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.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

James Bald­win Debates Mal­colm X (1963) and William F. Buck­ley (1965): Vin­tage Video & Audio

Nor­man Mail­er & Mar­shall McLuhan Debate the Elec­tron­ic Age

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)

1,700 Free Online Cours­es from Top Uni­ver­si­ties

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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