Killers are welcome in my classroom - Macleans.ca
 

Killers are welcome in my classroom

Why even the Oslo bomber deserves an education


 

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Once, I had a killer in my class. Well, to be precise, he was enrolled in one of my distance education courses. And, as I gathered, he didn’t actually kill anyone, but he assisted in a crime where people were killed, and that got him sent to the Kingston Penitentiary where he was preparing for his eventual release by taking university courses.

In a way, I admired that student. He had, of course, made some terrible choices, but he had accepted the consequences and was, slowly, trying to position himself for a future where he could contribute in a positive way. That was over 15 years ago. I hope he’s out now. I hope he’s using his education.

I thought about that student recently, when I learned that a much more terrible criminal, convicted mass murderer and all-around wacko Anders Breivik , was not allowed to enroll in courses at the University of Oslo, despite the fact that prison officials were willing to allow the convicted killer to study in his cell.

I understand the motivations of the university, of course. Anyone can, because they are so basic: he is a terrible person who did unspeakable things and we want nothing to do with him. I get it.

But I still think it was an opportunity lost. Admitting Breivik would have made a controversial but important statement about education.

Allowing this notorious butcher to enroll would have stated unequivocally that education is for everyone. We don’t draw a line regarding who deserves it and who doesn’t. If the very worst among us—and Breivik is certainly one of the worst among us—has a right to education, then we all do.

Further, it would have been a striking statement about the power of education. It can improve us. Even a cursory knowledge of the man and his crimes show that Breivik was caught up in a web of fallacy, dogma, and misinformation. It’s a lofty dream, I admit, but imagine if by studying philosophy, history, or literature, Breivik might come to question even a few of his atrocious beliefs. Imagine if a course in political science, for instance, led him to wonder if Europe really was under the heel of Marxist tyrants. Perhaps instructors who insisted on rigorous evidence and original thought might show Breivik that his hatred for multiculturism is irrational.

But then maybe not. People can be incredibly tenacious in their beliefs even when they are refuted with evidence and logic.

Still, the whole purpose of higher education is to break through prejudices and preconceptions, to present the opportunity for students to reassess their opinions and open their hearts.

And to whom should we offer this chance?

Anyone who asks for it.

Todd Pettigrew is an associate professor of English at Cape Breton University.


 

Killers are welcome in my classroom

  1. I agree that education should be available for anyone. At first it seems outrages to do so. It is such a gift. But not one we can deny anyone.

  2. I completely agree. No matter who you are or what you’ve done, you have a right to education. Education can only make us better, not worse. If we take on the Socratic perspective and believe that when people commit wrong actions, it is only because they do not know any better, then education would, of course, provide the perfect solution. Besides, we don’t want to just lock up prisoners; we want to “fix” them and show them what they have done wrong so that they can become useful members in society again.

    If a prisoner such as Breivik wants to make himself a “better” person by taking university courses, why are we stopping him? Shouldn’t we do what we can to help him?

  3. Is there a point to wasting resources on someone who will never get out of prison, or, if released, is very unlikely to be a model citizen? The comparison would be to someone on life support who is brain dead receiving massage therapy.
    The only compassionate course of action is to allow religious practitioners to attempt to work their magic on the condemned, since all sins will be forgiven through Christ (in Christian theology, but they can listen to anyone they wish).
    But to “re-educate” or release to do harm again? Forget it.

  4. Perhaps they didn’t want to accept him for fear that he’d murder the prof if he got a bad mark :P

  5. I object to it being free for prisoners. My kids had to pay. Too bad it didn’t occur to them to rape or murder, or drive the getaway car.