Why We Must All Be Philosophers: Ethical Education and A Poetics of Freedom

This is part of our special feature on Crime and Punishment.


This fall, I was invited to give a talk at Lawrence University, in Appleton, Wisconsin, on how professors and departments can deal carefully and thoughtfully with “Curricular Hot-Spots.” As I thought about how I might frame the current debate about free speech, trigger warnings, and safe spaces on college campuses,[1] I began to realize that, for me, it all came down to one central question: What is the educational purpose of encountering these troubling and controversial literary and philosophical texts? Or, why shouldn’t we just build a new curriculum free from the specters of colonialism, racism, sexual violence, or any of the other historical practices of domination and otherizing?

These controversies over curricula are a major concern at so many of our institutions of higher learning, and the dedicated teachers working with students are caught in the middle of a Pyrrhic battle between the idea that a “Liberal Arts Education” requires the confrontation of difficult topics and the reality that some students legitimately feel these texts and conversations minimize their humanity and identities.

But this begs a larger definitional question: what do we mean when we say a “Liberal Arts Education?” The history of the phrase is, unsurprisingly, complicated. To simplify incredibly complex and hierarchical categories of ancient citizenship and freedom,[2] if you were a man living in the Roman Empire, you were either a liber (free man) or a servus (slave), and a liber had to be educated in order to take on the rights and responsibilities of a citizen in the Roman republic. This has evolved, over the centuries,[3] to mean that we see the liberal arts as the things you need to know[4] to be a free person, to thoughtfully take up the work of living in a democratic society.[5]

So, if this training for citizenship[6] is the purpose of a Liberal Arts Education, to what degree are we achieving that goal in the democratic experiment that is America? There are, of course, many ways to measure success and failure within any social contract. As I say to my students, if only one or two people get a “C” on a test, and everyone else gets “As” and “Bs,” that seems like a pretty fair assessment that I’ve facilitated quality learning within the society of our class, but if the whole class fails, I need to examine my own curriculum and practices, and take responsibility for the fact that my system may be the problem. Another way to assess our society’s achievement of the equalizing and enfranchising goals of democracy might be to see as successful a society supported by a public education system that effectively helps shape citizens towards productive and meaningful lives: where people are given certain powers to rule themselves within a social contract, and are also given the educational tools to wield that power responsibly. Failure, then, might mean a society increasingly shaped by an incarceration complex that is growing exponentially, and what is perhaps worse, disproportionately affecting and marginalizing certain groups of people.

If we can agree, then, that one of the great values of a liberal arts education is to help citizens think carefully about how they carry the rights and responsibilities of citizenship, this kind of education in ethical thinking as a path to the cultivation of freedom and social justice might be particularly useful in the reintegration and rehabilitation of formerly incarcerated men and women. The site where I have taken up that project for the last 4 years at Columbia University is a course called called Humanities Texts, Critical Skills[7].

HTCS, is designed, like most courses in the humanities, I hope, to create a community of interpreters, who then encounter together and make meaning with texts that range in date from the 8th/7th c. BCE to the late 20th century CE. Many of the texts, such as Homer’s Odyssey, Shakespeare’s Othello, Kafka’s Metamorphosis, and Morrison’s Song of Solomon, also appear in the Core Curriculum, but here, we focus explicitly on reading through a lens of social justice, responsibility, incarceration, restoration, and reintegration. The course is taught as a seminar, and encourages reflection, discussion, and debate around the metaphysical questions of what it is to be a human, what freedom looks like, and what justice can be. In the interest of modeling the dialogue that we aim to encourage, the course has always been co-taught, and so the syllabus and the structure of the course has had the invaluable influences of many expert pedagogues, including Dr. Emily Bloom, Dr. Emily Hainze, and Dr. Dan-el Padilla Peralta.

What is perhaps most unique about this course, though, is the community. Half of the students in the class are Columbia undergraduates (variously from Columbia College, SEAS, GS, and Barnard), and the other half are the Justice-In-Education Scholars[8], a group of formerly-incarcerated men and women. This blended cohort provides all of the students with a uniquely rich environment (about which I have written elsewhere[9]) in which to closely read literary and philosophical texts.

