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November-December 2011

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What Can College Mean? Lessons from the Bard Prison Initiative

Recently, I drove with a colleague to a maximum-security correctional facility run by New York State in a small town in the Catskill Mountains. It is one of the five sites where the Bard Prison Initiative (BPI) operates a full liberal arts program leading to both AA and BA degrees. My colleague and I both go in and out of this prison regularly to teach classes and advise students.

This time, we were going to meet with 16 men who are about to enter the final stage of their bachelor's degree programs: the writing of their senior theses. Our purpose was to make sure the students understood the process of moving from a general topic to a more refined set of questions; the ways one builds a bibliography from both contextual materials and primary and secondary sources; and the importance of developing successive drafts, each more refined in argument, logic, and language than the last. Every student will have an advisor with whom he or she will work closely, but this was a general introductory meeting to get things launched.

Ellen Condliffe Lagemann ( is Levy Institute Research Professor at Bard College and a senior fellow in the Bard Prison Initiative. She previously served as dean of the Harvard Graduate School of Education and as president of the Spencer Foundation; she also taught for many years at Harvard, NYU, and Columbia. With Harry Lewis, Lagemann is the editor of What is College For? The Public Purpose of Higher Education, published by the Teachers College Press.

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