Undergraduate Student Blog, Speaking of Princeton

Undergraduate Student Blog

Author: Kevin Wong ’17

Toronto • Philosophy View Profile

From Princeton to Prison

Tentatively, I step into the classroom. Momentarily blinded by the stark fluorescent lighting, I blink to see staring back at me the nine faces of the students I will be teaching for the next semester. They are about my age, they are interested in philosophy, and they are inmates in a New Jersey state prison.

Exterior of AC Wagner Prison.
AC Wagner Prison.

Never had I imagined that I would see the inside of an American jail—much less interact so closely with those on the inside. But here at Princeton, through a program supported by Pace Center for Civic Engagement, I have found myself doing exactly that.

Over the coming months, these 15 prisoners will become my interlocutors in candid and often surprising discussions about ethics, epistemology and the nuances of contemporary thought. Together, we learn to separate premises from conclusions, to reject fallacious reasoning, and to read, write and think like a philosopher. There are no papers or homework, and our readings are done together. Here, answers are far less important than the questions.

Our conversation topics are broad, but more often than not they will come to bear on deeply intractable issues—problems to which I frequently have no better solutions than my students.  

In these moments, a surprising thing happens. Against the backdrop of history’s most difficult challenges, there is no longer teacher and student, Princetonian and prisoner. Grappling together with these obscure questions, what remains is a group of equals, in a sphere where reason, thoughtfulness and critical thinking are all that matters. In prison, a context where opportunities for egalitarian dialogue can sometimes be sparse, our work provides unique avenues for self-expression, personal growth, and the development of broadly transferable skills in reading, writing and oral communication. The prisoners leave intellectually enriched, better prepared for re-entry, and perhaps most important, endowed with a genuine passion for learning and a healthy sense of critical skepticism. 

Numerous things have surprised me over the course of the past few months, but nothing has been more striking than the transformations we have witnessed in students. Many who were initially reticent to engage in discussion have become some of the most active participants—challenging their classmates, pushing back on unsatisfying conclusions and perpetually asking the hard questions.

The benefits of this experience, however, have not only accrued to the prisoners. Indeed, I have come away with a profoundly transformed view of the criminal justice system—aware of its failings, cognizant of its challenges and deeply moved to continue working with those behind bars.

For me, this experience has been deeply emblematic of Princeton’s informal motto: in the nation’s service and in the service of all nations. Service opportunities at the University abound, and whatever your passion, you will inevitably find either an existing program to join or broad support for starting something new. While it’s often difficult to find time for service amidst life here, it is infinitely worth doing. You may well be changing someone’s life in the process, and perhaps your very own in turn.