
Max Kenner: I find it nihilistic and ridiculous, personally. I would first wonder whether they, the speaker, treated their own children and themselves with that same level of nihilism as they project onto people like my students. And, I would say--
Russ Roberts: Some do.
Max Kenner: Some do, and increasingly they do.
Russ Roberts: Yeah.
Max Kenner: That cynicism is more common than it was, right?
Russ Roberts: Yeah.
Max Kenner: Twenty years ago, I think you could throw that in the arguer's face much more consistently than you can today. I think that's true. But, many don't. Many don't, and that's worth dwelling on, first of all.
Second of all, I do think, and it may be something of the conservative in me, you know, that we have abandoned, in American life, a sense of the value and the worth of our interior lives and imagining. We also have eschewed ways to provide people to make a living that reduces violence, that doesn't degrade the natural world. How are we meant to spend our lives in meaningful and fulfilling ways that don't do those things? And, a liberal arts education, honoring the arts, understanding and engaging the mathematical and the scientific worlds all helps with those efforts.
But, fundamentally, in this context--and it's easy for me, I would like to argue on behalf of a liberal arts education in the United States, Israel, Palestine, wherever, where it is not cheap. But, in the prison context, that argument is preposterous. We spend more incarcerating people in New York or California or Indiana or where have you than we do spending and sending them to Harvard. Right? In New York City, there's a sort of a cliche, that a token, not that they exist anymore, but a ride on the subway costs the same as a slice of pizza, right? That's how the economy works. More or less, keeping someone in the state prison cost the same as sending them to an Ivy League university. And, what we do costs a fraction of that. This is a system where you can spend a quarter million dollars to replace a door. So, it's provocative to talk about money.
Russ Roberts: Yeah. But, there are a lot of students who--a lot of inmates want to get into this program than there are spaces. Some of them presumably are going to struggle to be successful in the program, but there is just a limited amount of space, inevitably.
It's important to remind viewers who have been to college that it appears that the students in the Bard Prison Initiative actually do homework, and typically do it from midnight to 3:00 AM, or other times when it's quiet. You point out, and it's pointed out in the film, that prison life has a lot of routine around it that you think of it as a lot of dead time, but in fact, there's a lot of counting and mustering out of the inmates to count them.
And so that, being a full-time student--part-time, whatever you want to call it--being in this program is immensely demanding, intellectually, emotionally, and especially time-wise. It requires a devotion that most American college students outside of prison, I think, don't necessarily have today, for a whole bunch of reasons, not important. But: why do the inmates in a maximum security prison want to go through this ordeal to learn Moby Dick, and the Iliad, and whatever else they study?
Max Kenner: Because there's so much at stake. Because actually, there's something in Moby Dick that has value, whether or not you can monetize it. Because it's fulfilling. But, you know, we talked earlier, Russ, about how the goals of BPI work on multiple tracks. We care about people's interior life. We also care about their careers after prison. We even care, as much as we say we don't, that people don't go back to prison.
But there's something else. There's a symbolism in what we do that speaks to both our systems of justice and our systems of education in the United States. And, the success of these students, that fire--to use your verbiage--should be an example both to other people in prison and to the conventional undergraduate, conventional high school student, about what is at stake in their education. What is at stake in how they approach their futures, and how much they can gain or lose in honoring the expanse of their interior life, of their imagination.
And, I would just say that there have always been people in America, and particularly where there is this special relationship between education and freedom, I believe--there have always been groups of people in our history who do better, who take better advantage of a little bit of opportunity, a little bit of access to education.
Throughout the 20th century, people coming home from foreign wars have done more with a little bit of college than most of us. Throughout American history, immigrants have done a little bit more with a little bit of education than most of the rest of us. In the 1930s, where I live in New York City, the best learning colleges in the United States were little community colleges here in New York, filled with people from Eastern Europe who really weren't entirely welcome in our fanciest research universities. And, we never, ever talked about it, but no group of people experienced more radical success with just a little bit of access to education than that generation or so of Americans who experienced emancipation from slavery.
So, I think we are lucky at the Bard Prison Initiative to have students who are analogous to those groups of Americans, and who recognize how much is at stake in the classroom for them and their families and their futures, and make the most of it.
