Wes theater prof Ron Jenkins wrote an article headlined “Shakespeare’s Words Resonate With ‘Thugs’” in the Hartford Courant about Wesleyan students working with incarcerated teenagers at the Walter G. Cady School at the Connecticut Juvenile Training School. The article is currently being featured on Wesleyan’s homepage.
However, the article is controversial, possibly trivializing the experiences of the CJTS teenagers and Wesleyan students alike, as though this were a mere social experiment or charity event, and ignoring the underlying problems implied by a system where students clearly just as intelligent and capable of analyzing Shakespeare are instead incarcerated and prevented from reaching that potential. Jenkins writes:
The Wesleyan students had learned to see much more of Sam than the narrow sliver the rest of the world might call a “thug.”
To them he was a scholar. They brought him a stack of books as a going-away present. I gave him a copy of “The Tempest” to remind him of the insights he had gleaned in our class.
However, Joss Lake ’08 has another perspective, which provides an important counterpoint to the view represented in the Courant article:
I was shocked and deeply embarrassed by the headline on the Wesleyan homepage that read “Jenkins: Wesleyan Students Share Bard with ‘Thugs’.” Although the term “thug” was taken straight from a teacher’s statement about her students at the Cady School (part of the Connecticut Juvenile Training School), Prof. Jenkins in no way qualified the statement – in fact, his article seemed bemused that “we would be learning as much about Shakespeare from the Cady School students as we would be teaching them.”
The use of the word “thug” and Prof. Jenkins’ framing of the program seems to ignore the systemic racism and classism that underlies the prison system and appears entirely insensitive to the unequal power dynamics between privileged Wesleyan students and students who attend a juvenile training school. His tone within the article expressed a prejudiced surprise that the Cady School students could engage with such an icon of “high” literary culture, Shakespeare. Rather than calling into question elitist assumptions about intelligence, readership or perspective – assumptions that the program should have dealt with before it ever became a Wesleyan-sanctioned course – Prof. Jenkins’ comments seemed to reinforce them. I admire the potential the program might have had as a way of de-centering the university classroom as the site of legitimate knowledge, but as far as I understood the program based on the article, I don’t think the program questioned notions of power and privilege within academia.
The end of the article goes so far as to say that “the Wesleyan students had learned to see much more of Sam than the narrow sliver the rest of the world might call a ‘thug.’ To them he was a scholar.” Yet even this statement expresses sentimental surprise at the apparent incongruity between an incarcerated young adult and a Shakespearean scholar. I think the headline should be removed, of course, and that the foundations of the program itself should be questioned.
Thoughts are welcome.