Speaker: Lee Perlman

Love and Philosophy Between Prison Walls and Ivory Towers

“In 1987, while teaching a class at MIT [the Massachusetts Institute of Technology] on nonviolence, philosophy lecturer Lee Perlman had a novel idea: Why not take the students to a prison, to talk with men who had committed extreme forms of violence?  Needless to say,” an MIT publication reported, “the experience was an eye-opener for students — a powerful way to help them understand, at a visceral level, the nature of violence. And it also sparked Perlman’s lifelong professional and personal interest in the prison system.”

Now, 30 years later, through the MIT Prison Initiative that he founded, Perlman teaches classes to a mixed cohort of both MIT students and prisoners at two medium- to maximum-security Massachusetts Correctional Institutions in Norfolk and Framingham.  Teaching philosophy courses at the prisons – including “Self and Soul,” “The Philosophy of Love” and “Nonviolence as a Way of Life” – Perlman and many MIT students travel each week by van to Norfolk or Framingham to engage in discussion and study with imprisoned fellow students, many of whom are incarcerated for life.

For the MIT students, Perlman’s courses help them to see the similarities between the two cohorts – prisoners and MIT students – separated in part by an “accident of birth.”  According to one MIT senior, “The reality that I’ve come to believe is that these guys really are the same as me. …You realize that the things you do are not necessarily indicative of your moral character as much as you’d like to believe, but of the situation and what you’ve been taught.”  The experience has also offered the MIT students rich perspectives beyond the university tower:  according to one student of the nonviolence course, “To hear an MIT student’s perspective is interesting, but to hear a gang leader’s opinion on nonviolence is something else. … [Notwithstanding the many hours required for travel and processing in the prison, this has] been profound and educational in more ways than simply discussing the readings of Gandhi on campus.”

The prisoners, in turn, appreciate the opportunity to interact with MIT students. As one of them noted, working with his MIT classmates motivates him to bring his “’A game’ to class.”  The incarcerated students also view the classes as a window on the “outside.” One commented, “The outside students tend to bring an entirely different perspective to discussion than we would normally receive, because we are essentially from very different worlds.” Another noted that the combined class simply enhanced his learning by “making me feel a sense of normalcy.”

For Dr. Perlman, expanding his teaching into the prison system was deeply personal. “Teaching philosophy is what I have to offer to the world, and offering it in prison was offering it to people who don’t get this opportunity,” he says. “I find it a really remarkable experience to see people grow intellectually, people who never thought about their lives this way at all, who never thought about thinking as an activity that you do for its own sake in your life.”

The intersection of philosophy with politics and policy has been a mainstay of Perlman’s career. After studying philosophy as an undergraduate at St. John’s College (Annapolis), the famed “great books” school, he pursued graduate work in philosophy at the Catholic University of America. He completed an M.A. in political philosophy at Georgetown University.  Before earning his Ph.D. in political philosophy at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Dr. Perlman spent eight years working in the political arena as a public interest lobbyist and political organizer, including serving as the executive director of Common Cause in Maryland.  In 1978 Baltimore Magazine named him ‘the most feared lobbyist in Maryland’.

In 1984 Perlman joined the teaching staff of the Experimental Study Group, MIT’s first freshman learning community, where he has taught for most of the last 33 years. Founded in 1969, ESG offers a tight-knit intellectual community that fosters innovation and creativity in the educational process. Courses in philosophy and other humanities subjects strengthen this sense of community by encouraging conversation and personal sharing in class. “ESG is a wonderful place to teach philosophy,” Perlman says, “because the program attracts intellectually curious students who enjoy learning for learning’s sake.”

Dr. Perlman has taught at Harvard University, Brown University, Swarthmore College, Phillips Academy (Andover), and, for the past 20 years, at MIT.  He considers himself to be primarily an educator, and prides himself on designing and teaching a number of courses at MIT which offer students an integrated view of the humanities and sciences in the western tradition.  He has twice been awarded the Irwin Sizer Award for Most Significant Improvement to MIT Education (1997, 2015). Lee is also a composer and musician, and the Music Director of the Deborah Abel Dance Company, which has toured in the US and India.

In addition to founding the MIT Prison Initiative, Dr. Perlman has helped organized powerful debates between the Norfolk Correctional debate team and the MIT debate team on topics such as pharmaceutical company liability for the opioid crisis, as well as face-to-face extracurricular conversations between inmates and MIT students.  Some of his MIT students have been moved to engage in public policy advocacy for correctional inmates in the face of regulatory changes.

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