From one perspective, as the name of our program suggests, our goals are bold and ambitious, if not presumptuous: Changing Lives Through Literature. We believe it. We have seen it happen again and again.
But from another perspective, CLTL is modest in its goals and expectations.
We do not anticipate that criminal offenders coming through our program will become perfect citizens or wonderful students. They are often very bright and filled with important insights, but they will not necessarily become well-trained college students or model civic servants.
Often they are not very good readers. Sometimes they are fearful and angry, unsure of themselves, and undisciplined in their approach to work and life.
Nor do we claim that they will never commit another crime. The recidivism rates for CLTL are noteworthy, but some offenders no doubt will relapse; some will return to jail.
Each literature program only lasts twelve weeks or so. That too is a limitation. What can you hope to achieve in a few months? People always want to know.
When setting up a program, then, you need to understand that the goals are both ambitious and modest. You can change lives, inspire new perspectives, energize thinking, and wrestle with important issues affecting the whole group. You can bring families together, heal wounds, and create community. And it is not just the offenders who change, but you, and the probation officer, and the judge.
"CLTL has been the most rewarding experience in my life," more than one judge has said.
But CLTL can only do so much. At its best, it can excite self-reflection, deep reading and discussion; it can enhance verbal skills, personal revelation, and the power of imagination. It can give people hope for the future, the confidence and ability to create their own stories. Yet, it takes place over a very short time, and, in this sense, can only offer a glimpse of what can be.
After CLTL, the judges, the probation officers, and the professors move on to the next group, to the next moment in their busy lives. We can only hope that the offenders carry their new experience with them, seek out new community connections, meaningful work if they can find it, and educational opportunities. Their struggle remains more difficult than ours.
When setting up a program, then, we need to think about our limitations and how success should be defined.