The Infamous Harvard vs. New York Prisoners Debate

debate graphicI know you have heard about it on the television networks (ABC, CBS, FOX, and NBC). You may have even heard about it on NPR of all places!

Yes, I am talking about the debate between a group of Harvard students and a group of prisoners from the Eastern New York Correctional Facility in Napanoch, New York.

This event was tailor-made for a great news story in the mainstream media as it sensationalizes one of our democracy’s most esteemed institutions: public debate. This is not surprising in the run up to a presidential election where words like “loser”, “stupid”, and “big boy pants” are thrown out into the public sphere by the current candidates.

I must confess up front that I have been a policy debater, coach, judge, and teacher at the high school, university, and graduate school levels. I have written about these experiences in previous posts: A. Craig Baird Debate Forum: Going Home For The NDT and In “Debate Mode” . I have also coached parliamentary debate in Singapore and help coach the HBU mock trial team. I teach a class in Argumentation and Advocacy here at HBU as well.

Because I have been hearing about this debate event nonstop, I really just want to set the record straight.

First off, I’m not dissing any of the teams. Bless their hearts for competing in such events. Learning debate skills can change lives. I know it definitely changed mine.

What I am doing is critiquing the press coverage of this event. Anyone who knows anything about debate knows that to categorize this Harvard team as the best in the country has not been to the National Debate Tournament (NDT). The Harvard team is a member of the student-run American Parliamentary Debate Association (APDA). The means it has little-to-no faculty guidance. This type of competition also features “style” over “substance”. No evidence to back your claims? No problem. Heckling from debaters and the audience? Allowed. Judges? Fellow students.

Not so with policy debate. You must have good evidence. You must be a respectful member of the teams and audience. You must have qualified judges.

While Harvard’s parliamentary team has won many awards, it was only established in 1981. Harvard’s traditional policy debate team (The Harvard Debate Council) was founded in 1892. It has won the NDT six times and finished second five times. It has also been invited to attend the national tournament every year since 1954.

In conclusion, all I can say is that A. Craig Baird who founded the NDT would be shaking his head at the current headlines.

Mater_MarieMarie Mater, PhD, is associate professor of Speech Communication at Houston Baptist University. Dr. Mater’s teaching focus introduces students to the field of speech communication and prepares them for careers in the corporate, educational, legal, ministry, and political worlds. Her students have been accepted into major corporations, graduate communication schools, law schools, schools of theology, non-profit organizations, political think tanks, and the White House.

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