Russ Roberts: When they start the program, many of them I'm sure, just like, again, college students outside of prison, are not prepared intellectually in terms of how to study, how to take notes, most importantly, how to write. And, of course, how to write--people talk about how to write as if it's the equivalent of--I don't know, how to whittle or play the flute. How to write is tied up really closely with how to think. It's hard to write if you don't think clearly, can't think well. So, what do you do to help them in that process? There's a scene, it must be a minute and a half in the four-part series on, quote, "orientation." What do you do for orientation to help these students who have had no preparation for college in any real sense prepare for the level, the demands that you put on them?
Max Kenner: Sure. So, there's orientation, and then there's the curriculum of the first couple years, and I suppose the orientation is a piece of it.
The thing we do at orientation, we talk about what a liberal arts education is, we talk about the breadth of our commitment, we talk about expectations, we talk about community, we talk about respecting one another, we talked about how when the door closes; it's a college space, not a prison space. We talk about we can't--none of us can succeed in this space unless we respect one another's capacity to disagree with one another. We talk about all that stuff. But, most of all we try to make an orientation, a break, between life before and life after.
And, the truth is that life after, in those first few semesters at BPI, is wildly challenging, for the reason you said earlier. That the curriculum we provide to students who are incarcerated, who have widely diverse life and educations beforehand, but the majority of whom didn't finish high school, got their GED [General Education Diploma] or high school equivalent in prison, you name it, enroll in more or less precisely the same curriculum as we offer to students coming to Bard from fancy private schools in Los Angeles, Hong Kong, New York City, Europe, whatever.
And, we do it because students can achieve. We'd rather fail expecting too much rather than too less of students. But we also think there's a fundamental misalignment in how we teach in the United States. And, this has started to be addressed in certain pockets of community college systems in more recent years. But, traditionally, we've done things backwards: Which is: Russ--maybe Russ can't; Max can't possibly learn the parts of speech if he doesn't care about language, if he doesn't recognize what's beautiful or what's at stake or what can be done in a novel, or in a poem. Right?
Same with mathematics. The ideas, the artistry that's available to people who understand second-semester calculus--right?--is expansive, is empowering, is inspirational.
So, when we say we offer students in their very first semester--which we do--the same curriculum as students on campus; and we eschew traditional remedial education, that's true.
But, we also work to address any shortcomings in students' traditional education. But we do it later. You can learn the parts of speech and you can break apart a sentence, learn to do that radically faster, once you've read a novel that you're in love with.
Russ Roberts: Yeah, I think that's a major flaw in education generally, as you say, in the United States. It's the idea that, 'Let me teach you grammar,' which is mind-numbing, and as you say, not exciting if you don't have a reason to think about why it's powerful.
But, I'm thinking about your students. Incredible line, and of course I'm thinking about previous EconTalk guest Duane Betts who did a lot of reading in prison and ir motivated him to start the Million Book Project. You have a student in the documentary say, 'I didn't read a whole book before I got to jail.' So, that's probably not uncommon. Again, it's not just prisoners who have that, especially in today's world. Reading is a little bit old-fashioned.
You're telling prisoners--some of whom have never read a book--'Come join this program,' where you're going to read books this thick that you won't understand. As one of them says, 'It took me an hour or two to read the first couple pages.' How did they get over that hurdle? What motivates them?
Obviously, they see people in the program being changed, I assume. They hear from their friends that, 'Hey, this is a great thing.' But, how did they make that--we talked about transformative experiences with the philosopher L. A. Paul. Until you've gone through that experience as a prisoner and found that world inside yourself and before and after, how do they make that leap? Must be so hard.
Max Kenner: Must be so fun.
Russ Roberts: But, they don't know it's fun. I mean, I love it. It's fun for me. I love books. But, if you've never read a book, why would the idea of a book be fun?
Max Kenner: Well, we've talked a lot, and maybe gone too far using the phrase 'interior life' in this conversation, but one thing--
Russ Roberts: You've talked about it enough, Max, but I don't [?] seriously. Keep going.
