The Good Life and the Good Society: a reflection on Learning Together in prison

By | 2019-03-27T14:38:19+00:00 December 21st, 2017|0 Comments

One of our Learning Together courses, which is now in its second year explores ethical, philosophical and theological perspectives on ‘The Good Life and the Good Society’. In this post, which has also been published in the journal ‘Crucible’ (, Dr Beth Phillips (one of the course conveners) and Angus Reid (one of the course’s small group facilitators), reflect upon their experiences of last year’s course.


The formal study of ethics, philosophy and theology can be a force for good when students are encouraged to value each other as fellow stakeholders in building communities of learning whose members are united in the search for what constitutes the human good. The potential of this approach actually to effect the good itself shines out with particular clarity when such communities are comprised of those whom one would not normally encounter, but are more likely to stereotype or dismiss. The tangible fruit of such collaboration, namely, the formation of distinct communities pursuing the weal of each member for the greater good of all, can, moreover, act as a signpost to best practice in institutions such as universities and prisons that are charged with the formation of good citizens.

These admittedly bold claims were borne out to a profound degree by the experiences of students, lecturers, and educators drawn from different departments of the University of Cambridge, the Cambridge Theological Federation, and HMP Whitemoor, a category A, high security all-male prison in Cambridgeshire. Students were selected by application form and interview. They came together for workshops held on a weekly basis at HMP Whitemoor during Lent term in 2017. The objective was to learn about and enact something of the truth of ‘the good life and the good society.’ The course was run under the auspices of Learning Together, a joint partnership between HMP Whitemoor and the University of Cambridge. It followed earlier precedents of Learning Together partnerships run at other prisons. The present course was novel in two respects. It was the first to focus on ethics, philosophy and theology. And, none of its predecessors at Cambridge had taken place in a high security prison.

The course’s content and the guest lecturers offered distinct, interlocking perspectives on the central theme of the good life and the good society. The aim was to provide substantive knowledge and understanding of issues related to the central theme, grounded in concrete examples and case studies. Six topics were chosen for six workshops. Thus, students explored the notion of personhood and what it means to be recognized and misrecognized with Professor Alison Liebling. The Right Revd Dr Rowan Williams raised questions about the nature of empathy and how institutions such as prisons and universities relate to the importance of trust, and what it means to be a citizen. With the Revd Dr Carolyn Hammond, students examined texts by St. Augustine of Hippo to consider how we see ourselves differently when we are alone compared to when we are in groups, and how this difference impacts our actions and reflections on the nature of good and evil. Dr Paul Anderson encouraged participants to consider the role of civility and how quite ordinary acts of politeness or rudeness can bind or erode our sense of living as members of a shared community. Dr Tim Winter talked about freedom of speech and its limitations – how to balance the necessity of expressing ourselves as something essential to our freedom with the responsibility to not harm others. Finally, the workshop with Dr Ankur Barua considered conflict in society and asked students to reflect critically on whether Mahatma Gandhi’s teaching of non-violence is transformative or impractical. These topics and the accompanying readings, in the form of two articles per topic, provided the focal point for each workshop and the source material for the assessed tasks which consisted of group participation, group projects, and individually written essays.

The structure of the workshops was patterned on the university model of a lecture followed by directed discussion in small study groups of five to six students. These groups were comprised of the same students each week; some from Whitemoor and some from Cambridge. Each group had an academic facilitator, typically a postgraduate student, who supported learning through discussion. In addition to the six substantive workshops mentioned above, there was an initial orientation session in which participants reached consensus on their expectations of the course and each other, and established some ground rules. Issues around security, safety, and maintaining good relationships with the prison staff were also examined. A feedback session, held halfway through the course, allowed for adjustments to be made to the course structure that reflected students wishes. A creative writing workshop led by a poet/creative writer aimed to encourage self-expression, especially amongst the uncertain and timid in both groups of students, and demystify some of the conventions behind writing academic essays. The penultimate session was dedicated to group projects in which students availed themselves of their poetic, acting, musical and other creative skills to broach issues related to the notion of the good society. Finally, the course culminated in a graduation ceremony and celebration at the prison to which friends and family were invited to witness students receive certificates from the vice-chancellor of the University of Cambridge.

