Criminal justice education needs to change, and the humanities must play a role (opinion)
Watching the attacks on our Capitol on Jan. 6 and the stark contrast between the treatment of white seditionists that week and Black people protesting last summer, every honest observer can see that the current approach to training and education in criminal justice needs to change. If we hope to succeed in transforming the conduct of public safety professionals, the humanities must play a vital role.
Disciplines like English, history and philosophy give us the analytical tools and historical awareness to question and reflect on ourselves as well as the culture and society by which we are all partially formed. The humanities perform a democratizing function by giving us access to a wide range of lived experiences and creating a common intellectual experience that fosters an enlarged sense of human community. For future law enforcement officers, engagement with the humanities is essential preparation for working together with people whose view of the world might be different than their own.
This work has begun through a Teagle Foundation-funded project at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, Transforming the John Jay Justice Core: A Humanistic Approach. The project places the humanities and criminal justice in dialogue with one another by infusing the facts of our legal system with the historical, interpretive and analytical methods that are the hallmarks of humanistic inquiry. It will ensure that future law enforcement officers educated at John Jay engage with challenging and inspiring works that raise questions students would otherwise probably not encounter through traditional criminal justice education. Traditionally, criminal justice education focuses more on the facts about our criminal justice system rather than on questioning the current state of affairs, which all too often includes systemic bias and inequity.
John Jay’s revised curriculum will cover topics such as racial justice, immigration, education and the urban experience. Students will explore the nuances of policing and protecting — and who in our society is policed and who is protected. They will grapple with big questions of justice, such as: When do an individual’s rights matter more than a group’s rights? What is the role of police in a democratic society? What is the difference between law and justice?
The role of police in maintaining public safety has broadened over the years, well beyond law enforcement, to include responding to incidents involving drug addiction, mental health crises and domestic violence. But as that role has changed, education and training have not kept pace. Too few future police officers are prepared to respond to such new challenges thoughtfully, safely and effectively. But through teaching the humanities, we can teach the habits of mind future officers will need to question, evaluate and appropriately respond to information in the field, as well as how to recognize multiple perspectives with insight and empathy.
Students in the CUNY Justice Academy — a partnership between John Jay and all seven City University of New York community colleges — will be introduced to this humanities content through six new interdisciplinary 300-level general education requirements. One of these six courses will be required to graduate, and students may elect to take more than one. Faculty members from humanities and criminal justice will develop the content collaboratively. Including this coursework as part of John Jay’s general education requirements will broaden students’ understanding of the world and themselves, while strengthening the skills to read critically, write clearly, speak with confidence and contend with differing viewpoints and perspectives.
John Jay students aspiring to careers in law enforcement will encounter visions of the good society, including those of classical Greek as well as contemporary Black authors. They will read literary explorations of individual choice under extreme circumstances like Sophocles’ Antigone and Toni Morrison’s Beloved, along with accounts of the struggle for civil rights from Socrates to Martin Luther King Jr. Our objective is to develop in our students empathy, a sense of complexity and the skills and habits necessary for fair and objective weighing of evidence — habits critical to the future not just of our criminal justice system but also of our pluralistic democratic society. A compilation of readings from such justice-focused courses will live online, fully accessible and free for all CUNY students as a Justice eReader.
This kind of curriculum will help prepare future law enforcement professionals for the complex sociocultural issues and enduring human challenges they will encounter in their work. Our goal is to advance a genuinely community-oriented approach to policing — to educate future law enforcement officers who can better navigate the complicated racial and economic issues that give rise to mistrust between communities. Just as important, these new officers will be instrumental in diversifying the departments where they serve.
The evidence is already strong that a college education benefits police and the communities they serve by reducing the likelihood officers will use force, and is correlated with fewer citizen complaints. A college education that includes the humanities can go further, providing students with a foundation for critical thinking, problem solving and the all-important ability to communicate.
We hope this humanities-based curriculum can help serve as a blueprint for others who educate future law enforcement officers. We know that students’ thoughts on public safety are broad and far-reaching, and a curriculum buttressed by the humanities affirms the fundamental: that we are all humans with the overarching aim of looking after one another.
Now is the time for institutions to re-examine their criminal justice education and to consider developing similar curriculum. Every student, and especially future law enforcement officers, must have the opportunity to grapple with deep and difficult questions about the human condition. By learning about the complexity and history of the issues we face today, all students will be better equipped to engage in our democracy. As Jan. 6 made abundantly clear, we specifically and urgently need people who bring a critical consciousness and rigor to the problems of the world. We need people who recognize biases, speak and act with civility, and listen with respect. And we need them now more than ever.
Dara N. Byrne is associate provost for undergraduate retention and dean of undergraduate studies at John Jay College of Criminal Justice. Annie W. Bezbatchenko is a program consultant at the Teagle Foundation.
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