Friday, July 8, 2011

Debate Day!

I'll be in California 10 days from now. Sitting in my dorm at Columbia, listening to my suite-mates laughing as six of them try to cram onto a two-person sofa so they can all watch the Harry Potter marathon, that seems really hard to believe. How can I leave? Chances are, frankly, that I'll never see any of them again. I've made some incredible friends here, inside and outside me suite, and I don't want to loose them. Such is life, I suppose. On to happier subjects.

Class today was a whole lot of fun. In the morning, we looked at the establishment and free exercise clause in the First Amendment concerning religion, and trying to piece together exactly what that means. Specifically, today we looked at cases concerning the freedom of religion in public schools, and studying the three different ways of interpreting the two clauses: strict separation, meaning that the government cannot in any way endorse or harm a religion in any way; strict neutrality, meaning that the government must be neutral and fair when it comes to religion; and accommodationism, which accepts that religion is a part of life for certain people and tries hard to accommodate any and all religious views.

After lunch but before class started back up, I met with the other members of my team for the debate. I think I described a bit about this in my last blog, but in case I didn't, yesterday everyone was given a mock Supreme Court case (but with real laws) and given a side to defend and teammates to work with. In my case, I was arguing with three of my classmates that a federal law preventing the transport of “obscene” materials (in this case, pornography) was unconstitutional based on the First Amendment protecting speech. The funny thing was that, in the hours of morning lecture before we received our specific cases, we had gone over about a dozen cases that ruled that obscenity was not protected as free speech, which basically meant that our argument had to be good enough to overturn almost two centuries worth of precedents.

I had been in charge of the closing argument, which formed in bits and pieces as more research came in and teammates came up with various tactics and arguments we could try to persuade our three “judges” (meaning our teachers) to rule in our favor. In a way, the paper I held in my hand when I came into class this afternoon was still a rough draft: a lot of what I would be saying in closing would rely on the arguments of the other side. Because of this, I was frantically taking notes down during the opposition's opening argument and essentially re-writing my closing while my teammates asked and answered questions to try and further drive our point home (for those who care, we argued that a) the First Amendment makes no exceptions for obscene speech, despite prior jurisprudence, and b) that the only reason to declare any type of speech as unprotected is because it is in some way harmful or dangerous, which studies about pornography show that it is not harmful and therefore cannot be limited even by relying on precedents). The other side brought up a tactic I had never even considered, using philosophical arguments on the reasoning behind free speech to prove that some speech needs to be limited, so I rustled through my notes and came up with a counter-argument based on the same line of thinking in few minutes. The ruling ended up being two to one in favor of our side, which was incredibly surprising, as our mentality from the outset had not been “How can we win?” but rather “How can we lose less terribly than we really should?” Perhaps we had underestimated ourselves rather a lot, but the ruling in our favor was the only real upset in the class: the two other cases being debated were resolved in much the fashion everyone who knew the facts of the case thought they would be.

I've spent this entire evening doing even more research for my paper, even getting a few body paragraphs jotted down in my computer before my ever-helpful suite-mates coerced me downstairs for a game or two of pool before dinner. I plan on devoting the entirety of tomorrow to writing the paper itself and shoving the drafts under absolutely anyone's nose in the hopes that maybe they'll read it and help me edit it. But, if that's really how I plan to spend my Saturday, I will need my sleep!

Campaigning and Harry Potter

Today’s morning session featured our second guest speaker for our class, Sam Arora. Sam is a Columbia graduate and a Maryland State Delegate. He came to speak to us about presidential campaigning and his presentation was titled “Winning the White House: Presidential Campaign Organization, Strategy and Tactics.” Sam described to us essentially how a presidential campaign is run. The basic requirements for a campaign are money, time and people. Sam outlined the basic game plan to getting elected which includes fulfilling the constitutional requirements for a presidential candidate including being a natural born citizen, securing a nomination from either the Democratic or Republican party and being very familiar with the electoral college process.

California has the largest number of electoral votes at 54. A presidential candidate needs 270 out of 538 electoral votes to win. When a candidate is deciding which states to campaign in, Sam told us they look at whether the candidate from the area and the party’s record in past elections to get a better sense of whether the candidate actually has a shot at winning the state. We also spent some time analyzing presidential video campaigns from John Kerry, Mike Huckabee and Barack Obama.

Today, we turned in our 12 page rough draft of our papers as well as our 15 source bibliography and footnotes. In the evening, Milani and I went to the Museum of Moving Images for a special showing of Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. This is the first of many Harry Potter related events I plan on participating in during our last week in New York City, since we will not be allowed to watch the midnight showing of the final installment of the series: Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows pt. 2.

A Good Start to the Weekend

Our morning session started off with a guest speaker, Same Aurora. He is a Maryland delegate and came to speak to us about elections. He previously worked on several campaigns for democratic candidates like Hilary Clinton and knows pretty much how everything works.

He explained to us how everything in an election works. Like how when making commercials to either make your opponent look bad or convey to the public how you really are as a person. He showed several different examples of commercials that had underlying messages. Those were really cool because they could be interpreted in different ways.

