Last month, an intercollegiate debate made international news. Leslie Brody, in the Wall Street Journal, reported on incarcerated Bard College students — enrolled through the Bard Prison Initiative within a maximum-security prison — debating against cadets from West Point. The Bard team won. The triumph of the incarcerated college students was a continuation of their success against Harvard last fall.
Unsurprisingly, the focus of reporting has centered on Bard’s win over Harvard and West Point as well as the role education plays in reducing recidivism. As the officer in charge of West Point’s debate team, though, I want to offer another perspective on how the debates between cadets at the U. S. Military Academy and the Bard Prison students contribute to the development of future Army officers. Although the actions that caused these men and women to be in prison clearly do not live up to the values of the academy or the expectations of behavior for Army leaders, the interactions cadets have with BPI debaters generate trust and break down barriers that divide communities. They also remind us of the universal value of education.
The debate between prisoners and cadets is a unique opportunity for our young leaders to be exposed to a community and culture that are often ostracized and by definition segregated from society. West Point cadets who participate in these debates contribute to the education and rehabilitation programs that reduce recidivism and help society overcome the cycle of imprisonment. Further, it is through debate at West Point, and perhaps public service in general, that cadets set a positive example for contributing to learning during incarceration.
Cadets from the U. S. Military Academy were the first debate team to compete at the Eastern Correctional Facility in 2014, and last year became the only team to record a win against Bard.
But it is important to understand that we don’t bring cadets to Eastern Correctional Facility for charity or to fulfill civic responsibility. Cadets continue to debate BPI students because, performed properly, debate requires outstanding research ability, critical thinking, public speaking ability, mental agility and flexibility, and the application of reason and logic to solve a problem — all under strict time constraints. David Register, the Bard coach, explained in the Guardian that “our debaters spend hundreds of hours preparing in the three to four months they usually have to get ready for a debate, in addition to carrying full course loads. They are critical of one another and push each other to improve. They practice constantly.” I agree with David. In fact, the BPI students have proven to be extraordinary practitioners of academic discipline and superb debaters.
The U.S. Military Academy’s relationship with the Bard Prison Initiative blends seamlessly with West Point’s vision of cadet development — a liberal arts education, living honorably through trust and the pursuit of excellence. For incarcerated students, enrollment in BPI cultivates the mind, enriches the soul and helps prepare for a better tomorrow. The training BPI provides is similar to how West Point offers a broad base of education that meets Samuel Huntington’s belief that an officer must have a “deeper understanding of human attitudes, motivations, and behavior which a liberal education stimulates.”
While cadets have debated with students on the Bard campus for many years, the prison debate also engages West Point in a profound and entirely different way. BPI students in the audience and their debaters in particular share with cadets their story of the human condition and its vulnerability and fallibility. These students, whose crimes range from drug offenses to violence, have chosen to use education, argumentation and discourse to enhance their understanding of the world around them and their place in it, rather than allowing their crimes to define the rest of their lives. This is an unconventional, but no less valuable, way to provide cadets examples of the pursuit of excellence.
Cadets believe their participation in these debates has a significant impact on their understanding of the human experience that helps inform their perspective on leadership.
We ask cadets when they become officers to go into places and immerse themselves in cultures they don’t understand; we ask them to think critically to solve problems, to intermingle with people with whom others may not feel comfortable. We ask our junior officers to find common ground, ways to share ideas and solve problems. Cadets are transformed by their interaction with prisoners through debate in ways I believe fundamentally enhance their view of citizenship and service. The cadets’ experience with Bard Prison Initiative reminds us that these skills and experiences are essential — not only for future military leaders, but for all Americans.
Adam Scher is an assistant professor of American politics in the Department of Social Sciences at the United States Military Academy and has worked with intercollegiate policy debate for eight years. He graduated from West Point in 2004, and Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs in 2013. He was deployed to Iraq from 2005 to 2006 and from 2007 to 2008 with the 101st Airborne Division. He commanded a Stryker company in Kandahar, Afghanistan, from 2010 to 2011. In 2015, he deployed with the 82nd Airborne Division to Baghdad in support of Operation Inherent Resolve serving as the Iraqi Security Forces development officer. The views expressed in this piece are his own.