At City College, a matter of debate Oratory: The Baltimore school, bucking a national trend, is reviving the ancient art of debating after discontinuing the discipline in the mid-1970s.

The Education Beat

June 12, 1996|By Mike Bowler | Mike Bowler,SUN STAFF

JERRY SEINFELD says people prefer dying over public speaking. And statistics show they do a better job at it.

The art of speaking has reached such a low point in education that most schools have given up the battle.

Speech, as a high school elective, is vanishing. Entire speech departments in colleges and universities have been disbanded.

Debate teams can be found in a handful of Roman Catholic and private schools. Oratory is considered a quaint relic, though the Optimist Club and the NAACP's Afro-Academic Cultural, Technological and Scientific Olympics (ACT-SO) still honor young people brave enough to carry on the 2,000-year-old tradition of Cicero.

It's welcome news, then, that City College, the closest thing Baltimore has ever had to a classical high school, is reviving the ancient art of debating.

It's a tradition that goes back 120 years at City but one that was abandoned (along with several other traditions) in the bleak mid-1970s.

With a little financial help from the Abell Foundation, teachers Donald Koch (appropriately pronounced "coach") and Catherine Orange, along with Joseph Wilson, the City principal, plan to fortify the forensics at the school, beginning with social studies (where Koch teaches) and English (Orange's discipline).

Koch, who transferred to City this year from Lake Clifton-Eastern, where he also organized a debating team, will conduct a summer workshop in debating skills for 30 students, culminating in a "warm-up" debate July 2.

Next year, City will field teams in both "Lincoln-Douglas" debate -- one-on-one -- and "panel" debate -- competing teams of three -- in the Baltimore Catholic Forensics League.

Wilson is a rarity in Baltimore public education. He's a lawyer who did not come up through the normal ranks to reach the City principalship.

"As a lawyer, I know something about the value of public speaking," he said yesterday. And as an educator, he said, he has observed its decline (along with a decline in writing skills).

It's not that students are tongue-tied, Orange, Koch and Wilson agreed. They speak excellent rap, for example, and want to resort to rap lyrics when Orange asks them to write sonnets.

But it's much too far a cry from the language of the Baltimore streets to the standard English students will need if they want to get along in the world beyond City College.

Moreover, Koch said, learning how to form an argument in debate helps students hone their thinking and writing skills.

City College has known that for 12 decades. "The school has always been a place of development for leaders in the Baltimore community, and we should be a little bit more self-confident about that," said Wilson.

Debating at City dates to 1876 with the founding of the Bancroft Society. Two years later came the Carrollton Literary and Debating Society.

For years the two societies competed each spring but faced competition from arch-rival Poly, from Gilman School and from many others.

(One year near the beginning of the century, City reportedly debated the all-black Douglass High School -- and lost.)

The 1936 debating topic was: "Resolved: That the several states should enact legislation providing for a system of complete medical service available to all citizens at public expense."

In 1959, debaters took on the pros and cons of legalized gambling and, two years later, they argued over the proposed city takeover of Baltimore Transit Co.

Alumni of City debating include several judges, two Maryland congressmen (Elijah Cummings and Benjamin Cardin) and a covey of the city's most successful and wealthy business leaders.

A new generation of leaders could be in the making.

In city, more teachers go private for their children

Public-school teachers choose private schools for their children less often than the public at large by a one-point margin (12.1 percent to 13.1 percent), according to 1990 census data.

But Dennis Doyle, a conservative and advocate of school vouchers, notes that in urban areas, teachers are significantly more likely than the public to enroll their children in private schools.

In 1990, 43.6 percent of all teachers in Baltimore chose private schools, while 18.1 percent of all families chose the private route. That's a difference of 25.5 percentage points.

Leave school system be, article urges in 1921

Quote: "What the school system needs is less publicity and less discussing. We have competent men in authority and the schools should be left entirely to their care. The vaporings and ravings of foolish citizens should stop. Let's all settle down and stay down and leave the broth to the cook."

-- City College Oriole, March 1921, quoted in "150 Years of Baltimore City College."

Pub Date: 6/12/96

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.