Philosopher Convicts

One of the nation’s finest debate teams lost to a group of New York inmates. It reads like something from a feel-good movie, but it happened back in October, and I had only recently heard the news. According to The Guardian:

The inmates were asked to argue that public schools should be allowed to deny enrollment to undocumented students, a position the team opposed.

One of the judges, Mary Nugent, told the Wall Street Journal that the Bard team effectively made the case that the schools which serve undocumented children often underperformed. The debaters proposed that if these so-called dropout factories refuse to enroll the children, then nonprofits and wealthier schools might intercede, offering the students better educations. She told the paper that Harvard’s debaters did not respond to all aspects of the argument.

The Harvard team directed requests for comment to a post on its Facebook page that commended the prison team for its achievements and complimented the work done by the Bard initiative.

“There are few teams we are prouder of having lost a debate to than the phenomenally intelligent and articulate team we faced this weekend, and we are incredibly thankful to Bard and the Eastern New York Correctional Facility for the work they do and for organizing this event,” the debate team wrote days after their loss.

Aside from Harvard, the team has beaten rivals from West Point and the University of Vermont.

Launched in 2001, Bard Prison Initiative is a privately funded program by nearby Bard College that offers inmates over sixty courses in the liberal arts; it has already expanded to six prisons. Anyone with a GED or equivalent can apply, and there is so much interest in it that each available spot has almost ten applicants.

While in prison, Kenner said students are encouraged to “make the most of every opportunity”.

Carlos Polanco, a 31-year-old from Queens and a member of Bard’s winning debate team, is among the roughly 15% of inmates at the correctional facility in Napanoch who has taken advantage of the education program.

“We have been graced with opportunity”, Polanco, who is in prison for manslaughter, told the Wall Street Journal after the debate. “They make us believe in ourselves”.

Indeed, only 2 percent of Bard’s graduates return to prison within three years (the usual assessment period) — compared to 40 percent statewide. It is amazing what an education, particularly in the humanities, can do for the human spirit. Here’s hoping more programs like this emerge around the country.

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