Students, faculty and members of the community gathered to watch the first debate of the newly- formed Williams College Debate Union in Chapin Hall Mon. night. The debate focused on the topic “Is Public Education Worth Saving?”
The debate was modeled after the Oxford Debate Union and followed parliamentary debate format. The proposition side, argued by Dr. Benjamin Hooks, former Executive Director of the NAACP, Dean of the Faculty and Professor of Philosophy Steven Gerrard and Adrian Ludwig ‘98, argued in favor of public education in its current structure. The opposition side, represented by John Sununu, former Governor of New Hampshire and White House Chief of Staff under President Bush, Visiting Assistant Professor of Political Science Andrew Sabl and Eric Soskin ‘98, argued in support of school choice and a system of vouchers.
After introductory remarks made by Benjamin Monnie ‘98 and President of the College Harry C. Payne, Lesley Blum ‘98 described the format and introduced the debate’s moderator, Jon Kravis ‘98. One important detail made clear to the audience was the use of “points of information”. After one minute of argument, members of the other position may interrupt the current speaker and pose questions to his comments. Audience participation, mainly in the form of stomping of feet (and the occasional hissing and booing) was also encouraged. Audience members were also given the opportunity to vote for the side which they felt made the best argument by leaving through the appropriate exit at the conclusion of the debate.
Ludwig, President of the WCDT, opened for the proposition, speaking for five minutes on their position that public education in America is necessary and that they would be arguing in favor of equality in education. Ludwig argued, “the success of an individual in our society depends on education,” and that support for other forms of education leads to inequality.
Soskin, Treasurer of the WCDT, delineated the opposition’s position that public education is not only worth saving but worth improving. He said doing so is “fundamentally incompatible with the continuation of government monopoly.” Stating the aim is one of “equality and quality,” he said the opposition would show how choice in the school system would create opportunity and inspire competition among schools, as well as promote civic virtue. Countering Ludwig’s remarks on equality in public education, he asserted that “education in America is essentially separate and unequal.”
Hooks broadened the scope of the debate during the 15 minutes allotted to him and offered strong arguments for the proposition. Declaring that public schools are the backbone of American society and that they “educate and nurture even when parents choose not to”, he was clearly doubtful of the ability of some sort of voucher system to perform the same task. His most convincing argument was that there are simply too many students for a voucher system to effectively handle, and he questioned who would make the inevitable choices involved with such a system. While admitting some things need to be changed, Hooks continued to assert that the current structure of the school system is important for maintaining a common tie among Americans.
Sununu emboldened the opposition’s argument by saying “the current system of monopoly education is A) ineffective, B) elitist and C) racist…It has accidently become one of the most racistly divisive systems in public structures.” He argued that the opposition’s proposed solution was not a radical one, but simply in favor of extending the kind of public support which exists for colleges and universities now to the K-12 level. He added, “Reintroducing involvement of the parent is the most significant dividend” to opening the system to competition. Sununu stressed the obligation of parents to review the quality of schools. “By providing choice, mobility, funds and resources, those seeking better education will go find it,” he said. He commented that those who are supposed to provide this education would be forced to improve it.
Gerrard began his 10 minutes by claiming, “On our side we have truth and justice, on their side smoke and mirrors.” He continued to pursue a line of argument which claimed public education is vital to good citizenship, and continued to make jokes about the opposition to the enjoyment of the audience. “We need a true pluralistic, multicultural idea of education,” Gerrard said. “In America public education is the chief institution where when you have to go somewhere, they have to take you in.”
Sabl began his defense of the opposition by claiming his opponents had a complete inability to define what exactly they meant by good citizenship and other terms they used. “A voucher system does not have to be in service of inequality,” he said. Sabl’s side presented would serve to extend to everyone the opportunity children of wealthy families have now. In the current system, a good public education is not accessible to all, but mainly to those who can afford to live in the communities with the best schools. Sabl attacked Gerrard’s claims about citizenship, saying it is not among the skills learned in school, and questioned the notion that the current system would promote diversity and a voucher system would not.
Members of the audience were allowed to deliver two-minute speeches, evenly split between those in favor of the proposition and those in favor of the opposition. Their comments included a couple of important questions for the debaters to address. The closing remarks for each side were delivered by Soskin and Ludwig, after which the audience was invited to vote for which side they felt offered the best arguments. The final tally was 246 for the proposition, and 104 for the opposition.
“The WCDU plans to organize another debate on the changing role of the media later this semester,” Monnie said.