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In the New York Times Education Life section today there is a heartwarming story about two African-American boys, friends from Jackson, Mississippi, who managed to leave poor single-parent families and get themselves into Ivy League schools. Justin Porter just finished his freshman year at Harvard and Travis Reginal just finished his freshman year at Yale .

There is much to be learned from the two short essays that these boys contribute to the issue. Justin reports that his mother “worked awfully hard to protect me from [the world]. Television, rap music, even basketball with the kids on the block were beyond consideration.” Instead, his mother picked him up from school and “walked him to the library every afternoon.” Travis, meanwhile, credits not only the value his mother placed on education, but also the intellectual equal he found in Justin.

But both boys also call attention to the time they spent debating in high school. Travis writes: “The work we did gave me a depth of analytical skills, perhaps my greatest preparation for college.” This is an important observation, not just because it says that debating can be an important tool for increasing the intellectual rigor in high school. But it also suggests that the analytical skills students are supposed to be learning by, say, writing papers in high school, has gone by the wayside.

Debating may seem like something old-fashioned, an activity best left to New England prep school kids from politically connected families. But it used to be a much more important part of the school curricula. There was a time when students were asked to stand up in front of the classroom, answer a question, and defend that answer. Now it would be seen as insensitive to make high school kids (or even college ones) speak in front of their classmates. And the idea that you could have an argument about, say, history, and the argument would have a clear winner and loser has also gone out of style.

It’s only a slight oversimplification to say that in schools today, there are no right answers and no winners or losers. Travis says that in Justin he found “what I had long hoped for—a black male who could push me intellectually.” That note of friendly competition is what is missing from the education many poor kids today receive. They can compete on the basketball court or the football field but the classroom? Forget it.

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