Howard, Yale Debaters Meet in Third Annual Great Debate

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by Jamaal Abdul-Alim

WASHINGTON — It was a tale of academic worlds colliding when two debate teams shared the stage before a large audience inside the Cramton Auditorium at Howard University this weekend. Perhaps the third time was the charm.

On the stage at the audience’s left was the Howard University Debate Team, representing one of America’s most prominent historically Black colleges. At the right was the Yale University Debate Association, representing the illustrious Ivy League.

The Yale Debate Association was crowned in 2011 by the American Parliamentary Debate Association as Club of the Year — a distinction it also won in 2010 and 2009.

The Howard University Debate team, by comparison, only made its debut in 2009.

It’s with those things in mind that the NAACP’s third annual Great Debate, which took place between the Howard and Yale debate teams over the weekend, should be viewed.

The first topic was whether society should create more privately-operated public charter schools. The second was whether Washington, D.C. should be granted statehood.

When it came time for Howard team member Gavette Richardson to sum up her team’s arguments on the merits of charter schools, she said the case for charter schools was no different than Brown v. Board of Education or the Little Rock Nine.

Her Yale opponents argued that charter schools actually lead to segregation — the very things that those two landmark civil rights events were meant to undo.

Which team made the stronger case is difficult to say definitively since the third annual Great Debate didn’t have a panel of judges to make that determination.

But organizers say for now, declaring a winner in the Great Debate is not as important as it is to whet the public’s appetite for such battles of wit.

“Usually, at a college debate, at the highest levels of competition, there’s usually only 10 to 20 people at the event,” said  Scot X Esdaile, president and board member of the Connecticut State Conference of NAACP Branches. “But at an NAACP college debate, it’s always over 1,000 people in attendance.”

After drawing inspiration from Denzel Washington’s critically acclaimed 2007 movie “The Great Debaters,” Esdaile’s group was instrumental in getting the Great Debate started at Yale back in 2009.

More such debates are underway. Esdaile reported Saturday that the NAACP is currently working on arranging debates between Morehouse College and Harvard University, as well as between Texas Southern University and Princeton University.

He also said eventually the debates will likely become full-fledged competitions.

“For this one, it was really just an opportunity to introduce debate on the campus and the community, and was viewed more as an exhibition than competition,” said Esdaile.  

” Now that the buzz has come to D.C., to Howard, there’s going to be a real desire for the next one to be a competition. I’m pretty sure that’s what it’s going to be.”

Though Saturday’s debate wasn’t exactly a competition, the presence of a large audience managed to make it so in some ways.

One of the interesting dynamics about a college debate is that the audience may initially side with the home team, but as the debate wears on, the audience becomes less swayed by affinity for the home team and more enamored with the team that makes the most arguments that hit home. Put differently, unlike with college sports, even when the “visiting” team makes a “point,” the audience for the home team still applauds.

That’s what happened Saturday when Yale’s David Trinh, a junior majoring in economics, evoked widespread laughter when he spoke of how charter schools kick out low-performing students (he used a fictitious example of “Little Timmy”) in order to meet performance standards that are required to maintain their funding.

“They can fudge the math by kicking out the lowest-performing students,” Trinh said, “so it looks like they’re doing well, but it’s because they kicked out Little Timmy.”

It’s not hard to figure out why the point played so well with the predominantly Black audience. Research has consistently shown that Black boys get suspended or expelled from school more frequently than White boys, so statistically speaking, members of the audience were more likely to be familiar with Little Timmy’s experience. 

However, the audience rose to its feet and applauded when Richardson attacked the assertion that charter schools were hurting students simply because they tend to serve members of one ethnic group instead of a diverse group of students.

Richardson said it was wrongheaded to suggest that “you cannot perform if you are in a group with just your own,” as are students in HBCUs.

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