The Justice-in-Education (JIE) Initiative[10] was founded in 2015, in a collaboration between the Center for Justice[11] and the Heyman Center for the Humanities,[12] and in partnership with The School of Professional Studies[13] at Columbia University, with support from the Mellon Foundation. The JIE Initiative is grounded in an understanding of the powerful restorative effects that education can have on rates of recidivism, and particularly that transacting with literature can be hugely beneficial, intellectually, emotionally, and mentally, for prison populations, both while they are incarcerated,[14] and when they come home. The Justice-In-Education Initiative, inspired by this knowledge, is intended to provide credit-bearing college courses and other educational programs to formerly-incarcerated men and women, bringing together the support of community organizations and the University, and also to engage the Columbia community in the movement to end mass incarceration.

In America, in the past thirty years, expenditures reveal that we have become much more focused on punishing crimes and less on training for citizenship: state spending on education has merely doubled from $258 to $534 billion (1979-80 and 2012-13) while expenditures for corrections have quadrupled from $17 to $71 billion.[15] In 2017, the US spent nearly $80 billion on prisons,[16] and the massive and continuing expansion of the private prison industrial complex is an ethical and financial crime of staggering degree.[17] Worse still, if you are young and male and black, your chances of being incarcerated in your lifetime are one in three,[18] which is more than five times the rate if you are white.[19]

Beginning in 1965, educational programs in prisons in America were funded by Federal Pell Grants,[20] but under the “Tough on Crime” legislation of the 1990s, this use of taxpayer dollars was no longer permitted and educational programs in prisons basically ceased to exist.[21] Despite this lack of support, prison education programs have continued to operate[22] because of dedicated individuals who have built them with private funding and college and university support. This work has been incredibly effective: a 2013 study by the RAND Corporation,[23] showed that a 40% reduction in recidivism was associated with participation in prison education. Then, in 2016, the Obama Administration announced a “Second Chance Pell Grant”[24] program that would reinstate the providing of federal funds[25] for a small pilot group and as of September 2018, continued support for removing the ban was growing, under a reauthorization of the Higher Education Act called the Aim Higher Act[26].

But let me take you back to our classroom: seven JIE scholars, thirteen undergraduates, and two professors around a table. We begin, on the first day, with Homer’s Odyssey. Students often see this text as the story of a clever and brave hero who endures the petty anger of the gods and makes it back home to his honorable wife and son. Others sometimes read him as an unfaithful husband, a battlefield trickster, a prideful manipulator, and a ruler who cruelly and unjustly punishes twelve handmaidens for their (arguably consensual) sexual relations with the suitors by hanging, with “their heads… all in a line… / struggl[ing] with their feet for a little, not for very long.”[27] He is undoubtedly, as Emily WIlson phrases it in her new translation, “a complicated man.”[28]

In our class, I urge the students to read the Odyssey as either or both of those stories, and everything in between, but also as a story of a flawed man just trying to get home after twenty years away, who, every time he gets close, messes it up again. He has lived, for ten years, in a hut on a beach with Nestor, Agamemnon, Achilles, and Menelaus, fighting together in their siege of Troy. Having come up with the plan for the wooden horse, and brutally sacking and burning Troy, Odysseus departs for what should be a short trip back to Ithaca. Mostly because of his own failings as a leader and a man, the journey is long and arduous, and he loses his companions along the way. He finally lands on the beach close to home, alone and with no possessions, to find his wife beset by suitors who have overrun his house, eager to displace him as ruler of Ithaca. It is only his beloved dog Argos who recognizes him, wagging his tail and lifting his ears, but then even he abandons Odysseus before they can have a reunion, and Argos dies on the manure heap outside the house. Odysseus has left behind the homosocial world of soldiers and battle, siege and adventure, and his reintegration into Ithacan society is uncertain and difficult, both because we are unsure whether they will accept him and whether he can accept them. Tennyson imagines beyond the end of the epic in his famous poem “Ulysses,” presenting a hero who has become a restless and “idle king,” unhappy with his “aged wife,” bored with ruling his barbaric citizens, and wanting nothing more than to go out on another adventure[29].

All of these possible interpretations exist in a room of twenty-two people whose life experiences are extraordinarily varied. A nineteen-year-old girl who went to private Catholic school outside of San Francisco will be sitting next to a fifty-five-year-old man who spent twenty-three years in prison and is now struggling with learning how to use a smartphone and email, and trying to re-meet his children, who grew into adulthood in his absence. Next to them sits a twenty-year-old young man from Iran, and next to him is a woman in her early thirties who did six years in prison and is trying to finish her homework in between her two jobs as a nanny and as a landscaper. What is so magical about this class is that, for everyone in the room, these ideas of reintegration, of home, of filial resentment, of justice, and of revenge, can mean many different things.