The success of the course rested, in our minds, on the interplay of many factors. Amongst them we can emphasise, in particular, the hard work, enthusiasm, willingness and cooperation between institutions and specific people in them; the delivery of an academically rigorous and compelling content focused on a central theme which resonated deeply with students; and, the way this content was embodied in the method of teaching and learning, not least in encouraging students to develop relationships of trust, mutual accountability and respect. An important factor regarding the last point was that students met for the first time, in the prison, simply as fellow students and with no knowledge of each other’s personal history. Questions of what lay in people’s pasts, or what their agendas might be in doing the course were left to be worked out between them during the group discussion and breaks over coffee.

Indeed, as this may suggest, in its method of teaching and learning, the course remained faithful not just to its goal of delivering a specific content, but also its additional goals of enabling participants to be co-creators of a model of learning that awakens the capacity of each student for critical engagement with knowledge and academic research; of fostering open and thoughtful dialogue between students in order to grow and liberate self-reflective capacities and socially transformative perspectives; and, of all concerned creating together a learning environment that is simultaneously comfortable, challenging and capacitating, and which lays the groundwork for future educational and vocational engagement.

Without a doubt one of the most disturbing aspects of the course was also one of the sources of its power and vitality, namely, the way it managed to bring together into a fruitful encounter two different worlds, institutions, and groups of people – incarcerated men and University of Cambridge students (and lecturers) – both of which harboured various stereotypes and fears of the other. These intersected in potent ways with several other differences and commonalities; for example, the prison-based students were all male, the majority of the university students female. Or, to take another example, the majority of Whitemoor students professed religious belief, either Muslim or Christian; whereas Cambridge students were either from various Christian denominations or agnostic. And yet, both groups valued the opportunity to speak openly and without fear about their religious convictions or lack thereof. For the Cambridge students, moreover, the physical process of going through high level security checks and being divested of everything but a pen, paper and their own selves, dressed strictly in accordance with prison regulations, was a profound and unsettling weekly prelude to thinking about ethics. Equally disturbing and exhausting was the ease at which they could leave the prison which was in stark contrast to their fellow students in the prison. The benefit gained from previous experience on Learning Together projects was particularly in evidence in the way systems and protocols were in place to manage carefully and frankly the significance of these circumstantial factors that were, in fact, utterly determinative of the learning experience.

In our own personal reflections on our experiences of the course as, on the one hand, a course convener, and, on the other hand, a group facilitator, we were each differently struck by how the content and form of the course worked together synergistically. This synergy was not simply the case of rolling out a one-size-fits-all model, but rather the fruit of how content and form were creatively appropriated and woven together by the course participants themselves. This added life to the course and yielded a developing community of learners who glimpsed something true about themselves and each other: that human beings are fundamentally ethical in their orientation to and delighting in the good, and united in their desire to become better persons and build a good life and society. Rooted in a common human purpose, this organic community nonetheless had its own distinctive character which affirmed the different experiences, personalities, talents, fears, and aspirations of its participants, and the relationships they had formed.

In this way, in the very form of its working and outcomes the course witnessed to certain key principles of social justice. This concerned not just the clear priority the Learning Together team and its collaborators ascribed to safeguarding the dignity of the human person within the context of large institutions, but also to the related principles of solidarity and subsidiarity.

Thus, with regard to solidarity, for one of us, as one half of the two person Learning Together team of conveners, the way the course brought together two disparate groups of students from very different backgrounds had strong parallels to the Liberation Theology of Latin America. This has been a source of inspiration for my work as an academic theologian. Liberation Theology rests on the conviction that God is found most truly in solidarity with those at the margins and cooperation in their own realisation of their freedom. Indeed, as I was to discover, these tenets of Liberation Theology are closely related to a key inspiration for the Learning Together co-founders, namely, Paulo Friere who has written about how people at the margins of society should be taken seriously not only as learners but as co-creators of knowledge. At the planning stage, moreover, the potential for a course in ethics, philosophy and theology to act as a conduit for building solidarity between prisoners and university students was especially apparent in light of my fellow convener’s, Dr Ryan Williams, experience in conducting previous research in prison. Over and again he had encountered the theological and moral depth of the reflections already present in the thoughts and lives of people inside the prison system.

