When we think about scholars of Homer, Plato, Shakespeare or students of Mandarin Chinese and calculus, incarcerated felons aren’t top of mind. But a new four-part series, College Behind Bars, airing November 25 and 26 on PBS from Lynn Novick, executive produced by Ken Burns, aims to reverse that stereotype.

One of the most pressing issues of our time is the failure to provide meaningful rehabilitation for over two million Americans living behind bars. 51,000 men and women are incarcerated in New York State, but only 950 of them have access to education. That access is largely due to the Bard Prison Initiative (BPI), a rigorous and effective prison education program for inmates. 630,000 prisoners are released annually but nearly 50 percent end up back in prison within five years. More than 500 alumni of BPI have been released but fewer than four percent have gone back, an extremely low recidivism rate.

Lynn and producer Sarah Botstein spent four years following male and female prisoners in maximum and medium security prisons enrolled in the program, struggling to earn college degrees and turn their life around. This extraordinary film puts a human face on America’s criminal justice crisis and reveals the lives often erased from public view. It is about opportunity and equity, and an important reminder that we can never underestimate the transformative power of education -- and the hope it can bring for a second chance.

The producers raise difficult questions we urgently need to address: What is prison for? Who has access to educational opportunity? Who among us is capable of academic excellence? How can we have justice without redemption? Is education a right? Does losing your liberty mean losing your education? Can accessible education mitigate socioeconomic circumstances that can often lead to a life of crime?

One inmate in the film explains that the BPI has guided him into “becoming a civic being” and an understanding that he has a role to play in his community despite being incarcerated. The film, accessible to all on free public media, can also provide a learning opportunity for those watching that might change their life and the paths they choose after seeing what these inmates have learned by pursuing an education.

I grew up in New York City with the sense of having every right to know about the world—that sense of an equitable commitment to education and knowledge. Everyone should be afforded that chance.

We all have to work hard at understanding one another and, with that, comes a measure of humility that asks, “What don’t I know?” Either about the facts on the ground or the way other people see things. I love that what we do in public media is that we present the whole story. We present all sides. We want people engaged in our programming in these conversations in a way that is generous and trusting toward one another, revealing, exploring and giving people a sense that there’s always something to learn. Public media is not about barriers, labels or definitions. It empowers people to explore differently and the opportunity to learn that, more often than not, there’s not one answer, and that there’s more to humanity than you can imagine. As College Behind Bars reveals, if we approach everything with humility and curiosity, we are going to find more commonality and shatter stereotypes.

Here in Massachusetts, colleges and universities are taking a closer look at prison education. As part of MIT’s Educational Justice Institute, Lee Perlman teaches "inside-out classes" and brings MIT students inside local prisons to take classes side by side with incarcerated men and women. In this short film from WGBH Digital Studios, go inside Boston’s South Bay House of Correction and explore an extraordinary classroom experience. When these "inside" and "outside" students come together for a philosophy class about the power of forgiveness, they all discover that they have a lot to learn from each other.