Prisoners defeat Harvard debate team
Months after winning a national title, Harvard University's debate team has lost. The team was beaten by a group of New York inmates.
The showdown took place in prison. The debate was held at the Eastern New York Correctional Facility. It is a maximum-security prison. Convicts are allowed to take courses. They are taught by faculty from nearby Bard College. And the prison is where inmates have formed a popular debate club. Last month, they invited the Harvard students over for a friendly competition. Harvard is this year's national debate champion.
The Harvard debate team also was crowned world champion in 2014. But the inmates are building a reputation of their own. They started a debate club two years ago. Since then, the prisoners have beaten college teams. Those include the U.S. Military Academy at West Point and the University of Vermont. The competition with West Point has grown into a rivalry. It now is a yearly affair.
At Bard, those who help teach the inmates are not particularly surprised by their success.
"Students in the prison are held to the exact same standards, levels of rigor and expectation as students on Bard's main campus," said Max Kenner. He is executive director of the Bard Prison Initiative. It operates in six New York prisons. "Those students are serious. They are not condescended to by their faculty."
Shortly after the loss, students on the Harvard team posted a comment. It appeared on a team Facebook page.
"There are few teams we are prouder of having lost a debate to than the phenomenally intelligent and articulate team we faced this weekend," they wrote. "And we are incredibly thankful to Bard and the Eastern New York Correctional Facility for the work they do and for organizing this event."
Against Harvard, the inmates were tasked with defending a position they did not agree with. They had to argue that public schools should be allowed to turn away students whose parents entered the U.S. illegally. The inmates brought up arguments that the Harvard team had not thought of. Three students from Harvard's team responded. A panel of neutral judges named the inmates the winners.
"The fact that we won is nice. But it is not the most important thing," Kenner said. He added that the club is meant to help students articulate what they have learned.
Inmates can earn various degrees through the initiative. It is taught primarily by Bard faculty. About 15 percent of the all-male inmates at the Eastern New York Correctional Facility in Napanoch are enrolled. Graduates of the program have continued their studies at Yale and Columbia universities, Kenner said.
While in prison, they learn without the help of the Internet. Instead, they rely on resources provided by the college.
"They make the most of every opportunity they have," Kenner said.
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