The Cultivation of Mind and Heart: The Case for More Liberal Arts Education inside Prisons

Felons get a bad reputation, but with good reason. They picked up one end of the stick, and as a consequence, picked up the other end of that stick. All of this is self evident, but what is not evident, and needs an eloquent answer is: how do we approach rehabilitation?

How do we prepare these men and women to re-enter successfully back into society?

A liberal arts education is the best investment we can make to prepare Prisoners to rejoin us as neighbors and to reduce the appeal of crime.

But why? How? And isn’t there something more practical than a liberal arts education?

To understand why is to see the end, or the final cause. The end of a liberal education is the Cultivation of the mind, and the heart. The original definition of liberal was ” of or pertaining to free men.” The Greeks and Romans clearly understood that this education was the best preparation for men to run, and positively contribute to, society. This is a type of education that challenges the mind and forces it out of its comfort zone, similar to what Gandalf did to Bilbo in the opening pages of “The Hobbit.”

Without the “slight” push that Gandalf gave Bilbo, he would never have discovered the virtues that were hidden inside him and thus would have rotten unhappily in comfort. In the same way, our minds rot when not challenged intellectually, leading us to live boring, stagnant lives, where negative thoughts suggest doing horrendous things seeking for thrills, pleasure, wealth and / or power.

But, how is the heart reached? The heart is our center, our “I.” Our hearts are where choices are made and others rejected, making the heart the captain of the ship. But, does the captain make choices uninformed, on a whim or feeling? Of course not; every captain has a helmsman, and every good captain listens to his helmsman. How else would we get to where we are going if the captain does not listen to his navigator?

Prisoners would greatly benefit from an education that targets the mind, and heart. This would help them figure out ways that they can contribute to their families and communities, opportunities to be constructive instead of destructive, and, finally, a liberal education will expose prisoners to real models of men and women found in great literature.

Some naysayers, however, challenge this solution, calling it useless and offering instead a vocational training as proper rehabilitation. Personally, I know the benefits of a vocational training as a HVAC technician. However, this training was taken by me after being educated in the liberal arts. When building a home, construction workers start building the foundation before they even worry about building the walls or ceiling. In the same way, vocational training would not work until the foundation set by liberal education is done.

A prisoner can be trained to service an A/C unit , but if his heart is in the wrong place, and his mind constantly whispers the same errors in thinking, eventually, we will witness a relapse. If we sincerely want prisoners to not relapse, we as a community must invest in the offering of a liberal education.

If you have made it here, you might be wondering, “how can I contribute?” There are 3 ways: time, talent, and treasure. If you have time to spare and have something to teach, volunteer. If you have the talent of writing well, spread the pros of helping those incarcerated, and / or volunteer to teach writing inside. If you have the money to donate, give to non profits like the Million Book Project, Free Minds Book Club, the Bard Prison Initiative, etc. There are various ways to get involved, and we cannot depend on the government to do this for us. Gandalfs are necessary for these chained Bilbos to break free of those chains that bind their minds and hearts.

Finally, what fruits can we expect from this investment?

Imagine felons leaving prison knowing  how to listen empathically, how to speak clearly, how to write eloquently and purposely and how to read voraciously. Imagine felons leaving prisons with goals in their minds, dreams to pursue, role models to imitate, and fired up to give a hand to those who are down just like they were given a hand up when they were down.

Basically, the fruits of this harvest should be leaders that know how to receive ideas and how to transform others who are still chained up. A liberal education is not a luxury for those who are wealthy, it is a necessity for a life worth living, not just for the ones receiving this education, but also for those giving it

Published by G. Sanchez-Betancourt

Hello there. I like to write about books and philosophy from the lens of the Catholic faith. My main goal is for you, dear reader, to become the man God made you to be. If you like what you are reading, please subscribe and you will be notified when I publish new essays.

2 thoughts on “The Cultivation of Mind and Heart: The Case for More Liberal Arts Education inside Prisons

  1. Besides the basic liberal arts education being offered, (Which may not be as intriguing or garner interest from many, because many have the idea that liberal arts is boring) what are some advanced literary programs being offered the incarcerated?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Corey,
      The prison system is stagnant. It’s become a place just to house men. Because of covid most programs have been taken away. It’s sad because there weren’t many to begin with. Most of the programs offered are like mentioned in the article, trades. Plumbing, HVAC, Drafting etc. I do believe that many inmates can learn more from learning about themselves then just learning a trade. It’s important for incarcerated individuals to learn the recipe to their own success. What formula will work for me? What issue’s am I suffering from that I need to give specific attention to? I’ve been to some of the states worsts prisons but also to it’s best. When someone sincerely wants to change they’ll take the steps need. Some just need the tools.


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