Public Schooling: Tory Debate No. 6
The Tories held their sixth debate on Wednesday, September 28. As is traditional, I was there for every bit of it.
This week we were to debate “Resolved: The Wall between School and State should be High and Impregnable.” The language, of course, reminds us of
I digested several pieces on the subject, including an LA Times piece by my favorite writer, David Gelernter, called “Let’s Get Rid of Public Schools.” I also reached back into the files of my blog to pull up the results of a culture quiz I had conducted at my school a year before. I assembled about a page-long outline of the speech I would give that evening.
The debate was scheduled for 7:45 (which meant that it would start no earlier than 8:00). My weekly Wednesday night shiyur had been postponed by the rabbi, who had business from the previous night that needed to be wrapped up. As a result, I would be able to make it to the Tories as early as I wished.
I put on a brand-new grey suit (that I had bought with the Tories in mind) and a burgundy tie. Looking sharp – looking like a Tory should look – I left for the debate at 7:30. We were located in the Berkley Commons this time, which is long room that runs parallel to
I had arrived at the same time as a few Tories and the chief whip (who, true to his advertisement on the whipsheet, brought pizza). After we had the room set up we began a pre-debate debate, over what the precise meaning of the resolution actually was. Most of us agreed that we would be talking about school and government in general (as opposed to Yale and the surrounding town) but it was unclear whether a “high and impregnable wall” would preclude the government’s giving money to students to enable them to go to charter and private schools. After some discussion, the majority seemed to interpret the resolution as allowing for such government help, which was fortunate in that that was the view I had taken in preparing my speech.
As we moved towards debate time, our showing was on the anemic side; I expected that it would gradually improve as it had last week.
The president of the YPU showed up for a second time in a row. Also among our group was one freshman I hadn’t seen since the first debate, and two others who were here for their first time. They were appropriately welcomed by the former chairman (who is always careful to make everyone feel at home) and it was not long after their arrival that the debate was called to order.
We began as always with the secretary’s reading of the minutes. My speech from last week had been well captured, even mentioning that I had been asked to rank all the parties in the YPU according to their ability to handle natural disasters. The actual ranking I had produced was not, however, recorded in the minutes, so I proposed an amendment showing that I had put the Tories at the top of the list. The amendment was, of course, seconded and passed.
The minutes also recorded that last week’s resolution had succeeded, despite only a plurality being in favor. This matter was still under investigation, so no correction to the minutes on this point was proposed.
The minutes being approved as amended, the secretary was asked to stand and read the topic of the night’s debate:
“Resolved: The Wall between School and State should be High and Impregnable.”
The first speaker in the affirmative was the chief whip. He had come with a “prop” (just as I had). An appropriate motion being passed to allow him to use it, he took the floor brandishing a thick volume entitled Triumph : The Power and the Glory of the Catholic Church.
“You see here,” he began, “many words which we are no longer allowed to use in society today: ‘Triumph,’ ‘power,’ ‘glory,’ and the ‘Catholic Church.’… ‘And’ and ‘the’ are still considered acceptable.”
The chief whip spoke of
I always admire the chief whip’s arguments for their emphasis on strength and accepting the responsibility of taking care of oneself. He argued for complete severance of the state-school relationship, though he agreed (on my question) that the state can provide a voucher-like system to insure that poor students would also have the opportunity of an education.
After the chief whip answered his questions and was thanked, we were ready for the first speech in the negative, which was given by the former chairman. He started with a poke at the chief whip, saying that in preparation for his term as chairman, he had gone to visit “The Edmund Burke Society,” which was founded at the
The chairman too answered questions (including one very detailed one concerning the meaning of “general Welfare” in Article I, Section 6 of the Constitution) and was thanked. We were now in line for a second speech in the affirmative. I volunteered and was recognized.
I pulled my page of notes from my breast pocket and unfolded it in view of the chairman, who asked if there was an appropriate motion on the floor.
“For a motion, Mr. Chairman,” said the former chairman, who was recognized. “I move that the gentleman be allowed to use a prop.”
“Second,” said another Tory. The chairman noted the motion as having passed, and I began my speech:
“I am going to avoid the waffling type of argument the former chairman has accused us of making and be as specific as possible – I will be talking about American public schools. I will further avoid the ‘dire predictions’ that the former chairman had accused us of making. Instead, I will talk about what is going on right now.
“I myself am a product of the public school system, so I am in a position to tell you what I saw. And it was very bad.
