Law, Jurisprudence, and Social Thought

Letter from the Director

 

 

Dear Colleague:

Thank you for expressing an interest in my summer seminar on Punishment, Politics, and Culture, sponsored by the National Endowment for the Humanities. I am looking forward to this seminar as an opportunity to talk with you about some of the most exciting and challenging ideas in the humanistic study of law. I have had the good fortune to do several NEH seminars. Each time I had a wonderful time with a bright and talented group of teachers. I am pleased to have the chance to do a new seminar and eagerly looking forward to assembling another stimulating and interesting group of colleagues.

From The Gospel of Matthew to George Bernard Shaw and former Supreme Court Justice William Brennan, many have remarked that how, when, and why a society punishes reveals its true character. Punishment then tells us who we are. The way a society punishes demonstrates its commitment to standards of judgment and justice, its distinctive views of blame and responsibility, its understandings of mercy and forgiveness, and its particular ways of responding to evil. Punishment, Politics, and Culture--is intended to examine the nature and limits of punishment as well as its place in what I call the “American story.”

The subject of punishment shows up in the curriculum of schools across the country, in history, social studies, and literature courses to name just a few. School teachers regularly teach texts in which the fact of punishment, its purposes, or its fairness are central issues. Moreover, students often have direct experience with law enforcement and bring those experiences, and their complex reactions to them, to school. While not every topic or reading in the seminar will speak to these curricular and extra-curricular matters, throughout our discussions we will ask about how issues of punishment encountered in school settings are illuminated by the texts we consider.

This seminar will address three questions about punishment that go to the heart of humanistic inquiry.

1. What is punishment and why do we punish as we do? Punishment involves the imposition of pain in a calculating and deliberate manner. To acknowledge this fact locates the subject of punishment in relation to significant political and ethical issues, e.g. how do we deploy political and legal power in defining the limits of freedom? What justifies legal restrictions on our conduct? What are the responsibilities of those who punish in relation to those subject to punishment?

2. What can we learn about politics, law, and culture in the United States from an examination of our practices of punishment? How have issues of punishment figured in our “national story”? What are the arguments that today shape our thinking about punishment?

3. What are the appropriate limits of punishment? Do we punish too much and or too little? Are we too strict or too forgiving? What is the appropriate relationship of punishment and mercy? Are there some acts which strain our capacity to make judgments or for which punishment, no matter how severe, seems an inadequate response?

The Seminar. We shall read closely, and discuss at length, material ranging from such “classics” as the Book of Job, Tocqueville’s Democracy in America, and Thoreau on civil disobedience, to legal cases, literary treatments of punishment, and film. The range is broad, asking each of us to move out from our areas of specialization to see the subject of punishment through an interdisciplinary lens. Participation in the seminar demands no specialized training in law or jurisprudence.

Let me say a brief word about the agenda for the seminar. In the first two weeks we will take up the first of the three orienting questions noted above. In the first week, entitled What Is Punishment About? On the Just Imposition of Pain, we will examine instances of punishment, or of a failure to punish, in order to explore how punishment is understood by those to whom it is applied as well as by citizens of the community in which it is applied. We read about and discuss zero tolerance policies in schools and the controversies about American detention policies at Abu Grahib and Guantanamo. To put our discussion in a broad context we examine relationships among punishment, moral guilt, and the law in two texts that have nothing to do with the United States, namely Stephen Mitchell, The Book of Job and Leo Tolstoy, “The Kreutzer Sonata.”

In the Job story the association of punishment, even undeserved punishment, and assumptions about guilt are so strong that when someone known for his righteousness is punished his neighbors assume that he must be guilty of something. This reading invites an exploration of the pains of punishment and the social judgments that generally accompany it. Tolstoy’s short story and the film Noon Wine explore the opposite phenomenon, namely an instance in which someone who is in fact guilty of a crime is not punished. They suggest that in the absence of punishment there can be no expiation of sin. The week will conclude with a Supreme Court case on capital punishment and a recent law review article. Both examine the place and significance of punishment in our contemporary moral and legal lives.

The second week–What Does Punishment Say About Those Who Punish?–turns from those who are punished to those who punish. We will examine some of the functions that punishment serves and ask about the demands that a just system of punishment makes on those who punish. This week takes up some of the classic arguments about punishment, and includes a reading by George Herbert Mead suggesting that decisions about when, how, and who to punish work to draw boundaries of inclusion and exclusion in any community. We will use the film The Shawshank Redemption to see how the fate of those excluded is represented in popular culture. Next we will discuss Herbert Morris’s “Persons and Punishment” and his argument that offenders have a right to be punished and that, as a result, society has a duty to punish. This argument will be contrasted with a Supreme Court decision, Robinson v. California, holding that certain people have a right not to be punished even when they are engaged in socially undesirable behavior. We will discuss the sometimes excruciating “costs” of discharging the duty to punish on those who do so. Here our text will be Herman Melville’s “Billy Budd.”

