22 March, 2019

The SLU Speaker Series Asks, "What Is Knowledge?"

It's not every day that a prisoner in a maximum-security institution gets to sit in on a philosophical talk with speakers from Ivy League schools. My experience yesterday afternoon, auditing a discussion by five philosophy professors and two students of the SLU Associate of Arts Program here at ERDCC, therefore constituted a real event.

"What is knowledge?" was the theme of this month's SLU Speaker Series event, and this question, posted on the prison's information channel, definitely caught my eye. I'm a knowledge buff, always questioning, always acknowledging the limits of my knowledge — I'm one rung, perhaps, above an armchair philosopher. This seemed right up my alley. Even Hopper, my cellmate, said so when encouraging me to attend.

Available seating, the TV said, was limited to forty. I didn't know if there was much chance of me getting in, especially submitting my attendance request a day and a half late, as I did. Surely (surely?) applicants would be beating down the door. The memo from the Institutional Activities Coordinator, confirming that I was on the list of attendees for 21 March, was as unexpected as it was delightful. Receiving that sheet of paper made my night.

Enrichment opportunities like this simply didn't exist at Crossroads. There, education and personal improvement weren't even afterthoughts. The expectation was that you sit in your cell, maybe go out to recreation for a handful of hours a week, and otherwise be quiet and while away your time. There were limited programs, and even fewer opportunities to enliven your mind. This is just another way in which ERDCC gets things right: the option, for those willing to take it, for the cultivation of thought and growth as a person.

How'd it go? Well, shortly after lunch, I walked around the corner of my housing unit, to the visiting room. The strip-search I endure for a visit wasn't involved; this was run like any other program, where each attendee just came in, showed his ID, and took a seat. Mere minutes later, the moderator, Professor Chad Flanders, of the Saint Louis University School of Law, introduced himself and the panelists: Professors Ekow Yankah, of Cardozo Law School; Tommie Shelby, of Harvard University; Erin Kelly, of Tufts University; and Eric Miller, of Loyola Marymount University.

The panel opened with a summary of what knowledge is and isn't, distinguishing it from wisdom or belief, then branching off into Plato's allegory of the cave, the value and purpose of knowledge, whether it's possible to attain true knowledge, what knowledge can and can't do for us — you know, stuff easily covered in two hours of a Thursday afternoon. I even got to pose the day's last question: Is the attainment of knowledge possible for everyone, irrespective of what kind of existence they're living? It was great.

The signup sheet for next month's event is already out. The editor of the poetry journal Asymptote will be here, speaking about the art of translation in poetry. Of course my signature's on that list. I can hardly wait.

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Byron does not have Internet access. Pariahblog.com posts are sent from his cell by way of a secure service especially for prisoners' use. We do read him your comments, however, and he enjoys hearing your thoughts very much.