Harvard debate team loses to New York prison inmates, fair and square

Be it resolved that going to an Ivy League school doesn't necessarily make one a master debater.

Surprised? You won't be when you see The Bard Debate Union at Eastern Correctional Facility's win record

The Bard Debate Union at Eastern Correctional Facility has bested The University of Vermont, The U.S. Military Academy at West Point, and now Harvard since its 2014 inception. (Bard Debate Union/Bard College)

An Ivy League education doesn't necessarily make one better at arguing points for points.

Harvard University's award-winning debate team is making headlines this week for losing a competition in New York just months after once again winning a national title from the American Parliamentary Debate Association.

It's not the loss itself that has people talking, but rather who the prestigious team lost to: Three inmates from a maximum-security prison.

Carl Snyder, Dyjuan Tatro and Carlos Polanco are all currently incarcerated for violent crimes at Eastern New York Correctional Facility according to The Wall Street Journal.

They're also in the midst of earning degrees through the Bard Prison Initiative (BPI), a liberal arts education program that "creates the opportunity for incarcerated men and women to earn a Bard College degree while serving their sentences."

And, after facing off against three undergraduate students from the Harvard College Debating Union last month, they were declared victorious by a panel of veteran debate judges for successfully arguing against the statement "Public schools in the United States should have the ability to deny enrolment to undocumented students."

Surprised? You shouldn't be.

The Bard Debate Union's most recent victory is the third out of four total debates BPI members have ever participated in.

Since the BPI-specific team's inception in April 2014, Bard Debate Union at Eastern Correctional Facility has bested the University of Vermont, The U.S. Military Academy at West Point, and now Harvard. It lost only one debate to West Point in April of 2015.

"Their academic ability is impressive," said Judge Mary Nugent to the Wall Street Journal, noting that the Bard team made a strong case with their argument that overcrowded schools attended by many undocumented children were simply warehousing children.

Nugent also explained that judges can only justify their votes based on specific rules and standards. 

"I don't think we can ever judge devoid of context or where we are," she said in response to the idea of judges showing favour to the prison team. "But the idea they would win out of sympathy is playing into pretty misguided ideas about inmates." 

Dhruva Bhat, President of the Harvard College Debating Union, told similarly that his team "definitely did not" go easy on the inmates.

"That would have been incredibly disrespectful of their talent and work," he said.

In a Facebook status posted after losing the friendly competition at Eastern New York Correctional Facility, Harvard's debate team called its opponents at Bard "phenomenally intelligent and articulate."

They, along with others who witnessed the debate, were impressed by the BPI team's arguments — particularly in light of the fact that the inmates were not permitted to use the Internet for research ahead of the debate. Only books and articles approved by prison administrators are allowed into the correctional facility.

"Not having access to the Internet definitely made it a lot harder for them," Bhat said. "Clearly Bard has given them a very solid foundation."

The program might have provided them with a foundation, but it's worth noting that it is incredibly competitive to enter. 

The Guardian reports that nearly 10 inmates apply for each of the 300 spots in BPI each semester, and that inmates must hold a high school diploma or equivalent before applying with written essays and personal interviews.

The incarcerated debaters who beat Harvard had to be smart before going to Bard — a fact that some feel has been missing from "heart-warming montage movie" news coverage of the event.

The Washington Post's Peter Holley summed up what many on Twitter have been saying in a piece published Wednesday called "Why you shouldn't be surprised that prisoners crushed Harvard's debate team." 

"It sounds like an underdog story plucked from the pages of a yet unwritten Walt Disney screenplay — and in some ways, it is," he writes. "But it's also worth pointing out the fallacy of our underlying assumptions about such a matchup — the first (and most pernicious) being that criminals aren't smart."

"In 2015, can you seriously imagine preparing for anything — purchasing a movie ticket, looking up directions or researching basically anything — without going online?" he continued. "If debate is equal parts rhetorical flourish and strategy, it's worth asking whether circumstance forced the prisoners to devise an approach — in which limited resources demanded sharper focus and more rigorous planning — that resulted in superior lines of argumentation."

Or maybe, the young men from BPI are simply great debaters.

As one of the inmates on Bard's team, 31-year-old Alex Hall, told the Wall Street Journal: "We might not be as naturally rhetorically gifted, but we work really hard."


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