Max Kenner: One analog to that, that is interesting, is: every summer we do admission. We interview lots of people who want to enroll in the college. And, one thing I've heard many, many--dozens, if not hundreds of times--is a description by an incarcerated person who is in a prison where we're at, who, whatever their background, wants to enroll and describes walking down the hallway in the school and looking in to a college classroom through the glass and saying two things--it's amazing, and this happens many, many times--saying, 'I know I want. I know I need what's in there.' And, simultaneously, I want to acknowledge to you, 'I have no idea what's in there. I can see the collegiality, the dignity, the excitement, the capacity.'
I hesitate to use the word, personally, 'transformation' in the prison context, because it has its own connotations. But, also what we do in any liberal arts college is about the transformation of a personality, and I don't want to deny that either.
So, you know, potential students can see something that is or recognize something that's invisible there. Something that is not physical, but that is tangible, that's happening in these communities of students.
And, I want to dwell for a moment on the word 'community.' One reason we really believe that we--I shouldn't say 'we'--our students are as successful as they are is because they do this together, they do it a group. We encourage, in that orientation that you referred to, we do a pitch, we do a little bit of a--for me and you've done so many times--a little bit of a schtick about being selfish, about doing it for yourself, about how you are the only person knows how much you can do and what is really inspiring to you, and don't be overly influenced by everyone around you--on the one hand.
But, also, students do this together. They do it as a cohort. They do it as a social group. And, even without any of the trivia, any of the data, any of the pieces of information that you accumulate over two or three or four years of an undergraduate career, the connectivity between you and others that's formed in that classroom is still more valuable than anything else you will get inside an American prison or most anywhere in our debased, anti-social landscape.
Russ Roberts: Yeah. I mean, that's an incredible thing. I think the--exploring something--well, even simpler, doing things with other people is part of the human experience. Learning things with other people is a particularly elevated part of what makes us human. There is a solitary aspect of knowledge, of course, and to understanding, but certainly when I was in graduate school, my study group was where I did a lot, if not most, of my learning, where we argued with each other about what things meant. A very poignant moment in the film, of the College Behind Bars documentary we've been talking about, where the class is asked to memorize the opening paragraph of Moby Dick. And, one of the members of the class talks about meeting with a classmate in the yard and going back and forth, checking each other. And, that's a very low level of learning, obviously, memorizing, but it's not always unimportant.
Max Kenner: Think we could do more of it? [crosstalk 00:57:08], such as like that?
Russ Roberts: I do. I do, too. We've been talking a lot in the program about memorizing poetry. I think it's a beautiful thing: to have those at your mental fingertips is fantastic and underrated.
But, that's a particular level. There's a deeper level, I think as well, that comes from mastering and understanding of a more complicated concept with a connection between things. And, that certainly comes through in the film in a powerful way.
Russ Roberts: How do you--you give grades, like a regular college. We saw a lot of good grades in the documentary, but some people could get bad grades. And I assume, is there a minimum standard that they have to achieve to allowed to be continuing in the program? Do people flunk out like they do in regular college? Do they quit? What's your sort of sustainability number, roughly, in the program? How many people can stick with it?
Max Kenner: Well, you know, it's not unlike the rest of American higher education in that the harder a college is to get into, the harder it is to get thrown out of. Right? That is part of the calculus of how we do college in the United States.
And, in our context, there are ways to drop out that are not imperceptible, but you don't really know who is doing what, in that if I am completely flummoxed in college, and don't either feel up to it, or want to devote the time, in the context in which we work, that's a daunting thing to admit socially. You've taken a seat that somebody else didn't, you've said something probably to your mother or your wife or your girlfriend or children or whomever about how much this means. They know how much it means, if not to you, to them.
And so, sometimes students, if they are going to drop out, they won't drop out: They'll find themselves into some trouble elsewhere in the institution so that decision can be made for them. Very rare that students simply say, 'I'm not going to do this.' And so, completion for the Associate degree-for the two-, two-and-a-half-year degree--if you exclude people who aren't removed by the prison or aren't released, aren't taken out the classroom for exterior reasons, those completion rates are well north of 80%.
Russ Roberts: And, how about the Bachelor's? In the program, the documentary said to get in the Bachelor you have to complete the Associate's degree first--
Max Kenner: That's right.
Russ Roberts: And, I think you said that the Associate's program takes about two and a half years.
