On Mar. 2 the newly-formed Williams College Debate Union will hold its first debate entitled “Is Public Education Worth Saving?”
John H. Sununu, former Chief of Staff in the Bush administration and current co-host of CNN’s Crossfire, Visiting Assistant Professor of Political Science Andrew Sabl and Eric Soskin ‘99 Treasure of the Williams College Debate Team will debate Dr. Benjamin Hooks, former Executive Director of the NAACP, Associate Dean of the Faculty and Professor of Philosophy Steven Gerrard, and Adrian Ludwig ‘98, President of the Williams College Debate Team.
Hooks, Gerrard and Ludwig will present the proposition, “A truly public system of education is fundamental to our nation’s goals and heritage.”
Sununu, Sabl and Soskin will counter, providing the opposition, “Families and local communities are best-equipped to make decisions about their children’s education. The government’s role in education should be to provide parents with the freedom to make such choices.”
Professor Sabl said he got involved in the debate because Williamson was a student of his.
“I certainly welcome the idea. I debated in high school and am familiar with the Oxford style.”
He continued, “I hope people will come to the Gaudino forum. The more students think about these issues the better it is and by having the Gaudino forum discuss the issue it helps a lot. It would be a shame if the only people that took an interest in this were the specialists and insiders.”
Sabl wanted to add one thing about the format of the debate. “One of the ideas of this style is that students can come up to the podium and ask questions. This give-and-take is at the heart of the debate format and I hope that students will take advantage of it.”
Professor Gerrard said Williamson asked him to participate in the debate. “I couldn’t say no because I thought it was a great idea. I have no experience with debating, and because of that my overwhelming emotion is fear.”
He continued, “The main reason I couldn’t say no was because I saw this as an extremely clever solution to a problem that I have encountered on various committees. The problem is that at Williams we bring in big names to give a speech and then they leave. Combining big names with faculty and students guarantees participation of the whole community.”
Ludwig said of his involvement in the debate, “The debate team, through Jon Kravis, knew that the WCDU was looking for students with debate experience. Jon asked a few of the older members of the debate team and picked Eric and me.”
He continued, “I’m very excited about the debate. I would feel comfortable debating either side of the issue, but this is the side that I believe in and I’d rather be debating in front of 500 people with the side that I believe in.”
Formation of the Williams College Debate Union
Lesley Blum ‘98 spent her junior year in the Williams-at-Oxford Program. While there, she became involved in the Oxford Debate Union.
“I took to the structure of the debate unions at Oxford and felt that kind of structure is something that is missing at Williams. The atmosphere of discussion at Oxford is very different than it is from Williams, and I felt that we could start that kind of atmosphere here.”
Blum discussed the idea with Benjamin Monnie ‘98, former Editor-in-Chief of The Williams Record and vicepresident of the Gargoyle Society. They then presented the idea of creating the WCDU at a Gargoyle meeting.
Monnie said, “By going through Gargoyle, it was a way of facilitating the new group until it was institutionalized. Gargoyle is a strong body on campus and it has the resources of 15 campus leaders.”
Monnie described the “great-little coalition” consisting of Abby Williamson ‘98, president of Gargoyle, Monnie, Blum, co-head of the Media Center, with experience in Oxford-style debate and Jon Kravis ‘99, secretary of Gargoyle and captain of the Williams debate team.
The group then brought the idea before President of the College Harry Payne. Since no funding had been allocated for the debate, they asked Payne to help.
“I was absolutely delighted when Gargoyle came to me with the idea of creating a debate union,” Payne said. “I have been encouraging the College to raise its commitment in many facets. Part of civic engagement is learning how to debate forcefully among ourselves with civility but also with a passion befitting the seriousness of the issues.”.
About funding, he said, “As there are no existing budgets for the debate union, I agreed to fund the costs of the first event and to search for funding to keep it going, as I think it will perform a very valuable role here â€” as such institutions have at Yale and Oxford.”
Williamson described the goal of the WCDU. “As President Payne has pointed out, too often we have other people come into Williams to do our arguing for us. The WCDU involves students and faculty along with the invited speakers. Our hope is that after this year, the WCDU will continue to host two debates per semester.”
Kravis echoed Williamson’s sentiments, “It’s not often that we see faculty and students engaging each other on contentious topics. Civility is of course a good thing but it’s not okay if people are unwilling to engage themselves.”
Monnie noted how the WCDU falls particularly well within the goals of this year’s delegation of the Gargoyle society. “This year, Gargoyle wanted to focus specifically on improving the college community through increasing student faculty interaction and intellectualizing social life. The WCDU does this particularly well.”
While Gargoyle is helping the WCDU to form, it is important to note that the WCDU is a separate entity. Blum said, “We would like Gargoyle to do the same thing for the WCDU that it did for the Senior Advisors program.”
Future of WCDU
While the Oxford Debate Union sponsors eight debates per semester, Monnie described the goals of WCDU as “more low key.” He said, “We would like to have two debates per semester. Ideally, one debate will focus on a domestic topic and one on a foreign.”
Blum added, “Through a complicated series of revisions and reworking of topics we came to the current topics. The idea of public education is relevant to the Williams community and it has societal implications.”
The topic for the second debate of this semester will be in some way connected to the media’s role in democracy.
Kravis said of planning the next debate, “There was a lot of inefficiency this time because we didn’t really know what we were doing. Now that we almost have it down to a science, it should take us less time. I would imagine that the next debate will occur in late April.”
“The WCDU has tremendous potential. It could change the image of Williams to a participatory campus.” Monnie said.
How the WCDU will function as an organization per se is still unclear.
Blum said, “George Williamson, whom I debated at Oxford and is a Ph.D. student at Oxford and Harvard, said that he would be willing to train people in this ‘Oxford style’ of debate.”
When asked about the debate team’s participation in WCDU Ludwig said, “The skill associated with spoken argumentation is something that is used in the debate team and would be needed for WCDU. In that respect, I think the debate team could help train people.”
Kravis added, “The role of the debate team with the WCDU is still a bit unclear. I think that the debate team cou
ld help conduct the workshops to teach people the debate style.”
He continued, “Since Lesley, Abby and Ben are graduating this year, I can see a student committee made up of myself, one or two people from the debate team, one or two people from Gargoyle as well as some frosh and sophomores to plan events and oversee things.”
Ludwig said, “I hope that they make it an open invitation for student participation in the debates, maybe they could have students submit reasons for why they would like to participate in the debate. I think that would stimulate discussion about the debate itself.”
All were concerned that the WCDU became an integral part of the Williams community.
“The debate team hopes that this debate demonstrates how enjoyable, participatory and stimulating the activity is. Unlike many debate forms which many members of the campus community may be more familiar with, parliamentary debate stresses interactive, analytical argumentation and confrontation with the opposition, not high-speed speaking or factual recitation,” Soskin said.
Kravis noted, “I’m very excited about all that is going into this debate. The Gaudino Forum is having a discussion on the topic moderated by Prof. Newman who had worked in the teaching practicum at Roosevelt High School, the Record is covering the event and we might have a ‘debriefing session’ afterward. I hope that this method of examining issues will continue for the other debates.”
On the role of the WCDU for the College community, Soskin took a bit of a different view, “I think it’s probably too much to ask that it actually serves any purpose broader than an evening’s diversion for some people.”