Gosh! Finding meaning in great Russian literature?

I spent most of last week on the other side of the planet (a Media Project-Poynter.org event in Bangkok) or getting to the other side of the planet and an odd little post I had been planning slid down into the tmatt file of guilt.

The Washington Post did an interesting story the other day that I really wanted to salute, while at the same time noting that it was haunted by a rather obvious religion ghost.

The story ran under a pitch-perfect headline: “Crime and punishment: Juvenile offenders study Russian literature.”

The bottom line in this story: Russian literature offers the kinds of hard-hitting, muscular truths that even appeal to young people behind bars. If you can get them started on “War and Peace,” they will come back for more. That’s what is happening in a class offered by the University of Virginia, with inmates at the Beaumont Juvenile Correctional Center.

Say what? Here’s a key chunk of the report:

Researchers have documented positive changes in behavior, decision-making, social skills, educational goals and civic engagement, according to a study by U-Va.’s Curry School of Education. The study also points to benefits for the undergraduates who study alongside incarcerated youths.

The demand for the service-learning class, the response and the impact it seems to have prompted U-Va. to give Andy Kaufman, a lecturer and fellow at the university, a $50,000 grant to expand his experiment. He hopes to bring classics of Russian literature to more U-Va. students, more people at Beaumont, and more inmates at other prisons in Virginia and nationwide.

Beaumont residents said privately that the course had a profound effect on them. Jonis Romero, just released back home to Woodbridge, said that since taking the class, he thinks constantly about how he wants to live his life. He got a job at a carwash right away and hopes to go to George Mason University. Alex Espinoza, an 18-year-old from Arlington County, said it “helped me acknowledge the little things, not worry about greedy things.”

One inmate told researchers that for the 90 minutes of class each week, he felt like a human being again. “When they leave Beaumont,” lead research assistant Rob Wolman said, “do we want them feeling like human beings or feeling like criminals?”

The key is that these books play for keeps, asking big questions about good and evil, life and death, sin and grace, repentance and forgiveness, heaven and hell and, yes, crime and punishment. What is the meaning of life? What happens when the sins of the fathers plague the lives of the sons? Is there life after you have been sentenced to a living hell? What are the lessons someone learns when they watch people die? That’s what the “Books Behind Bars” concept is all about.

So where’s the ghost?

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