“I had English teachers who could not speak English, math teachers who could not do math, and history teachers who did not know history.
“My teachers would often demonstrate that they did not know what they were talking about. For example, there was one English class I had my senior year in high school in which I would often harshly criticize the books we read because they were, after all, no good. My teacher finally told me that I should ‘critique without judging.’ That doesn’t mean anything! It would have been exactly the same statement had she told me to ‘judge without criticizing.’
“Aside from this, I ran into any number of infantile assignments. In one instance, also in a senior-year English class, our teacher gave us a final assignment for a novel we had just completed. This senior-year final project was to make a patchwork quilt. Each student would make a couple of patches: one would have a drawing, one would have a quotation. Then we would bring them all in and staple them together and hang it on the wall and this would add to our depth of understanding of the book.
“I have been interested for some time in discovering just how good, or rather how bad, my public school education was. To this end, I decided to give a representative sample of students at my school a sort of ‘culture quiz.’ I would ask these students five questions* that were basic to American or world history. If a majority, or a great majority, of students couldn’t come up with the answers, one can only assume that this is material that isn’t being covered adequately in our schools.
“These are the questions that I asked: One: Who was the first American in space? Two: Who perpetrated the Bataan Death March? Three: Name the first book of the Bible. Four: Who wrote, “With malice towards none, with charity to all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right…” – one of the greatest statements ever made by an American. And five: To whom did Churchill refer when he said, “Never in the field of human conflict, has so much been owed, by so many, to so few.”?
“It took me several months to get this poll out, because I was violently opposed by some at my school. These are the results:
“The question we did best on was ‘name the first book of the Bible.’ A whopping 54% of students knew that it was Genesis. The second strongest showing was the Bataan Death March question – 28% of students, a little more than a quarter, knew that it was the Japanese. This embarrassingly poor showing is hardly surprising in view of the fact that, while our history text spent several pages on
“Just 4% of students knew that the first American in space was Alan Shepard. Popular answers were Neil Armstrong, the first American on the moon, the trumpet player Louis Armstrong, and the Tour de France cyclist Lance Armstrong.
“Slightly over one in twenty (6%) recognized Abraham Lincoln’s famous line from the Second Inaugural Address; some attributed the quote to Gandhi or Martin Luther King Jr.
“Fewer than one in twenty – only 3% – knew that Churchill was thanking the Churchill was thanking the Royal Air Force for its heroic victory in the Battle of Britain. More than twice as many (8%) thought that Churchill was talking about the Nazis – an extraordinary answer suggesting either an inability to read English or to think straight.
“40% of students could not answer a single question.
“These problems do not appear to be restricted to my high school. A recent survey in The Weekly Standard showed that only 12% of graduating high school seniors are proficient in science. We ranked 19th out of the 21 countries surveyed.
“This doesn’t guarantee that things aren’t bad at private schools, but private schools have a crucial advantage in that it is radically easier to fire bad teachers and cut out bad curricula. Private schools can – and out of necessity must – operate efficiently.
“Public schools, on the other hand, are extremely incompetent – if there were a Platonically ideal model of incompetence it would probably be the public school system. They are as bad as you can get…”
“For a point of information,” offered the secretary, who was recognized. “Is it not in fact the case that the New Haven Police Department is the most incompetent organization in
“This is…” the chairman paused for a moment of reflection, “not in fact the case.”
“Point of information,” said another Tory. “Is it not in fact the case that the IRS is the most incompetent organization in existence?”
“This is in fact the case,” admitted the chairman with another rap of his gavel.
“This merely goes to underline my point,” I continued, “that government is in general extremely incompetent.
“A writer named John Chubb did some investigative reporting on this subject. He compared two school systems that function side by side – the New York City public school system, and the privately run New York Catholic school system (which does not only educate Catholics – their pupils are in fact mostly minority non-Catholic students). On the one hand the Catholic school system is achieving considerable success, while on the other hand the public school system is failing. Mr. Chubb decided to ask of both these organizations just one question. He went to the
“Now, I do believe that we have an obligation to help everyone get the education he deserves. This does not mean that we need public schools. A very fine article on the topic pointed out that while we need an air force of planes built with public money, they are built by private companies. The case is exactly parallel to that of the schools, the one difference being that students are not armed with air-to-air missiles.
“So, what can we do to fix this problem? We can take the money we spend on the public school system and give it to students so they can afford private or charter schools. If we give students a choice of schools, these schools will suddenly have to compete for business. They will have to provide good teachers and good curricula or the students will leave and they will collapse.
