WASHINGTON — It was a tale of academic worlds colliding when two debate teams shared the stage before a large audience inside the Cramton Auditorium at Howard University this weekend. Perhaps the third time was the charm. On the stage at the audience’s left was the Howard University Debate Team, representing one of America’s most prominent historically Black colleges. At the right was the Yale University Debate Association, representing the illustrious Ivy League. The Yale Debate Association was crowned in 2011 by the American Parliamentary Debate Association as Club of the Year — a distinction it also won in 2010 and 2009.
It’s with those things in mind that the NAACP’s third annual Great Debate, which took place between the Howard and Yale debate teams over the weekend, should be viewed. The first topic was whether society should create more privately-operated public charter schools. The second was whether Washington, D.C. should be granted statehood. When it came time for Howard team member Gavette Richardson to sum up her team’s arguments on the merits of charter schools, she said the case for charter schools was no different than Brown v. Board of Education or the Little Rock Nine. Her Yale opponents argued that charter schools actually lead to segregation — the very things that those two landmark civil rights events were meant to under. Which team made the stronger case is difficult to say definitively since the third annual Great Debate didn’t have a panel of judges to make that determination. But organizers say for now, declaring a winner in the Great Debate is not as important as it is to whet the public’s appetite for such battles of wit. “Usually, at a college debate, at the highest levels of competition, there’s usually only 10 to 20 people at the event,” said Scot X Esdaile, president and board member of the Connecticut State Conference of NAACP Branches. “But at an NAACP college debate, it’s always over 1,000 people in attendance.”
After drawing inspiration from Denzel Washington’s critically acclaimed 2007 movie “The Great Debaters,” Esdaile’s group was instrumental in getting the Great Debate started at Yale back in 2009. More such debates are underway. Esdaile reported Saturday that the NAACP is currently working on arranging debates between Morehouse College and Harvard University, as well as between Texas Southern University and Princeton University. He also said eventually the debates will likely become full-fledged competitions. “For this one, it was really just an opportunity to introduce debate on the campus and the community, and was viewed more as an exhibition than competition,” said Esdaile.