Every institution of learning has its strengths and its weaknesses. One of Shimer's not-so-strengths is modern politics. In Social Sciences 2 we learn all about the formation of the founding documents and the various definitions and aspects of liberty, but Hobbes, Locke, and Rousseau can only take you so far in understanding current political debates.
There are, of course, electives, lectures, and activities that supplement the core curriculum and offer education about topics not addressed in the required classes. One of these activities is Constitution Day. Shimer has observed this tradition since 2005 when the United States Department of Education announced the requirement that any school receiving federal funding observe this federal holiday with a debate.
I will be honest by saying that I was not looking forward to the event at first. If I were ever required to take part in a debate on whether or not we should have debates, my stance would be a firm 'no.' However, watching my fellow Shimer students changed my mind.
The event was organized by facilitator Stuart Patterson and third-year student Matt Kawahara, who has a lot of experience in the debating arena. The question was: "Should Supreme Court justices retain their position for the remainder of their lives after being appointed (the status quo), or should they be subject to elections/re-appointment (reform)?"
On the side of the reform was fourth-year student Adam Bechtol (farthest to the left in the photo above) and first-year Jonah Ragir. The Shimerians defending the status quo were third-years Leo Mollica and Dorian Gomberg. The debate was set up as follows (stolen from the email sent out by Matt Kawahara):
1. The reform side of the debate will present arguments for their side of the debate. (6 minute time limit)2. 5 minute period of cross-examination, in which the defenders of the status quo will be permitted to ask questions about the arguments given by the reform speakers.3. 5 minute period of preparation time, where the defenders of the status quo will prepare and write responses to the arguments given by the reform speakers.4. Defenders of the status quo "good behavior" clause of the constitution will present arguments in favor of the current system of appointing justices, and respond to the arguments given by the reform speakers. (8 minute time limit)6. 5 minute period of preparation time, where the reform proponents will prepare and write responses to the arguments given by the reform speakers.7. The defenders of reform will respond to the arguments presented by the status quo and defend their original arguments against the status quo's responses.8. Cross-fire period. This is like cross-examination, except that both sides of the debate will be able to ask questions of one another. This is more like an open conversation between both sides of the debate about the arguments that were presented.After this, the judges will present their thoughts on the debate and make suggestions for how to improve argumentative quality and oral presentation of points.
I did not take enough notes to give an accurate blow-by-blow, but there were two great lines used by both sides that stuck in my mind. (I hope they will forgive me for pulling their words out of context and if I misquote them at all.)
Leo said, "The plural of 'anecdote' is not 'data.'" (Which, to be honest, he said was not his own creation, but is still an awesome thing to say.)
To which Jonah replied, "Pure statistical data does not give us history."
Although I came in dreading the idea of sitting through a debate, I actually find myself hoping Shimerians will start doing this sort of thing more than just once a year. Who knows, maybe I will even take part in one.