The diversity of experience in this room, and the diversity of interpretation that such experiences create, is richer and more varied than any other class I teach. These students, who perhaps have not before even tried to imagine living the life of the person next to them, are now faced with the task of offering their ideas to the community and discussing, and sometimes defending, their interpretations with each other. The integrity and safety of our community demands that they think in terms of questions rather than arguments, that they examine not just ideas but also the ways in which we talk about ideas, that they interpret not only the texts but also each other with deep generosity and empathy, and that they think very carefully about their uses of language. A student might assert that Telemachus’ resentment of his father is unfair, that he should be proud to be the son of “Godlike Odysseus,” rather than wishing he were son to “some fortunate / man, whom old age overtook among his possessions.”[30] A classmate might then respond with an interpretation that fully justifies Telemachus’ frustration that his father’s adventures and desire for glory orphaned his infant son from paternal influence, and left Penelope alone, defenseless against the power-hungry nobility of the neighboring islands, and ill-equipped to govern Ithaca. All of this has to happen with respect, with collegiality, and with genuine hermeneutic engagement.

I sit back, in class, listening to these conversations, and feeling hopeful about the future possibilities for civil and productive civic discourse in our country. This is because, as I see it, one of the purposes of a liberal education for citizenship is to use texts as tools to clarify and specify what we mean when we talk about justice and freedom and morality, and help us think very carefully about what is the “right” thing to do. We cannot, as a culture, debate whether a certain law or policy is just without first asking ourselves, as Socrates does in Plato’s Republic, what justice is. We might call this kind of philosophical inquiry “Ethics,” or as being concerned with the branch of knowledge that deals with moral principles. The study of these moral principles then refines and clarifies our ability to decide, for ourselves, what is moral in every context and whether we will knowingly choose to be moral, or not. In his Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals, Immanuel Kant defines ethics as “the science of the laws of freedom,” which I see as defining a field of ethical education, or the study of the ways in which we can make ourselves most free.

A liberal arts education as capable of shaping citizens for the rights and responsibilities of political life is one of the founding principles for HTCS, and for it’s inspirational program, Columbia’s Core Curriculum[31]. The Core is a set of courses, including Literature Humanities and Contemporary Civilization, that every undergraduate at the College has to take. Taking into account their many imperfections, these courses are grounded in the idea that, through encountering Plato and Aristotle, Nietzsche and DuBois, Wollstonecraft and Gandhi, students can be more thoughtful and effective in their pursuit of ethical and justice-focused lives. Of course, some of these texts, taught carelessly, do have frightening things to say about eugenics, infanticide, and the utter disenfranchisement of women and people thought to be “natural slaves.” And, in the centuries since the oldest of them was composed, they have been used (or abused) by later generations to make arguments justifying the subjugation of others.

Taught carefully, though, I think these texts have immense amounts to offer us in terms of a sort of historically contextualized and critically constructed civic knowledge. They can help us to look at the origins of the systems we have now; through watching the history of inequality and colonialism and imperialism and subjugation and disenfranchisement and othering we can come to more deeply understand, and then address, the problems we have in our society today. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., in his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” used Thomas Aquinas’ schema of law to explain what he saw as the essential difference between the unjust laws of segregation and the just actions of civil disobedience[32]. It is our job as teachers, after facilitating students in their discussions of these texts, building understandings and forming interpretations, to urge students to, like Dr. King, apply that philosophical and historical knowledge to their own lives, such that a student might say, “I know what Augustine, Aquinas, and Vitoria had to say about dominion, so now I have to decide what I think ownership of self permits within our society.”

Perhaps the last question that I want to ask in the context of this article and the context of my class, is what we mean when we say that someone is an “ethical person.” Or even more importantly, is ethical rehabilitation and redemption possible? If someone has behaved unethically, does that mean that she is incapable of ethical behavior or of ever becoming an ethical person? For Aristotle ἦθος (êthos[33]) could mean both character and habit, and he saw ethics as the tools for training our soul towards harmony and balance and temperance: if you are not an ethical person, you can still hope to become one by training your body and soul into the habits of a virtuous and just person.

According to our system of justice, once someone has been adjudicated, convicted, and paid what they owe to society through a combination of time in prison, time on parole, financial restitution, and other things, they should be free. But so much of what really happens in our system of crime and punishment is that people are cowed into submission, traumatized and damaged by the physical and psychological violence of incarceration, and stripped of the resources to live a productive and meaningful life. Beyond crime and punishment, beyond terms like “correction” and “rehabilitation,” our goal, in Humanities Texts, Critical Skills isn’t just to build the skills for writing college-level papers and reading difficult historical texts, but also to articulate and critique cultural values, to demystify the frightening and often-exclusive idea of literature and philosophy, to help citizens cultivate the skills for expressing their frustrations and concerns in a productive and civil manner, and ultimately develop the skills for reading, as Paulo Freire would say, both the world and the word.