The significance of solidarity between learners to this course, moreover, has given me much food for thought in my role in training ordinands who are preparing for lives of ministry in the Church of England. Training for ministry has rightly emphasised the necessity of the convergence study, reflection and practice, but would benefit also from a greater focus on solidarity along the lines of Learning Together and Liberation Theology. Indeed, this also sheds a critical light on how ethics is most often taught as a lecture topic in a university classroom. There can be something inherently frustrating about this approach if you believe that ethics has everything to do with the everyday ways in which we live our lives with one another. Interestingly, this judgement echoes the sentiment of several of the Cambridge students who said how much the Learning Together course was more like what they had originally expected of their university courses. Indeed, the course and its participants challenged any notion that the study of ethics, philosophy and theology, and asking profound questions about what is ultimately good and true, are endeavours best pursued by reading in isolation and listening to an elite few.

For the other one of us, as a group facilitator, alongside solidarity, the notion of subsidiarity was particularly in evidence in the dynamics of the discussion groups. This relates to the idea that certain things essential to the human good are best done at a certain scale and that important decisions are best taken by those most directly affected by their outcomes. Thus, the content of the course was served by being done at a certain group-sized scale in a way that fostered personal encounter and growth; shared participation, and mutual accountability and transformation. Rowan Williams in the question and answer session to his lecture on empathy summed it up well. He spoke of the importance of keeping things to a human-size and shape; of making sure that large institutions like prisons and universities serve human beings rather than the other way around. The course unveiled to us as participants how what seems an almost insurmountable task, namely, enacting the good life and good society, can be broken down to human-size, and that barriers between people that seem too big can be apportioned into honest human-sizes which can be tackled by real people meeting together. Thus, the university and the prison were themselves broken down and opened up into small groups of people who met face-to-face with time to listen; freedom to talk openly; space to breathe, grow, laugh, and even cry. Such downsizing allow each person to contribute to putting the pieces together into a new, living jigsaw that was based on recognisably human-shaped interactions undertaken by people who risk trusting each other.

My small group was certainly a good human-size and shape: men and women; of different faiths; younger and older; some of us parents; and all of us somebody’s child. We were six people gathering each week to be better together, finding confidence and joy in each other; and encouraging each other learn in a way that was frank and fearless about celebrating the good of our common humanity, especially in the face of fear and misconception. This was repeated for the other groups in the course to similar effect. What is more, in a further example of the principle of subsidiarity in action, not only did groups support their members in this way, but each individual student had recourse to other support structures within the course and the wider institutions which provided a constant dialogue of feedback and accountability across all levels. This facility was particularly useful in helping to navigate the early imbalances in the group conversations. It took time for students to learn how to listen and speak responsibly. Whitemoor students were often too dominant in the beginning, and Cambridge students too reticent to contribute or challenge. Yet, by being able to raise this issue within the course’s structures of accountability and co-creativity, this difficulty became yet another opportunity for participants to tackle a pressing issue together.

It is our shared conviction that in promoting these principles, the course’s content and form, and, most of all its participants, worked together to allow the specific goods associated with learning itself to be set free and thrive in the students’ experience of themselves and each other – goods such as the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake; the joy of becoming a more fulfilled and confident person; and friendships founded on sharing these very things with each other and beyond. This reinforced our belief that, once allowed space to take shape in and guide the interactions between people who are freely and responsibly getting to know each other, sharing these goods of the intellectual life can work towards the positive transformation of individuals and wider society. Such change happened on this course not least because students, lecturers, conveners, and others discovered, or perhaps better, rediscovered, a shared human identity and sense of purpose. They recognised themselves as fellow contributors to the common good of human existence. They discovered a sense of joint stewardship over the conviction that society is poorer without the contribution of those voices that are all too often excluded. A society that would then miss the depth of resonance regarding the true and the good that only these silenced voices can sound out in others. For those serving long custodial sentences and for university students on the threshold of determining what they should dedicate their lives to, this course was a cause of hope in their desire for a good life and good society.

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