At this point The Scrapbook has become somewhat inured to tales of woe regarding the American educational system. Generally such wails are merely preludes to a call to arms on the part of teachers’ unions and bureaucrats who want to expand government control over local schools and throw more money at the supposed problem.
Still, we were surprised to read that a team of Harvard debaters had been bested by three violent criminals. No, it wasn’t a mugging, and it isn’t the setup to a bad joke. Rather, it was an exhibition debate to highlight a program run by Bard College that aims to give motivated inmates a liberal arts education.
The six debaters spent just over an hour on the topic: Resolved: “Public schools in the United States should have the ability to deny enrollment to undocumented students.”
The inmates were tasked with defending the resolution, a position with which many of them disagreed. The Wall Street Journal reported that the inmates argued “that the schools attended by many undocumented children were failing so badly that students were simply being warehoused. The team proposed that if ‘dropout factories’ with overcrowded classrooms and insufficient funding could deny these children admission, then nonprofits and wealthier schools would step in and teach them better.”
At the end of the round, the panel of three judges deemed that the Harvard team had failed to respond adequately to the arguments.
One of Harvard’s debaters told the Journal that the team was surprised by their opponents’ preparation. “They caught us off guard,” said Anais Carell, a 20-year-old junior from Chicago.
Adding insult to injury, the inmates competed at something of a disadvantage. Unlike the Harvard debaters, they could not use the Internet to research their arguments and had to submit any requests for books and articles to the prison administration for approval.
The Scrapbook applauds the initiative of the inmates, who, in the words of one team member, “might not be as naturally rhetorically gifted, but . . . work really hard.” Their success demonstrates that education is as much a matter of intellectual curiosity and self-discipline as classes and diplomas.
And in fairness to Harvard’s debaters, they aren’t the only ones with egg on their faces. The inmates also beat West Point’s debate team in the spring of 2014, but lost a rematch this April.