Wittenberg Freshman Hit the Slammer: The Art of Living Ethically Engages Students

Erika Meyers and Amanda Wampler

A typical conversation between two Wittenberg students:
“Where are you headed?”
“I have philosophy up in Hollenbeck in 20. How about you?”
“Oh, I am off to prison.”

It sounds absurd of course, but derivatives of this conversation happen to 15 Wittenberg Freshman once a week. The Art of Living Ethically WittSem takes place inside the walls of the London Correctional Institution. It is called an “inside out” course, and is not the first of its kind. Professor of Philosophy, Nancy McHugh, who teaches the course, has been a part of other inside out courses and was specially trained in conducting this class. The class is most definitely a unique experience, and those who have taken it in the past say that it is life changing. About halfway through the semester, most, if not all, of our classmates would agree with this statement.

To start to explain what this class is, it may be most important to first explain what it is not. We are not studying the prisoners. We are not there to examine how they live or how they think. We don’t care how they got there, how long they have been there, or when they are getting out. We are not there to preach any superior moral stature. Plain and simple, they are our classmates: 15 outside students (Wittenberg students) and 13 inside students (inmates).

The inmates are taking the class just like us. They read the books, write the papers, and participate in the discussion. It is a difficult thing to grasp, but after just one class we began to not even notice the different demographics of our classmates.
Everyone, from parents to roommates, questioned the reasons for holding a class at a prison. We heard everything from “Be careful in class today!” to “I could never go to class in a prison. You’re so brave!” The worries of our friends and family echoed through our minds as we walked through the heavy clanging doors that first day.

As we approached our classroom, we noticed the eyes of prisoners watching the “outside” members of our class. The slight discomfort we felt as we climbed the stairs turned into the initial awkwardness of entering any classroom for the first time. They didn’t know us and we didn’t know them. As if to diffuse that tension, the room was set up to encourage conversation- two circles of chairs faced each other, pairing one outside student with one inside student. We beheld each other with polite curiosity as Dr. McHugh posed the first discussion question.

The words had barely left her lips before the room was roaring with conversation. We were so loud that everyone in the hall turned their heads towards our classroom. In spite of the heat, we had to shut the door to contain the volume of our voices. Discussion questions such as “What one thing makes you think the most?” and “If you could have a super power, what would it be?” helped us realize that we had more in common with all of our classmates than we previously thought.

The inside classmates are beyond nice. They truly love speaking with us, and after 4 visits to prison, we can confidently say that we are as safe here as we are walking down any American street-possibly safer.

The Art of Living Ethically is a unique course for sure; so, what exactly does a day to day prison class look like? Well, after a 25 min drive in the oh-so-classy Wittenberg vans, we go through security. The security feels very much like the airport: belts off and IDs checked. Then we go through a series of gates and walk to a classroom that looks like any ordinary class room. We sit in a giant circle, every other chair alternating inside and outside students. We turn in any pending assignments, and then we discuss readings. The readings bring out discussion on profound topics such as the true purpose of education and what it means to have integrity.

At a liberal arts school like Wittenberg, students have the ability to take a plethora of classes ranging in a multitude of subjects. Despite this, The Art of Living Ethically is by far the most unique class on campus. Besides being an academic examination morality and ethics, it changes how we see others, and, more importantly, how we see ourselves.

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