It was an event styled after the 2007 movie “The Great Debaters”: A troupe of debaters from a historically black college came north to take on a national debate giant. But this time, the stakes were lower and the teams different — whereas Harvard and Wiley faced off in the movie, Yale took on Howard University this weekend in Woolsey Hall.
“The Great Debate,” sponsored by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and the Yale Debate Association, featured teams of debaters from the two schools dueling over questions about race and equality in America. Howard students, who drove up for the debate, New Haven public school students and Connecticut NAACP members filled a sell-out crowd at Woolsey Hall, which also included a handful of Yale students and the entire Yale debate team.
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“I was incredibly nervous,” Yale’s Steven Kryger ’10 said, “especially when I heard that they were expecting between 2,200 and 2,700 people. I had never spoken before an audience that size in my life.”
The debate opened by asking whether a “high-quality education” — a term that was the subject of fierce debate throughout — should be a constitutional right. Yale took the podium first, supporting the proposition by arguing that full participation in American democracy, including the ability to run for office, necessitates a college degree. Howard’s team countered by arguing against governmental education mandates and pointing out the subjectivity of the term “high-quality.”
The audience, until that point most visibly applauding the Howard team, first broke into cheers for the Yale side when Yale debater Sabrina Ali ’11 responded, claiming “whichever you prefer, Yale University or Howard University, is better than no education at all!”
Howard linguistics professor Richard Wright said the Howard debaters personally disagreed with the proposition they were called upon to argue.
“It was really interesting for me to see Yale arguing what the black community would normally support,” he said after the debate.
The debate then moved to a question of discrimination: Should federal bailout money go to banks and firms in which some individuals had demonstrated racially discriminating lending practices?
Yale argued yes, Howard said no. Allowing banks to fail would harm the entire economy, Kryger and Jonathan Eng ’11 said, when only the individual perpetrators should be punished. Howard responded by saying that whole companies should be punished and that we cannot necessarily count on the government to crack on the individual predatory lenders.
Neither team was named a winner, but both received trophies from the schools’ respective NAACP chapters. James Luccarelli ’10 filled out the Yale squad. Howard students Angela Porter, DeAndre Bailey, Valetta Burgess, Jared Smith, Allen Reynolds and Melech Thomas represented the Washington, D.C. university.
“It was good that no official winner was declared,” Eng said.
Howard debater Reynolds said the audience seemed to favor Howard, adding, “It would have been nice to see more Yale students.”
The event’s welcome featured Ned Lamont, the 2006 Democratic nominee for U.S. Senate in Connecticut; Janette Dates, dean of Howard’s School of Communications; and University Provost Peter Salovey. Before the debate, Scot Esdaile, president of the Connecticut NAACP State Conference, announced plans for a full competition between historically black colleges and Ivy League debate teams, set to take place next year.