Prison Philosophy: How A Teacher Freed A Prisoner’s Mind

December 8, 2011

Damon Horowitz’s official title at Google is In-House Philosopher/Director of Engineering. When he’s not occupied at Google, he busies himself teaching philosophy, among other things, at Stanford, the University of Pennsylvania, New York University and San Quentin State Prison. In this video, he relates an experience he had with one of his students at San Quentin.

The student, identified only as “Tony,” is serving a 25-years-to-life sentence for a murder committed during a robbery when he was only 16 years old. On the first day of class, Tony challenged the stranger who stood at the front of the classroom talking about the study of ethics. No one could teach him about “wrong,” Tony asserted. He knew wrong. He had done wrong. He had come to believe that he was, in some inexplicable way, the embodiment of wrong. Then it was Horowitz’s turn. He challenged Tony to tell him what wrong is. Not to give an example of something that is wrong, but to explain what it is that makes a thing wrong.

What followed was the incredible metamorphosis of a felon into something that could no longer be contained by prison walls. Horowitz acted as facilitator for the transformation, challenging his students to learn to question not only what they believe but why they believe it. For Tony, Horowitz was the tour guide to a mode of existence that was entirely different from anything he had ever imagined. As Tony studied the words of some of history’s greatest thinkers, he began to examine his own existence, until, finally, as Horowitz puts it, there was no more prisoner, no more professor, “just two men, ready to do philosophy.”

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