Months after winning a national title, Harvard’s debate team has fallen to a group of New York prison inmates.
The showdown took place at the Eastern Correctional Facility in New York, a maximum-security prison where convicts can take courses taught by faculty from nearby Bard college, and where inmates have formed a popular debate club. Last month they invited the Ivy League undergraduates and this year’s national debate champions over for a friendly competition.
The Harvard debate team was crowned world champions in 2014. But the inmates are building a reputation of their own. In the two years since they started a debate club, the prisoners have beaten teams from the US military academy at West Point and the University of Vermont. The competition with West Point, which is now an annual affair, has grown into a rivalry.
At Bard, those who helped teach the inmates were not particularly surprised by their success.
And what did they debate?
Against Harvard the inmates had to defend a position they opposed: they had to argue that public schools should be allowed to turn away students whose parents entered the US illegally. The inmates brought up arguments that the Harvard team had not considered. Three students from Harvard’s team responded, and a panel of neutral judges declared the inmates victorious.
Addendum: Here is commentary on how it might have happened.