I understand the value of education because I received an elite education. By an elite education, I mean a liberal arts education. I call it elite because the liberal arts have traditionally been reserved for the wealthy who possess the time and money to engage in four or five years of non-specialized study. I shared in this privilege because my education was paid in full, and I was able to spend my college years without the burdens of working a job or accumulating any student debt. This is, no doubt, a privileged position to hold in American society.

My encounter with this elite education happened in prison, sure. And while prison is not a place one would normally associate with elite status, the social experiment of BPI is just that: duplicating an elite experience for not-so-elite populations to show the inherent value of a liberal arts education.

Now make no mistake, life in prison does not stop when a person enters BPI. There are still prison guards, rules, bars, and walls to deal with. When the prison guards set up a security checkpoint, it doesn’t exclude Bard students. I still had to strip naked after every single trip to the visiting room, after I graduated with my AA, my BA, and even after I defeated West Point in a debate. None of it was easy.

And yet, something important was able to happen in that space: the experience of being able to engage intensely with course work without the burdens of real life placed us in a similar sort of bubble that college campuses have traditionally formed for privileged students. As such, I realize that I share this educational experience with very few people in the world, even people who attended respectable schools. And perhaps that’s why the passion I have developed for education is not widely held.

A friend of mine who attended a state college in California told me that college should “skip the whole community, campus interaction thing and get right to job training. People have degrees in philosophy, $250,000 in debt and can’t get a job.” His argument was to make college short and precise, which is something that many people agree with—spend less time worrying about free thinking, community involvement and extracurricular activities and give students the skills they need to get to work.

I couldn’t disagree more. I know that is a very privileged position to be able to take, but I also know how much more complex my thinking became when I engaged critically with the coursework at BPI. I revised my own thinking and ingrained biases, even the previously subconscious ones. I discovered a world and a history that I belonged to and began to better understand my place in it. I became a thinker and a community member, two things I had not been so good at. I feel deeply that my education made me more than an efficient worker—it gave me the tools to be a better neighbor, a better friend, a better human being and, yes, as a side effect, more employable.

I am a rule

I want to live in a place where people are connected to their history; where they think about the effects of their actions and work to improve the places they live. It is a utopian goal, but only because society is structured in a way that limits access to the type of privileged education I received. Had I been bogged down with debt, working to pay off loans, or engaging with all of the other problems of life, the value of my education may have remained elusive.

New York may be onto something by providing free tuition at City Universities. But doing so only solves one of the many problems that exist in the system of higher education. It says nothing to the lack of academic communities, academic supports, quality teachers and intriguing curricula.

More must be done. And the question is really one of purpose. What is education for, and what kinds of people or citizens are we trying to produce? If we genuinely want thoughtful people in our society, ones who can make educated decisions for themselves and their communities, then the answer to what education must look like is clear.

I am proof of the transformative power of a quality education, and I am not an exception. I’m a rule—a rule that has been hoarded by the privileged few for far too long.

This story is part of a collection called Education Against the Odds, about education happening in unexpected settings… with incredible results. Read more here. Also in this collection: scholar Ellen Condliffe Lagemann’s piece on the evidence behind the Bard Prison Initiative.