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The CPI in Context

The CPI illustrates one university’s effort to embody an ancient vision for higher education within a particular historical theological tradition, with an eye to being as hilly relevant to contemporary social challenges as possible. Mass incarceration, harsh mandatory sentences, and a prison system designed for maximum profit and minimal social benefit has been likened to a new Jim Crow era (Alexander, 2010). Thus, educating incarcerated individuals in a broad, Christian, liberal arts tradition may be one of the most important new opportunities for focused citizenship education in twenty-first century America.

The CPI stands as a relevant opportunity to translate the traditional goals of higher education into a contemporary social crisis—mass incarceration. In undertaking this initiative, Calvin has embarked on an experiment in higher learning that expands the conversation beyond the dualities of virtual or place-based learning, and beyond questions of skills versus character and job-readiness versus learning for learning’s sake. Establishing an academic program inside prison walls requires a vision for the purpose of learning that embraces these tensions and expands them. It changes the question regarding the insularity of a college campus, and the responsibilities of those who have education, and the identities of those receiving and those providing useful “service.” Calvin’s CPI students have begun to teach each other, their Calvin professors, and the growing chorus of committed volunteers whose lives and careers have been changed by what they have witnessed and experienced inside this unusual campus environment.

A brief illustration involving the CPI will highlight the context of this journey. In May 2019, an unusual occurrence took place at the spring commencement exercises on Calvin’s main campus, known as Knollcrest. One of the students in the CPI, set to graduate with his Associate’s Degree, was unexpectedly paroled just weeks before commencement. Unable to receive his diploma with his classmates inside the prison at the scheduled ceremony two days after the Knollcrest commencement, he would now be recognized at the festivities on the Knollcrest campus, with over 5000 family members, friends, faculty, and fellow students in the same room. As it happened, he was the only graduate receiving an Associate’s Degree in person, and thus when his turn came to stand and have his degree formally recognized, he stood alone in front of an entire arena filled with people wiping tears from their eyes and thundering in a loud applause at the sight. What this dramatic event revealed to so many who were present was an alternative vision of higher education, of justice, and of community engagement.

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