Max Kenner: Two and a half to three years, depending. And, two and a half is very fast for us. Two and a half would be the minimum.
Russ Roberts: How long does a Bachelor's degree take? And, how long is it supposed to take, and how long does it effectively take?
Max Kenner: So, I would--just to back up just a tiny bit. So, the curriculum is bifurcated: it's the Associate and the Bachelor's. And, there's a number of reasons why we think that is advantageous. Certainly, it's terrific to give people a actual credential, a milestone that they can complete something in a shorter period of time, experience a graduation--again, with their families, with their mothers, with their children, whatever--and get that out of the way.
Then, we have a separate admission process for the BA [Bachelor of the Arts] program. And, the first thing you need--every rule has an exception, but just stick with the generalities here--the first thing you need, the first requirement for admission to the BA program at BPI is a Associate degree from Bard. So, everybody goes through that. The BA takes roughly another two and a half years.
It culminates in the writing of a, what we call a senior project--it's called the senior thesis at most colleges and universities--an original piece of writing that will be 80 to 100 pages long. And, it is increasingly specialized overtime. We do some required advanced coursework at the beginning of the BA curriculum to make sure that every student who gets a Bachelor's degree through BPI has some taste of advanced coursework across the disciplines before they ultimately select a major. But, then they select a major and move on to that senior thesis.
In many ways, the BA--aside from being more advanced, being more rigorous, being more intensive--the BA curriculum is about winnowing down to a specialization, while the AA [Associate's] degree is about building basic skills--writing, math, science, etc.--but also building a wide and certainly the critics you referred to earlier would think of as very impractical, breadth of knowledge and expertise.
Russ Roberts: Because of the narrowness of it and the focus. It's very sometimes very academic, obviously, rather than, quote, "practical." Academic doesn't have to be impractical, of course, but it's often perceived that way--
Max Kenner: [?] Impractical doesn't have to be practical, in our view. But, yes.
Russ Roberts: Let's talk about you for a minute. Let's close with that. You started this 20 years ago, roughly. By any measure, it's a success. And there's lots of measures. But, the measure I would use is the--there's so many powerful scenes in the documentary of people who realize how far they've come. Not just the--I mean, the achievement alone is fabulous, right? To write an 80 to 100 page paper recognized by the committee of three people who have to judge it is--yeah, it's deeply satisfying. It's like going through boot camp. But, of course, it's more than that. It's what happens to a person who has done that, and gotten there, and what they've experienced along the way that is the power of it.
When you started this, I don't know what you foresaw, but what you got, what you've created, is extraordinary. I would think you sleep well at night, but maybe you don't. Maybe you feel there's too many other mountains yet to climb. There are things about the program you're disappointed in, you wish you had more of this or that, wish it were twice as big. What are your thoughts on having created this extraordinary thing? This amazing way for people to access that interior life who had no access to it before? I guess if it had been one, you felt pretty good about it. It's expensive if it was one, but it's dozens and dozens and dozens. How does that make you feel?
Max Kenner: You know, I'll just dwell on one thing you said there, which is that we wish it could be bigger. And, very often I wish we could do better. We could do better at making an intervention. We could do better at explaining something. We could do better at including the right person at the right time, or you name it.
But, we believe very deeply at BPI that--and this is counter-fashionable: we'll never get $1 from the Gates Foundation--that the success that we have, just like we talked about that paradox about recidivism, right? The success that we have happens--the success our students have--happens because we do this work at a human scale. We forego a certain kind of ambition, because we know we can beat expectations. We can achieve things that the experts say are impossible if we work in a way that happens intimately, personally.
If the connection between the student and the institution is genuine, the relationship between the professor and the undergraduate is meaningful, the results are different. And, that's old fashioned. That is centuries, if not millennia, of experience. And, all that won't change. It means we are not any accusations that we are innovative are incorrect. We are not.
But, scale is not something that we aspire to. What we aspire to do, again, is somewhat symbolic, is to show decision makers what's possible if we do things differently and with respect for one another.
Russ Roberts: My guest today has been Max Kenner. Max, thanks for being part of EconTalk.
Max Kenner: This was fun. Thank you, Russ.