Commentary

Debates Show 'Impersonal' Businesses Playing a 'Human Role'

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Given the intense pressure schools face, it is vital for them to have the active support of American business. But the problem is that school-business partnerships often amount to rhetoric, followed by the donation of a fixed sum of money and, subsequently, a satisfied feeling that corporate responsibility has been relieved. In my opinion, such efforts are about as effective as giving your neighborhood school a sundial.

Happily, some progress is being made. For example, four years ago, our bank was approached by the New York City Board of Education with a request to do something for the schools that would be fun and would sharpen students' skills for later life.

Working with the board, we organized an annual forum called "The Lincoln-Douglas Debates.'' And last spring, we held our third competition in which 57 high-school teams competed.

The contest centered on the contention that "national security is more important to society than the public's right to know.''

In the final round, the rights of the governed and restraints on officials were hotly discussed: Should our government keep secrets from people in order to protect them? Can the public demand open access to official data?

In that debate, moderated by Peter Jennings, the ABC News anchorman, the verbal sparring between teams from Stuyvesant High School and the Bronx High School of Science was spectacular. One team tried to convince the judges that its opponents were confusing the public's "right'' to know with the mere "whim'' to know, and that our government is fully able to accommodate reasonable claims for information without giving away state secrets.

The other team argued that, from the moment the first man clubbed the first victim, "security'' has been the single societal concern that logically supersedes all others.

In making their case, the students used a striking choice of examples--the raid at Entebbe, the secret bombing of Cambodia, and the battle at the Bay of Pigs. Thus, in the debate, history--a subject that can be routine and forbidding--takes on immediacy and is infused with life.

For the students and their families who make up the audience, and the dozens of bank employees who volunteer their services, these debates are as intense as real experiences--clashes in court, charges in the press, and confrontations on the nightly television news.

Before we started this program four years ago, only 7 New York City public schools had standing debate teams--today, 57 do.

Of course, a major incentive is the prize money--a four-year, $10,000 scholarship to each student on the winning team and $10,000 to the school they represent; the second-place winners get $4,000; their school, $5,000. In addition, the bank offers summer jobs to Lincoln-Douglas winners throughout their college years.

But most important, in our view, is the reward the student debaters receive in terms of their education. The debates are a way we can provide stimulus to think under pressure, devise arguments, evaluate ideas--in short, an educational experience useful throughout life.

The event is indeed a "partnership.'' The students sharpen their oral skills--and those of us who sponsor and support the debates get an education in how "impersonal'' corporations can play a very human role in educating our nation's youth.

Vol. 6, Issue 33, Page 21

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