“And we will be better off. And with that I yield the floor.”
There were plenty of questions for me, but I handled myself well. Upon being thanked for my speech and returning to my seat, one of the freshmen (the same one who had been acting sergeant at arms two weeks ago) proposed a motion to thank me again for my speech in light of the original research I had shared with the body. The motion was passed and I was thanked a second time.
I was extremely happy with my speech, which had largely fallen together as I was speaking it, helped along from point to point by my notes. It had come off just right, with laughs and applause in all the right places and plenty of energy throughout.
It is only as a write this now that I realize that at no time during the debate was I the least bit nervous. Now, you may ask, why should I nervous? When I came to my first debate it was a daunting task to succinctly state and defend my opinions in front of a roomful of thinking men. I have heard such sentiments expressed by other Tories as well. Nevertheless I had thoroughly enjoyed my speech, from the “Thank you, Mr. Chairman,” that precedes all statements on the Tory floor, to the last question I answered.
There were several speeches to follow; there was one in the negative by the secretary, and then one in the affirmative by a Tory of long standing. We were subsequently ready for a speech in the negative, and one of the new freshmen volunteered. His speech, and the subsequent speech in the affirmative, also given by a new freshman, made a very interesting pair.
The freshman arguing in the negative declared that he had attended private school, and it was far from good (he said that a cafeteria custodian had been promoted to the level of history teacher when funds ran dry – a story which I do not doubt for a minute). He claimed that if there were only private schools, they will feel free to raise prices as high as they want – so long as wealthy people can afford to pay it. They would obviously prefer $15,000 per student than a $5000 government voucher. The problem of the inevitable inequality in a no-public-school system troubled him. Following his question time, the appropriate motion was made to thank the gentleman for his fine maiden speech on the Tory Floor. It was passed and we all went over to shake his hand.
The freshman arguing in the affirmative also made a very good speech (perhaps even better than the last). He made the important point that inequality will always exist, but that it is actually a good thing – it is necessary in a competitive society. If he has two products to choose from, one of them will obviously be better than the other. A similar choice should be available as far as schools are concerned. He also managed to point out that taxation bears remarkable similarity to theft, and while charity is part of his Christian duty, if one makes it mandatory it is no longer charity. As he finished answering his questions, the appropriate motion was made to thank the gentleman for his maiden speech and we rose once again to shake hands.
Following his speech, the president of the YPU gave a speech in the negative. The most memorable moment was when she explained that, in third grade in a private school, she had been forced to learn some concept of math by folding pieces of printer paper. She therefore stated that Mr. Gelernter was not alone in having to do construction paper projects – these things happen in private schools too. I then offered the point of information, “Is it not in fact the case that the lady is comparing something she did in third grade to something I was forced to do in 12th grade?”
This was in fact the case – an amusing restatement of the laughable incompetence of the public school system.
Following the president of the YPU’s speech, the chairman gave what turned out to be the final speech of the evening. He spoke in the affirmative. He was shocked, he said, that we had barely discussed the vital issue of the need to teach patriotism in the schools, and that this was something that public schools were failing to do. He was therefore proud to support a new system that is privately operated and that, by force of demand, will not only teach students to read and write, but also to instill them with love of country.
After his question session was wrapped up, we were ready to put the matter to a vote. The chairman selected an acting sergeant at arms to divide the body. I walked over to the affirmative side and saw that things were looking good. There were six Tories, including myself, on the affirmative side of the room, and only four on the negative side. Nevertheless, the sergeant at arms and the secretary had yet to vote. The sergeant arms counted, and then whispered something to the secretary, who, in turn, whispered something to the chairman.
At length the chairman announced, “By a vote of seven to six, the resolution is affirmed.” This meant both the sergeant at arms and the secretary had voted in the negative, but that the chairman had stepped in to break the tie – and voted on my side. I had won my second debate of the year, and was now 2-4 overall. The decision was roundly applauded by the affirmatives, and I seconded the traditional motion to adjourn to Yorkside in exceptionally good spirits.
Eight of us moved off to Yorkside for our traditional wrap-up, where we discussed things such as the fictitiousness of the Spanish language. After a pleasant 45 minutes or so I adjourned yet again, this time to my bed.
* It should be noted that my poll actually contained six questions; the sixth question returned results just as bad as the other five, however I neglected to mention it in my speech.