Wednesday, November 23, 2005

debate update

Having failed to engage an entire class full of high school kids in the great game of debate, I and the folks at [The School] decided to start trying to teach it to kids after school. I'd be working with only the most motivated kids, and there'd be less of them, and we figured I might be more succesful that way.

Well, no doubt there's been fewer kids. I had two show up for the first practice, one for the second, and three for the third, which was yesterday. This wouldn't be an issue if it were just me running the show. I can work with what I get. But the folks at [The School] really want there to be four kids involved on a consistent basis, so as to make it worth their while. Obviously I haven't quite reached that level.

Still, it's been a pretty cool experience. Two girls showed up to the first practice, and we spent the whole time just talking. I told them why I want to start a debate program ("I'm kind of a radical," I said), then I asked why they joined debate, what they want to get out of it. Then I asked what their goals are in life, and I told them ways in which debate could help them achieve those goals. Finally, I asked, "If you were in charge, if you were the president or the mayor, and you could change one thing, what would it be?"

This sparked a wide ranging conversation, covering everything from murders in the inner-city to reparations for the decendents of enslaved Africans. All the while I kept asking questions, trying to sharpen their focus, until I isolated one goal the two new debaters share: To gain respect for themselves and for their community.

With this mission statement of sorts in place, we turned to the topic high school kids across the country are debating this year:
Resolved: The United States federal government should substantially decrease its authority either to detain without charge or to search without probable cause.

I wrote this resolution on the board and we went through it section by section until the girls understood it. Then we started talking about how this relates to respect for them and for their community. Soon, we were discussing racial profiling, how cops seem to disrespect blacks. From there, we started piecing together a plan, a debate case we might argue this season, that would help us achieve our mission of gaining respect.

It was pretty simple. We'd have Congress pass a Racial Profiling Act, and we'd add on a requirement for cops to have regular meetings with people in the community, to learn more about them and naturally build more respect. If this were to happen, we reasoned, racial profiling would go down because cops would have a better idea of who's who, who deserves respect, and who deserves more scrutiny.

All the while I'm thinking about how this fits into a bunch of evidence I have at home, selections from policy papers and news reports and philosophical books which give warrants to the very arguments we were generating in this little classroom on Kansas City's East Side.

I said, "What would you think if I were to tell you that the ideas you came up with are the same ideas that scholars and people in power have come up with? How does that make you feel?"

They didn't qite know how to answer.

I continued, "See, you're just as smart as the people who run the world. Debate is a way for you to build on those smarts. To get some of the skills people use to get power."

They seemed to like the idea.

More later...

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