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SNU Humanities Professors and their Impactful Exchange with Prisoners

  • May 20, 2016
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SNU professor is teaching in Guro prison
SNU professor is teaching in Guro prison

SNU humanities professors have conducted lectures in prison: ten professors, 60 lectures, in the span of six years.

Every Friday morning from 10 AM to noon, professors lectured on topics like philosophy, religious studies, history, and also cultural studies of countries like Germany, Italy, India, Latin America, and Ancient Greece.

The prisoners responded very well. Over 100 members participated in lectures meant for 40. As the lectures became more and more popular, they were video-recorded and spread outside of the lecture room. The Ministry of Justice then decided to make this a nationwide program.

Professor BAE Chulhyun from the Department of Religious Studies noticed that “among the members were convicted murderers, sex offenders, former ministers, college deans, et cetera, including famous social figures. Since the program wasn’t a one-time opportunity, attendees who wanted to turn their lives around passionately attended the lectures.”

Professor BAE Chulhyun (Dept. of Religious Studies)
Professor BAE Chulhyun (Dept. of Religious Studies)

The lectures were not only special to the prisoners, but also to the professors.

Professor Bae remarked that, while at SNU there are so many students are busy checking their phones, the prisoners were focused on improving themselves and paid extremely close attention to the lectures. Witnessing this phenomenon, Professor Bae concluded that desperation can be the source of a new beginning.

After the lectures, the prisoners wrote the professors tear-stained letters of gratitude.

Professor Bae, who received countless letters himself, recalls one particular essay he received from a prisoner convicted of murder.

At the end of one of their final lectures, the prisoners had to finish their tenth and last book and make a presentation. The man, who had been charged with murder and had not seen his family in years, stood in front of the other members and began a very personal disclosure.

He told the story of how he was finally able to understand his wife and child and forgive himself. It had taken this long for him to forgive himself because he had lacked the ability to observe himself objectively. The lecture room turned solemn.

Professor Bae decided that what the prisoners needed were not repetitive correction measures but the assistance in helping them understand themselves and the power to forge a new identity.

Although the Humanities program is over, a book was published this April recording all the lectures that were given during the program, titled, “Humble Humanities.”

“Because we didn’t have financial support from the government, and it was all financed by SNU, there was a limit to how long we could sustain this project. That is why we have decided to publish the content of our past lectures in this book,” Professor Bae explained.

The book opens with Professor Bae’s explanation of maat in Ancient Egypt. The maat is the principle of the equilibrium of the universe, which also includes the idea of what an individual must achieve in his or her lifetime. It is synonymous to “doing your absolute best.”

“If the Egyptians did not have their idea of maat while building the pyramids, the 3 million stones weighting 1.5 tons each would have collapsed. But because they knew of their maat, the pyramids have lasted over 4,600 years. We must also discover our maat and go after it.”

Furthermore, Professor Bae advised, “These days, people tend to perceive the humanities as a temporary self-soothing too. Being that the problem lies within, it is less about the healing than the transformation of the self.”

Written by Ho Jung Annie Hwang, SNU English Editor, annieohan@snu.ac.kr
Reviewed by Professor Travis Smith, Department of Asian Languages and Civilizations, tlsmith@snu.ac.kr

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