Nicole Callahan  is the TOMS Core Faculty Fellow in Contemporary Civilization and a Core Lecturer in the Department of English and Comparative Literature at Columbia. She received her Ph.D. in English Education from Columbia in 2017. Her research focuses on composition pedagogies and the history of the essay. In addition to teaching Contemporary Civilization, she also teaches a Columbia course called Humanities Texts Critical Skills to the Justice-in-Education Scholars, a group of formerly-incarcerated men and women. She works on the Justice in Education Initiative, in collaboration with the Heyman Center and the Center for Justice, building a curriculum connecting canonical texts in core classes at Columbia (like Lit Hum and CC) to issues of mass incarceration for the “Justice in the Core” program. 

Click here to view Nicole Callahan’s syllabus, “Humanities Texts, Critical Skills.”



[1] https://www.nytimes.com/2016/09/11/opinion/trigger-warnings-safe-spaces-and-free-speech-too.html

[2] There are many gradations between free and slave in Roman society, such as a “libertus,” an ex-slave who has somehow been freed, but is still not quite a citizen and a “liber” either.

[3] The “liberal arts” (artes liberales) appears, for example, in the work of Seneca in the first century AD.

[4] https://www.insidehighered.com/views/2017/04/03/all-students-including-underserved-populations-should-be-taught-great-books-essay

[5] https://www.nytimes.com/2016/12/03/opinion/sunday/can-i-go-to-great-books-camp.html

[6] https://www.chronicle.com/article/Democracy-s-Disappearance/241303

[7] http://justiceineducation.columbia.edu/programs/justice-in-education-scholars/

[8] http://justiceineducation.columbia.edu/programs/justice-in-education-scholars/

[9] https://www.publicbooks.org/to-examine-society-and-try-to-change-it/

[10] http://justiceineducation.columbia.edu/

[11] http://centerforjustice.columbia.edu/

[12] http://heymancenter.org/

[13] http://sps.columbia.edu/

[14] https://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/prison-shakespeare-programs-have-dramatic-impact-on_us_58dc09d7e4b04ba4a5e25019

[15] https://www.ed.gov/news/press-releases/report-increases-spending-corrections-far-outpace-education

[16] https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/wonk/wp/2016/07/07/the-states-that-spend-more-money-on-prisoners-than-college-students/?noredirect=on&utm_term=.752d74e476c5

[17] https://www.motherjones.com/politics/2016/06/cca-private-prisons-corrections-corporation-inmates-investigation-bauer/

[18] Stevenson, Bryan. Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption.

[19] https://www.naacp.org/criminal-justice-fact-sheet/

[20] http://www.aei.org/publication/the-second-chance-pell-pilot-program-a-historical-overview/

[21] https://www.ncjrs.gov/App/Publications/abstract.aspx?ID=207628

[22] https://www.nytimes.com/2018/03/06/opinion/prisons-colleges-education.html

[23] https://www.thenation.com/article/prison-education-reduces-recidivism-by-over-40-percent-why-arent-we-funding-more-of-it/04

[24] https://thehill.com/blogs/pundits-blog/education/327231-its-time-to-modernize-federal-prison-education-programs

[25] https://www.ed.gov/news/press-releases/12000-incarcerated-students-enroll-postsecondary-educational%20-and-training-programs-through-education-departments-new-second-chance-pell-pilot-program

[26] https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2018/08/29/trump-administrations-renewed-interest-prison-education

[27] Homer, The Odyssey, translated from the Greek by Richmond Lattimore (Harper & Row, 1965), XXII.465-472

[28] https://www.emilyrcwilson.com/the-odyssey/

[29] https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/45392/ulysses

[30] Homer, The Odyssey, translated from the Greek by Richmond Lattimore (Harper & Row, 1965), I.217–220

[31] http://www.college.columbia.edu/core/

[32] https://www.africa.upenn.edu/Articles_Gen/Letter_Birmingham.html

[33] With gratitude to Dr. Charles McNamara, of Columbia University, for checking both my spelling and understanding in Ancient Greek and Latin.


Photo: Raphael, detail of Plato and Aristotle in center, School of Athens, 1509-1511, fresco (Stanza della Segnatura, Palazzi Pontifici, Vatican)
Published on November 8, 2018.


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