Weeks three and four are devoted to asking what we learn about America by thinking about our practices of punishment. While the focus of the seminar is analytic not historical, in week three--The Place of Punishment in the American Story-I: Selected Episodes-- we take up three “moments” in the history of punishment in the United States, two from the Antebellum period, one from the present. We begin with Gustave de Beaumont and Alexis de Tocqueville, On the Penitentiary System of the United States and Its Application in France, and Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, using these texts to see how the character of, as well as challenges faced by, the early republic were manifest in its penal institutions and practices. Henry David Thoreau’s “Essay on Civil Disobedience” will allow us to reconsider some of these same issues, but also to examine the significance of punishment in the theory and practice of civil disobedience. We will next use some court cases to inquire about punishment in contemporary America. These cases describe conditions in our prisons and discuss what rights prisoners have in those institutions. They also open up a conversation about the intersection of race and punishment, and they will allow us to revisit the question of why we punish as we do.

Because the United States is one of the few remaining constitutional democracies that continues to employ capital punishment, in week four--The Place of Punishment in the American Story-II: The Ultimate Punishment--we concentrate on the death penalty, asking about its justness and its place in the American legal system. We will look at Albert Camus’s “Reflections of the Guillotine” and Walter Berns’s For Capital Punishment, both of which are classics in the study of punishment. They focus on the question of whether it is just to take the lives of those who murder, emphasizing in particular the place of revenge in a system of punishment. Our attention will also be directed to court cases on the constitutional jurisprudence of capital punishment. Finally, we will use a recent film, The Green Mile, to examine popular culture treatments of this most serious type of punishment.

Week 5--On the Limits of Punishment--concludes the seminar by revisiting some of the issues with which we began. Are there ways of responding to crime that do not depend as much on the social deployment of pain as those forms of punishment most in vogue today? What is the place of reconciliation, forgiveness, mercy, and reintegration in the future of punishment in America? Are there some acts which cannot and should not be forgiven? Are there some acts which are so heinous that no punishment could ever be adequate? Readings for the week may include Toni Morrison, Beloved, and Hannah Arendt, Eichmann in Jerusalem

Having reviewed our agenda, let me note that because almost everyone has their favorite book or story in which punishment plays a key role, my choices of texts surely will not satisfy everyone. So rich are the possibilities that the problem is less one of choosing what to include, than of deciding what not to include. Practical considerations, e.g. the length of a book in relation to the time available, necessitate some exclusions, e.g. Crime and Punishment, The Executioner’s Song.

In reading and discussing the material we shall use the genuine seminar method, in which all contribute and all benefit from being both a speaker and a listener. What this means is that I do not see my role as a lecturer, but rather as more of a colleague and fellow participant. I will act as a resource for you as you engage with the material and the questions it raises, and as a facilitator to help insure that our discussions are as productive as possible.

Each participant will be asked to keep a journal in which he or she records impressions about the issues under discussion. In addition, participants will be broken up into three groups (the membership of the groups will be shifted periodically to insure that each of the participants has an opportunity to work with every other participant). Groups will meet during the week to prepare a short analytic paper before the last session. That paper might deal with one of the issues around which the seminar is organized, or respond to a question framed by our discussion. Each week one person from each group will act as a reporter for their group and be responsible for preparing the group's analytic paper. This responsibility will be rotated to insure that every participant does it once. The three reporters will take primary responsibility for leading the last session during each week except the last.

In preparation for that session I will meet with the three group reporters. In addition, I will schedule individual meetings with participants to discuss their journals and their ongoing participation in the seminar.

 

My Interests. For as long as I can remember I have been fascinated by the simple yet vexing question of how societies are organized and ordered, and of what role law and legal processes play in that process. I have found that reading and studying law and jurisprudence connects abstract issues of justice to the concrete issues of our day. In my own scholarship, recently I have been exploring such connections in the context of the death penalty, trying to figure out how the use of such a violent form of punishment influence law itself. (You can read more about me at https://www.amherst.edu/people/facstaff/adsarat) But the seminar will not be about my work; it will center on some of the most engaging work on punishment in law, politics, and culture.

