Inmates become students in philosophy class

Mackenzie Mathews

Philosophy professor Audrey Anton is posing the question, “Why are bad people bad?” and next semester inmates from Nashville’s maximum security prison will join her students in answering it.

The prison’s Inside-Out program allows 10 to 20 inmates to join the class and participate as regular students — writing papers, reading and partaking in discussion. The WKU side of the class will drive to the prison every Thursday for the three-hour session.

“We’ll have a more diverse class,” Anton said. “We’ll have students who have experiences they can share and then analyze those experiences.”

Anton said inmates chose the class, titled “Why Are Bad People Bad?” because they would have much to say. She said inmates in the class have shown great remorse.

“They’re here because they’ve gotten better, and they have memories of a hopeless time and a time when they didn’t believe in humanity,” she said. “That’ll give us some perspective I just can’t manufacture.”

In order to have a place in the class, WKU students must contact Anton, schedule an interview and pass a background check. Anton will choose 10 students from the interviews to join the class, but there is no major requirement. The class is included in the Colonnade program and is meant for interdisciplinary study.

“It’s a philosophy course, but it’s not just that,” Ian Robinson, Union junior said. “You also have to take into consideration psychology and criminology, while keeping it all within a philosophical perspective.”

Robinson is currently taking the on-campus course and plans to be Anton’s teaching assistant next semester at the prison. 

The class speculates what makes a person do bad things, which assumes there are bad people. It is a loaded question, Anton said. 

The majority of the time will be spent in discussion amongst the class. The plan is to utilize the course to exhibit effects of social and peer pressure, background and the consequences of not thinking actions through.

“I usually teach classes on how to be good, but I figured if it were that easy to be good, everybody would just do it,” Anton said. “The point of this is to think about what it is that leads us down the wrong path.”

WKU’s relationship with the prison began with sociology professor Kate King’s Inside-Out classes. Because she is retiring this year she asked Anton to take her class to the prison.

The prison wanted the program to continue. It gives the inmates something to think about other than concrete walls, Anton said. For Anton, it gives a viewpoint that she simply cannot provide from a book and in a classroom.

“It’ll bring a new perspective,” Robinson said. “Without taking into account the perspective of someone we might consider a bad person, whether currently or in the past, you won’t get the complete picture of what makes a bad person bad.”

Robinson said students are naturally drawn to this course. He said it is approached from varying angles and outlooks, so it grabs everyone’s attention.

“This is the one philosophy class I feel I don’t have to tell people to take,” he said.

If interested in the course, contact Audrey Anton at [email protected]