Breaking Down Biases

Breaking Down Biases

Creighton professor finds students, incarcerated youth connecting through philosophy

By Emily Rust

You’ve been working at a construction site for the past couple of months, when, one day, your boss waves you over.

He pulls you into his trailer and sits you down at his desk. It’s close to lunch, and he’s hungry. Shockingly, he asks you to swipe a co-worker’s large blue lunchbox, filled with a nice big sandwich, a bag of chips and a thermos of hot soup.

If you don’t grab it for him, he says, he will make up a fake worksite violation about the table saw you were using and make sure you lose your job. You really need this job to provide for your family.

Do you steal the lunch? And if you do, did you do so freely?

How do you define free will? After reading this scenario, Creighton undergraduate students in Philosophy 426: The Carceral State probed and contemplated that question in conversation with young adults at an area youth correctional facility.

For three semesters, students in philosophy courses taught by Amy Wendling, PhD, associate dean for humanities and fine arts in the College of Arts and Sciences, visited the facility to engage in philosophical thought exercises with groups of incarcerated youth, mostly ranging in age from 17-21.

“Rather rapidly, (the Creighton students) realized they have a lot in common with the (incarcerated) youth,” Wendling says. “They discover they have the same answers to the questions.”

So, did they decide to steal the lunch? In one group, both the students and the youth said yes, because they didn’t want to lose their job. But they agreed, they had done so freely. They had made a choice.

Students in Wendling’s course, all juniors and seniors, engaged the youth inmates three times a semester, in scenarios covering a variety of topics — from restorative justice to forgiveness and trust, the ideal society and basic fallacies. There are no right or wrong answers, Wendling says — the goal is to formulate thoughts and start conversations.

“Philosophy, it’s cool in the sense that everyone can do it,” says Brandon Calderon, BA’19, a student in the spring 2018 class and member of Wendling’s student research team. “Philosophy has a really good way of having nebulous ideas become concrete.”

In Wendling’s academic service-learning course, the students read and discussed issues around the correctional system in class while also volunteering at the facility.

In the classroom, students spent the semester looking at justification of punishment via various philosophical theories, including utilitarianism, retributivism and abolitionism. They reviewed juvenile court cases, read Discipline and Punish by Michel Foucault (a French philosopher who looked at Parisian prisons in the 1970s) and studied other texts such as The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander, Rise of the Warrior Cop by Radley Balko and Solitary Confinement by Lisa Guenther.

Reading about topics such as solitary confinement, “those are a little bit harder hitting,” Savannah Arguello, BSBA’19, says. “Knowing what’s actually going on behind bars is something we don’t take a lot of time in our daily lives to consider.”

Through in-class and written discussions, the students shared their thoughts and observations after each visit to the facility. Most students said they were surprised after their first visit. Oftentimes, the incarcerated youth and Creighton students had similar answers to questions in philosophical scenarios.

“Students are breaking down biases or assumptions of what the youth in the prison system might be like because they’re actually engaging with them,” says Dan Walsh, BA’09, senior program administrator in the Office of Academic Service-Learning. “They challenge some of their expectations and emotions about the subject matter and put a real human face on the issue.”

The youth correctional facility can house up to 60 male youths, age 14-21. Most are there for armed robbery convictions, as well as a range of nonviolent crimes. A high percentage are arrested for a new crime within five years of release.

To participate in the philosophy program, the incarcerated youth must be in good standing at the facility. If they attend three sessions, they earn a certificate.

“The real success of this experiment though is why they like to come, because philosophy is weird,” Wendling says. “We’re calling upon them to have an opinion about a philosophical issue. Turns out, everybody likes that … I think a lot of these youth just haven’t experienced anything like that.”

Each thought exercise is edited in Wendling’s class to remove scenarios that may tap into insecurities in a youth’s background. For example, one traditional thought experiment asks one to think about food shortage. For many incarcerated youth, food insecurity has been a significant issue in their lives. So Wendling’s class changed the resource to water.

“It was eye-opening for me. The idea of privilege was really concrete when we got there,” Calderon says. “I didn’t know about all of the privileges I was afforded. I couldn’t mention things like parents in the curriculum, or food insecurity.”

There’s a sort of “hunger” for humanities in the correctional facility, Wendling says. Prior to her class visits, the youth had access to vocational training and high school courses, but there was nothing focused solely on philosophy. It’s much more common for criminal justice or social work classes to visit the facility.

“Creighton students benefit because they’re applying some learning material, but they’re also reflecting on this rich context of being in a prison and interacting,” Walsh says. “So, when they talk about concepts … they have a real, lived experience from which to draw and reflect upon.”

“The youthful offenders benefit because they’re developing pro-social skills that hopefully might assist them in their successful transition back into society.”

For the past two years, Wendling and a few of her students have worked to create a guide for duplicating the course and share their findings.

“Being willing to continue learning about the system,” Arguello says, “to share with other students, other people in our lives, to be better advocates and agents of change is really a satisfying thing.”

What is Academic Service-Learning?

As part of the Creighton Global Initiative initiated by Creighton President the Rev. Daniel S. Hendrickson, SJ, the Office of Academic Service-Learning was founded in 2017 to enhance student learning by connecting community partners to courses at the University.

“It makes us more of a Jesuit institution,” says Tom Kelly, PhD, professor of theology and director of the Office of Academic Service-Learning. “Our concern for the common good isn’t just in words or ideas, but in actual interaction in the community.”

There has been high interest from across campus, with more than 50 courses already receiving academic service-learning designation. Ideally, once a course is designated as academic service-learning, it will repeat for several semesters to continue a working relationship with the community partner and enrich learning.

“What Dr. Wendling found is that the student reflection and discussion were much richer (in the academic service-learning course) than when she taught in the more traditional approach inside the classroom, doing case studies,” says Dan Walsh, BA’09, senior program administrator in the Office of Academic Service-Learning.

Each course is assessed by the office to ensure that its curriculum will match the self-identified goals of the community partner. Every course must also include a reflection component.

Other examples of academic service-learning courses include Arts and Civic Engagement: Empty Bowls, through which students work in partnership with the Siena/Francis House Homeless Shelter; and Discovering Peru, which has students traveling to the South American country to engage with a Catholic health clinic operating in the slums.

“Thinking about our subject matters and seeing how they are lived out … there’s a whole other level of learning that we don’t achieve without it,” Kelly says.