Your Interests. As I have already said, no particular background is required for this seminar. However, you will need the interest and willingness to tackle rich and provocative material, and the patience to try to grapple with some of the most important contemporary issues of justice. If you are passionately engaged in current political and social issues, you would make an important contribution to the seminar. If you are a lover of literature and culture and are curious about the either treats punishment, you would be most welcome. Or, if you are a physicist, librarian, administrator, grade school teacher whose curiosity is aroused by any of the words I've used to describe the seminar, you will be able to handle the seminar, benefit from it, and be of great help to the rest of us. Given our subject, almost everyone should have valuable things to say.

At the conclusion of the seminar I will be happy to provide each participant with a credit equivalency letter explaining how much in-service or graduate credit I believe participation in the seminar should carry.

 

Location. The seminar will be held in an air-conditioned seminar room on the Amherst campus. You will be designated a "Visiting Scholar" with full access to the College's library, computer, athletic, and dining facilities as well as the facilities at the four neighboring campuses. The facilities are quite good. During the summer the library is open weekdays from 8 a.m. - 5 p.m. with additional evening hours  available to NEH Scholars. While  there are many computers on campus, you might also be advised to bring your laptop computers as this will facilitate your work on the group writing projects.

You will receive directions on how to get to Amherst if you plan on driving. I have arranged for no-cost parking for you, and you may find it more pleasant to have your own car. However, there is easy public transportation, a local tradition of ride sharing, and a wonderful bicycle trail for those of you who choose to leave your cars at home. If you come by train, the nearest station is Springfield, Massachusetts; if you fly, the nearest airport is Bradley International Airport (BDL) (near Hartford, Connecticut).

 

Housing. I have arranged to house participants in a campus facility–Drew House- -with wonderful large rooms, spacious social areas, kitchen facilities, and parking. Drew is a former fraternity house that was renovated four years ago. It is clean, efficient, and convenient. While the there will be air conditioning in the large common room on the first floor, the bedrooms are not air-conditioned, so it might be useful to bring fans.  (Drew House is not wired to handle the additional power needed to support air conditioning units.) There is no air-conditioned housing on campus. While most Amherst summers are mild, there is the occasional heat wave. Those particularly susceptible to such things might consider alternative housing.  Despite the lack of air conditioning there are great advantages to living in close proximity to other participants in the seminar. And, it is located right across the street from the building where our seminar will meet and from the College’s dining hall. It is two blocks from the center of town. There are enough single rooms to accommodate everyone.

For those of you who prefer other kinds of accommodations, we will be able to assist you with subletting arrangements in faculty houses and in the town of Amherst.  

For Drew House costs range from a low of $40.00 per day for lodging and linens to $65.00 per day for lodging, linens, plus three meals at the college dining hall. Because Drew has a kitchen participants may choose to cook for themselves. Costs for off-campus housing vary widely.

 

Social Activities. We will begin with a welcoming barbecue to initiate the seminar. I look forward to being able to begin the process of introducing you to the many virtues of the Amherst area as well as showing you around our gardens. Official greetings will be extended by Amherst’s Dean of the Faculty. Throughout the seminar we will periodically repair to my home for informal apres seminar gatherings.

 

Stipends. As you know you will receive $3,900. A check for the first half will be waiting for you on at the first meeting of the seminar. We will arrange for check cashing services, and the College will be eager to settle accounts with those of you who elect to live in Drew. The second check will be ready for you about two weeks after the first.

 

Application. Application information is included with this letter. Once you have completed the application, please make extra copies, so that you can send me three complete packets, collated, stapled, and complete. This will be very helpful in expediting the selection process, and your cooperation will be much appreciated.

Perhaps the most important part of the seminar application is the four-page "Application Essay." This essay should contain any personal or academic information that is relevant; reasons for applying to the seminar; your interest, both academic and personal, in the subject of the seminar; qualifications; what you hope to accomplish; plans for sharing your knowledge with your students and colleagues; and the relation of the seminar to your teaching or other work.

If you have any questions about the seminar or the application process feel free to call me at 413-542-2308 or e-mail me at ADSarat@Amherst.edu or my assistant, Megan Estes at 413-542-2380 or at neh@amherst.edu.

Your completed application should be postmarked no later than March 4, 2014 and should be sent to me:

 

Professor Austin Sarat, NEH Seminar Director

Law, Jurisprudence & Social Thought

P.O Box 5000

Amherst College

Amherst, MA 01002

You will be notified on March 31 regarding the status of your application, and if you are offered a place in the seminar, you have until April 4 to accept or decline the offer.

Thanks once again for your interest.

 

Sincerely yours,

 

Professor Austin Sarat

Law, Jurisprudence & Social Thought

Amherst College

Amherst, MA 01002

 

413-542-2308 (phone)

413-542-2264 (fax)

 

Clark House