Wisdom Inside: Lessons on the Good Life from New Mexico Prisons
Seminar - UHON 301

Instructor(s): Bob Robinson

Course Description

Prisons are hotbeds of philosophy, as prisoners seek to understand the nature of reality and their place in it. This interest is generated from confinement forcing a confrontation with the choices that result in a deprived life, making prisoners most passionate about ethics and the question of how we should live. They want to understand what led them to their current state and also discover a life worth living in and after incarceration. Their radical self-confrontation is so foreign to most of us that it yields a truly unique treasure trove of insights into what we take for granted, where we twist our thoughts to undermine our own excellence, and how we can live better for ourselves and others.

Our purpose is to find new perspectives and tools for improving ourselves by entering into the struggles of New Mexican prisoners to confront their choices. The course content reflects a novel multi-year experiment in New Mexico prisons to use a hybrid of philosophy, specifically ancient Greek and Roman Stoicism, and modern psychological research to initiate and guide that struggle. Stoicism teaches that if we wish to live well we must focus ourselves on controlling only that which is truly within our control - our choices - and align our choices with the virtues: wisdom, courage, moderation, and justice. Psychological research supports the integrity of Stoic principles and practices, and research into best correctional practices demonstrates the promise of this hybrid for changing how incarcerated people choose.

To see its efficacy, we will learn what does and does not work in correctional practice. Students will learn about criminogenic risk factors, principles of risk-need-responsivity models, how to spot manipulation games, prison culture, and especially active listening and effective communicative practices with individuals resistant to change. Guest presenters by the FBI and former corrections officials will provide expert insight into the criminal underworld.

Students will become participants in the philosophical experiment itself, engaging in regular drills and role-playing exercises to familiarize themselves with how to effectively interact with those struggling to change. Students will learn how to effectively improve themselves using Stoic principles, psychological research, and lessons from best practices in working with criminal offenders, while also learning that one’s own personal pursuit of excellence is the most effective tool for building the kind of meaningful, authentic relationships that attract others to beneficial change.

Caution: students who have experienced harm and trauma as a result of crime may find portions of this course difficult and wish to consider other options.


Ward Farnsworth, The Practicing Stoic: A Philosophical User’s Manual (Godine: 2018)

Other short readings and some YouTube videos will be required.



Class Participation

Philosophical Active Listening Drills & Role-Playing : every class will involve practicing and scoring active listening skills and ultimately learning how to engage others in ethical inquiry and self-confrontation

Reflection Papers: eight 200-300 word reflections on Stoic quotes

Worksheets: short assignments meant to develop self-awareness

Final Project: each student will write a 15 minute presentation on a topic in Stoicism and guide a group of role-players in discussion, with follow-up written self-evaluation

About the Instructor(s): Bob Robinson

Bob Robinson (PhD, Philosophy, Purdue University) had an unexpected career turn when he was invited to teach philosophy to maximum security inmates. Lured by the challenge of making philosophy practical, he taught philosophy and Stoicism for six years in New Mexico prisons, learned crisis negotiations, and provided research on best practices. Prior to joining UNM, he held the position of Reentry Programs Administrator, managing programs and opportunities throughout the state to increase post-release success.