Learning Together at HMP Whitemoor
Congratulations to students completing ‘The Good Life and the Good Society’!
On April 26 we celebrated the achievements of our students who took part in a course on ‘The Good Life and the Good Society’. The course, co-convened by Dr Elizabeth Phillips (Westcott House and Faculty of Divinity) and Dr Ryan Williams (Centre of Islamic Studies) , brought together students from the University of Cambridge who were studying primarily Theology and Religious Studies, including three Westcott ordinands, to learn alongside resident students at HMP Whitemoor. The course was part of Learning Together, developed and directed by Dr Ruth Armstrong and Dr Amy Ludlow, and it was the first time the initiative ran a course on Theology and Religious Studies.
Students were brought together as learners to share in the common experience of wrestling with the big questions in life. The course encouraged students to reflect on the ‘good’ in everyday life, and to sharpen their understanding of the good in their own lives and in the common life of societies.
But reflecting on the ‘good’ in one’s own life and in society proved profoundly challenging when done alongside and in conversation with people with different backgrounds and experiences. One student remarked on these challenges in his final essay: ‘civility is the hard work of staying present even with those we share deep rooted differences and fierce disagreement’.
Learning through shared encounters involved breaking down assumptions about students in Whitemoor and students in Cambridge. The course encouraged students to reflect on what the course materials – the readings, lectures and core concepts – meant in light of our points of agreement and disagreement, similarities and differences, and diverse backgrounds and life experiences. Over 10 weeks, students grew in confidence in their academic abilities and in their capacity to interact with people different than themselves as they felt their own opinions mattered and were valued.
During the end of course celebration students shared how they learned that the ‘good for me’ must also be the ‘good for you’. Drawing on the lecture by Dr Rowan Williams, course facilitator and Westcott ordinand Angus Reid reflected on the possibilities embodied in the shared learning space when religious, social and political differences are thought of on a human-shaped scale.
Rather than thinking about concepts around personhood, ethics, empathy, civility, freedom and non-violence abstractly, students were given the opportunity to learn from practical engagement with people who embodied different perspectives and through examples grounded in concrete reality. This offered a fundamentally different kind of learning experience than Theology and Religious Studies students are usually afforded within University settings. It also provided profoundly different opportunities for learners resident in Whitemoor prison who ‘never would have had the opportunity’ to learn from Cambridge lecturers and meet students from Cambridge.
On April 26 our 25 students, 5 facilitators, their invited family and friends, prison staff, lecturers and the University’s Vice-Chancellor, Prof. Sir Leszek Borysiewicz – totalling around 130 people – came together in a special opportunity to celebrate and re-imagine what education can embody when practiced beyond institutional walls. On a ‘human-shaped scale’, it embodied a small but significant opportunity to celebrate individual academic achievements and the achievement of the group and an ever widening network of people who caught a glimpse of what is possible when people come together to reflect on, and re-imagine for themselves and others, what the good life and the good society means together.
This project has been led through the collaborative efforts of Dr Elizabeth Phillips (Westcott House and the Faculty of Divinity) and Dr Ryan Williams (Centre of Islamic Studies), and brought about through the inspiring initiative Learning Together developed and directed by Dr Ruth Armstrong and Dr Amy Ludlow. The course featured guest lecturers from across the University who generously dedicated their time, including Prof. Alison Liebling (Institute of Criminology), Dr Rowan Williams (Faculty of Divinity), Revd Dr Carolyn Hammond (Gonville & Caius College), Dr Paul Anderson (Faculty of Asian and Middle Eastern Studies), Dr Tim Winter (Faculty of Divinity), Dr Ankur Barua (Faculty of Divinity). The course has been kindly supported through an anonymous donor and the Centre of Islamic Studies. Learning Together was initially developed with support from the University’s Teaching and Learning Innovation Fund and is directed by Ruth Armstrong and Amy Ludlow. (Photo Credits: Ruth Armstrong. Cambridge Students and Facilitators on the bus to the first session of ‘The Good Life and the Good Society’ in HMP Whitemoor.)