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‘There can be no freedom unless there’s a power to deny freedom’: Meet early American historian Max Mishler

‘Freedom vs. unfreedom’ guides work of new assistant professor

Max Mishler on the grass behind Sidney Smith Hall

Early American historian Max Mishler joined the Faculty of Arts & Science earlier this fall. Photo: Diana Tyszko.

Whether you’re a student at the University of Toronto or an inmate serving time at Rikers Island – New York City’s largest jail complex – Max Mishler believes everyone, incarcerated or not, deserves access to higher education.

An early American historian, and one of the Department of History’s newest assistant professors, Mishler joined the Faculty of Arts & Science earlier this fall after teaching at American universities like NYU, Columbia, and Boston’s Brandeis.

But it was his time working with inmates at the Rose M. Singer Center on Rikers Island – a jail that houses juvenile women awaiting trial or serving short sentences, think three years or less – as part of Columbia University’s Justice-in-Education Initiative that he cites as one of the most important things he’s done over the past few years.

You just get a sense of what can happen to people when they’re vulnerable and no one in society is standing up for them. It’s pretty devastating.

“I was working with these young women and it hit me – they really are children,” said Mishler. “You just get a sense of what can happen to people when they’re vulnerable and no one in society is standing up for them. It’s pretty devastating.”

Even more devastating was seeing the skill sets and potential of his students inside the Rose M. Singer Center knowing that many of them will never have access to higher education outside of the jail.

“Students would do the reading you assigned and engage with the material and make points no less brilliant than any of the students at U of T or Columbia or NYU – and then you realize they’re not free. They’re going back to a cell,” said Mishler.

“What’s wrong with our society that the only time children are getting this quality education is when they’re locked up?”

It’s that idea of freedom versus unfreedom that guides Mishler’s work.

Studying the idea of what constitutes freedom, his research revolves around one key question: What was the historical relationship between the abolition of slavery, the birth of the modern penitentiary and the consolidation of penal servitude – imprisonment with hard labour?

It’s with that question in mind that Mishler argues that while slavery is contrary to freedom, incarceration is at the heart of freedom – there can be no freedom unless there’s a power to deny freedom.

Challenging students to move beyond just being critical thinkers

But Mishler’s interest in incarceration and freedom is more than just academic.

“I have a moral obligation to do work around supporting incarcerated and formerly incarcerated folks, and giving them access to education,” said Mishler. “I’m a big believer that people inside and outside of prison should have access to higher education.”

Now Mishler is bringing that passion and expertise to the University of Toronto.

Teaching courses on mass incarceration in the US, the global history of prisons and American history post-1607, Mishler is ready to challenge his students to move beyond just being critical thinkers.

He wants his students to become reflective of their own biases – something that’s becoming increasingly important in today’s society.

“Don’t hide behind the false safety of speaking only with people that agree with you and rehearsing arguments that have never been challenged,” said Mishler. “Challenge yourself.”

“I don’t think you’ll really be able to win a political debate or convince someone of the importance of your opinion unless you do that.”

As for whether his students will be able to suss out his own political leanings in class – don’t bet on it.

“I think it’s hard for students to read exactly where I stand on matters,” said Mishler. “But it is interesting that they’re sort of gauging me like, is he radical, is he more conservative? And I’m OK with that.”