Inmates in New York Prison Defeat Harvard’s Debate Team: A Look Inside the Bard Prison Initiative

If you want to prepare for a career practicing law, you could do much worse than joining Harvard University’s debate team. But if, far on the other end of the spectrum of the American experience, you end up deep on the wrong side of the law, going to prison rather than college, you need not relinquish your dreams of excelling at this traditional intellectual sport. We now have the precedent to prove it: “Months after winning a national title,” reports the Guardian‘s Lauren Gambino, “Harvard’s debate team has fallen to a group of New York prison inmates.”

“The showdown,” which revolved around the question of whether public schools should be allowed to turn away undocumented students, “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.” They call this program the Bard Prison Initiative, under which inmates have the chance to earn a Bard College degree (through a non-vocational “liberal arts curriculum, including literature, foreign language, philosophy, history and the social sciences, mathematics, science, and the arts”) at satellite campuses established in six New York state prisons. You can see this selective, rigorous and highly unusual educational institution in action in the Washington Post video above. And also in a 2011 PBS News Hour profile below.

The Bard Prison Initiative’s debate victory over Harvard made for a notable event in the program’s history indeed. “But it’s also worth pointing out,” writes Peter Holley, author of the Post article, “the fallacy of our underlying assumptions about such a matchup — the first (and most pernicious) being that criminals aren’t smart. If a definitive link between criminality and below-average intelligence exists, nobody has found it.” The Bard Prison Initiative has operated on that premise since 2001, and its debate team’s previous high-profile win saw it beating that of West Point — all, you may hardly believe, through old-fashioned research, without any kind of access to the internet. If you’d like to leave your condolences for the Harvard College Debating Union, you may do so at their Facebook page. You can also make a worthwhile financial contribution to the Bard Prison Initiative here.

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Clash of the Titans: Noam Chomsky & Michel Foucault Debate Human Nature & Power on Dutch TV, 1971

The Historic LSD Debate at MIT: Timothy Leary v. Professor Jerome Lettvin (1967)

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Colin Marshall writes elsewhere on cities, language, Asia, and men’s style. He’s at work on a book about Los Angeles, A Los Angeles Primer, the video series The City in Cinemaand the crowdfunded journalism project Where Is the City of the Future? Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.


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  • my_two_cents says:

    ‘teaching critical skills to adapt to a changing job market’… ‘rationality trumps impulse’… very intuitive and much needed for any society. Many people end up in prison because they were exposed to negative influences early on and did not have appropriate role models. This is the way we can change the phrase ‘Life is unfair’ to some extent. Hope these folks make a good life for themselves and contribute to a more mindful society.

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