I wrote this op-ed last week and sent it around to a few papers here in Alabama. Nobody wanted to publish it, it seems, so here it is.
Is Governor Ivey smarter than a fifth grader?
I’ve been building middle school debate programs around the world for 17 years, and I’m not so sure that she is. At the very least, she’s not braver.
This week, I’ll be in New Orleans, where I’ll be working with teachers who coach debate. They come from all across the city, representing affluent and under-resourced schools alike. One thing these educators and coaches all have in common is a love for teaching students to engage in dynamic conversations about controversial current events that affect their community, state and nation. Their students, in grades 5-8, aren’t debating about which flavors of ice cream they prefer. They debate topics that would challenge any adult – subject matter that covers controversies in environmental policy, trade, education, and the criminal justice system. If these areas sound familiar, it’s because those are many of the areas where Alabama’s next governor should be have defensible opinions.
The key there is “defensible.” Debate requires that you go further than simply having an opinion – you have to defend it against criticism and in front of other people. It’s not easy. But while many adults are frightened of public speaking, every year many thousands of young people jump right in to practice one of the fundamental skills of citizenship. And, unlike our governor, they don’t hide from criticism.
There are two possibilities operating behind Governor Ivey’s refusal to debate her election opponent. First, it may be that she is simply unable to debate. Maybe she doesn’t have the stamina, depth of knowledge, or strength of her conviction. If any of these are the case, she’s definitely not fit to be governor. Alabama deserves someone who can stride into combative negotiations on our behalf, thinking and speaking quickly to defend our interests.
On the other hand, it’s possible that she’s intentionally ducking debates as part of her strategy to win an election. If true, this tactic is, frankly, cowardly. If middle school students across America are willing to brave a contest of words in public, why isn’t she?
In our middle school debate programs across the United States, the young people that we work with give me hope for the future of our democracy. They aren’t afraid to take a public position on the controversial issues of the day – nearly all of which lack easy answers and can’t be addressed by canned talking points. Our middle school students stand tall in the face of opposition. And they do it many dozens of times each year. Our governor won’t even agree to do it once. What’s worse, many Alabamians don’t seem to care.
We talk a lot about setting high expectations to make our schools better. We want to be proud of our students and all that they can achieve. We hope that they will represent the best of what Alabama has to offer to a global audience. Those offerings ought to begin with an elected Governor who is willing to engage in public debate about the solutions to the issues we all face.
Let’s also set high expectations for our governor. At the very least, we should expect her to do something that any middle school student can do: Have a debate. She might not be as skilled as they are, but that doesn’t excuse her from the obligation.
Kate Shuster is the co-director of the Middle School Public Debate Program, and an independent education consultant based in Montgomery. For more information on the Middle School Public Debate Program, visit www.middleschooldebate.com.