(OPINION) As the iron gate slammed behind me, I read the sign “Inmates taking hostages will not be allowed beyond this point.” It was an ominous beginning to a life of teaching. After I graduated with my doctorate in divinity from the University of St. Andrews, I hoped to land a tenured-track teaching position. I imagined strolling the grounds of some seminary or university campus with my students discussing the deep thoughts of Augustine or Calvin. Instead, in the Lord’s kindness, what I got was so much better.
I was hired to teach at a seminary extension site with a course load that included several classes in a newly formed prison seminary program. This initiative, launched by the Heart of Texas prison ministry, offered seminary training for convicted felons serving life in prison. Like raising up Indigenous missionaries in a foreign country, these seminary graduates would remain incarcerated and help minister to the prison population.
For four years, spanning 2011-2015, I was in the prison multiple times per week teaching courses. I taught Bible study methods and survey courses on every book of the Bible. Eventually, my academic journey led me elsewhere to other institutions and classes, but recently I returned to the same prison program and taught a course.
Walking into the prison brought back a flood of memories and reminded me of the many lessons I learned from teaching behind bars. In a world where education modes and methods are changing rapidly, the prison forced me to think deeply about teaching pedagogy for seminary students. It cut through the dross, exposing some essential features of teaching.
While I could spend hours talking about the lessons I learned teaching in prison, I boiled things down to just three: contextualization, transformation and love.
Augustine, writing in “On Christian Teaching,” summarizes teaching with the words of Cicero: “To teach is a necessity, to please is a sweetness, to persuade is a victory.” Teaching is attentive to persuasion, a rhetoric dance where the professor “teaches, delights and moves,” Augustine writes. Naturally truth is the target we are aiming at, but we also need to be attentive to persuasion. In order to persuade we must seek to be understood, and in order to be understood we must understand our context.
When I landed in prison, I learned quickly that I did not understand that world. My illustrations and jokes (which were not that funny anyway) did not translate. Prison life is its own cosmos. It has its own rhythms, culture, economy and seasons. Stories about free-world family, food or travels often reminded them of things their world lacked. I could see these things distracting, and I wanted to persuade, so I could see that I needed to understand prison life with all its joys and sorrows. I took a few students aside, and I asked them to explain prison life. I told them to walk me through their day from sunrise to sunset and describe the world as they saw it.
As they did this, I began to see prison life through their eyes. I leaned about cellies, commissary, the dayroom, ag. seg. and much more. With this knowledge, I returned to my lectures. I began to see the ways that the truth of the Scriptures indigenized, to use Andrew Walls missiological term, into their lives and could shape the mores of their culture.
Sometimes faculty and administrators are so caught up in research agendas, adopting new strategies of online education, or building social media platforms that they forget the importance of pedagogy. The pedagogical lesson here is simple: Know your audience. As a teacher there is wisdom in taking time to get to know your people. Sit down with your students, listen to their hopes and fears, their needs and challenges. Try to understand their world and then invade it with truth and persuasion.
The second lesson I learned from teaching in prison is the reminder that teaching is about transformation. I know this is a cliche, but in my opinion, one that is not seriously applied in any substantive way. The online revolution has made things even more complicated. Administrators and faculty are under intense pressures that are unlikely to subside. But I think this is exactly where education as transformation is an advantage. We all know that teaching is not just about the transfer of knowledge but about truths that settle into the soul and manifest themselves in life.
The early church understood the essential relationship between education and transformation. “What you have heard from me entrust to reliable men who will be qualified to teach others,” is nothing if not a program for discipleship. Those Christians knew that a healthy spiritual life was not cultivated overnight.
“A catechumen will hear the word for three years,” states the ancient text “On the Apostolic Tradition” — meaning that the church required a longer season of discipleship before admitting members. They wanted to see some measure of growth and transformation. While this does not seem pragmatic, they grew because they were committed to transformation through serious discipleship.
There are a lot of parallels with prison here. In prison, teaching distractions are subdued. Cell phones, computers, iPads, various extracurricular activities and the demands of life in the free world are absent. Those in prison certainly have stresses and pressures. But they also have time on their side. In my prison program, the students had access to a limited number of books and computers to type papers, but in the classroom, there was only paper, pencil and the beautiful interchange of intellectual discourse.
The simplicity of these things is something that we can’t forget. We live in a time of rapid transformation of education. The glorification of online courses and the proliferation of program offerings. I am not here to disparage any changes in education but simply observe that early on, I was fortunate to teach in an environment that celebrates the simple beauty of education as transformation with professors and students engaged in serious academic inquiry.
A final lesson is that learning is about love. Whenever I think about the relationship between students and faculty, I go back to Gregory the Wonderworker’s panegyric of Origen. Gregory was a student in Origen’s school and converted through his apologetic efforts. Whenever I read this text, I am always struck by Gregory’s effusive praise for Origen. Some may smirk at his adoration, but there is no reason to disparage the celebration of love in learning.
Even the apostles recognize that the student is no greater than his or her teacher (Matthew 10:24). Education is about more than mere knowledge transfer. It is about cultivating the love for truth, or a love for God and neighbor. I am indebted to many faculty that guided me intellectually and spiritually. Their influence and example portrayed the kind of intellectual life I hoped to attain.
When I taught in prison, the students expressed more gratitude than I ever knew in any other setting. Any notion of the utilitarian foundation of education was reduced to ashes. These men were not coming to learn so they could get jobs or pad their resumes; they were coming for edification. They were coming to learn, to grow, to love.
As Augustine writes, all Scripture reading comes down to love. Love is the greatest of the theological virtues. When all is stripped away and we arrive back at the basics of learning, we find, once again, that learning is about love: the love that exists between teachers and students in the synergic interchange of truth that fosters moments of insight, growth and transformation.
The importance of learning — anytime, anywhere
On my last day teaching in prison, I read the opening of C.S. Lewis’ essay “Learning in wartime.”
Lewis, writing during the assault of World War II, responds to those who think learning in wartime is useless. Why would one bother to learn anything when the bombs are exploding and people are dying? Without any insensitivity to the dead, Lewis reminds us that learning is worthy to be pursued in any environment. There is no perfect, normal life when we can finally focus all our attention on learning. Instead, “all life is lived on the edge of a precipice,” Lewis writes.
It matters not if one is one is engaged in war, locked up in prison or showered with material abundance. Anytime is a good time to learn because the virtue of learning is not contingent upon the right season of life. When we finally get down to the business of learning, I hope we remember the importance of contextualization, transformation and love. There is little doubt that models and methods of education are changing rapidly, but amid this revolution I hope we can retain some of these good things that I learned in prison. I know I will try.