Now I finally know how the electoral college works. In order to win, you must get at least 270 electoral votes out of 538. Of course, the most important state to win votes for is California because we have 54 electoral votes. Sam Aurora also taught us how to be strategic when campaigning whether it is reasonable to use your resources like money, people, and time there. The main question is: is it really helping your campaign? If no, then you would most likely want to pull out of the state or use your resources more wisely.

By the afternoon session my draft was done for my research paper. I handed it in before class started and was able to spend half of the class time reading for our assignment to be discussed on Monday and the other time I spent talking with my mother. I hadn't had a long conversation with her in a while because of the stress of writing my paper and staying up later. But now that they pressure was off for the 24 hours, I was able to relax and talk to her.

After our meeting with Mrs. L., Beilul and I went with an RA to see Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban at the Museum of the Moving Image. The theater was really nice and it was good to see at least one of the Harry Potter movies while in New York since we cannot see the premier of the newest one. It was fun to talk with the RA, who will be attending Teaching School at Columbia after she works abroad in Austria for a year.

Tomorrow is a busy day. I won't spoil it by telling you what I plan on doing. All I know is that it's going to be a lot of fun. I will make sure I enjoy my last full Saturday in NYC!

Words From a Weary Mind, Pt. 3

Cirque du Soleil: review cancelled.

It was awesome.

Enough has been said.

~Moving on.

In this final blog of my college comparison series, I would like to cover the final, fundamental aspect of educational institutions: logistics.

There are many important logistical concepts that are always applied to schools: money, prestige, selectivity, and location are all good examples. The difference between both college and high school here is greater than the previous two categories, academics and social atmosphere. A substantial amount changes in transition and comparison between the two. But, I'd like to make this about money.

First--money. The financial factor of colleges and universities alike is essentially a whole new world for public students. For private students, the concept of paying for your education does not change, but the details of the payment do. Even students who go to some of the most expensive high schools in the country may find themselves adding an additional zero to their college expense totals by comparison. Taking my high school, for example, I do not have to pay for any of the following: books, travel, physicals, health clinic availability, medical products, standardized testing (including A.P., S.A.T., A.C.T., and the like), college applications, food, and other things of which are absent from my mind. That's a lot of free stuff.

In college, for most students (especially from my high school), all of that changes—a financial 180. Every single thing I listed is most likely a paid for service or good, and for residents, movers, and general students, tuition, rooming, and extraordinary travel expenses (interstate train/airplane opposed to local commuting which was implied in the high school coverage) also become necessary financial duties of the student.

Now, there are scholarships, grants, financial aid opportunities, and family contributions that will pay your college expenses without requiring any sort-of return (presumably with the family contribution). Those are the primary means of paying college. But, in a nation struck by financial crisis, public and private universities are increasing their expenses. It's necessary to thrive in an area that comes to resist such success more and more. And, on the average, many students are going to have to take out loans to entirely pay off college. Students that may not be above average, as deemed by colleges around the nation, may not get the best financial deal, let alone acceptance to the college of their choice.

So for the average student, some money is going to come with the assumption that it will be paid back. And, that's okay, assuming a sustainable job is available after college. Back to my point, money is an ever-recurrent motif of college life, which is a good thing, because it is a basic theme of life after college as well. Now, money is an explicit aspect of college life, and in high school, it's almost non-existent. I mean, of course, we know what money is, as teenagers. And, certainly, we know how to spend it. And, we know how to solicit from our parents pretty well, too.

But, we don't know money. We don't know the impact it does have in our life. Well, that's what were told, and subsequently what we think.

But, I would venture to argue that we, as high schoolers, and even as elementary students, do understand the gravity of money, in a subconscious way, almost, unless you think perpetually like me, in which case thoughts tend to surface.

I would claim that from first grade, we know what money is, and how money is weighed. We don't quite understand the context yet, and we definitely don't know the details, but we do know it, and we do know of it.

Why do I say this? I say this because, in an extremely implicit manner, we are taught, as Americans, that education comes first. We are taught that education is what matters most. Education is the beginning to the rest of your life. Education is life. That's what we come to learn.

From such knowledge, we derive an uncanny instinct, and certainly an instinct native to the U.S. It's an instinct to expand one's knowledge. It's actually pretty primal, too. Case-in-point, when the U.S.—as it still is today—was undergoing heavy job losses, the average American that did not have a back-up plan and could not find a suitable job thought first to attain higher education—to pursue higher education. It's certainly reasonable. A job applicant with a high school degree vs. a bachelor's is a no-brainer. Similarly, a bachelor's candidate vs. a master's candidate vs. a doctoral candidate is just as easy a decision to make. So, naturally, when times get rough, we strive for expansion of the mind. Because, we think, and to some degree know, that it will fix everything. Or, at least, it will fix more than what could be repaired at that very moment in time.

So, parents who understand that educational philosophy push students from day one to achieve excellence in school. In fact, the goal of high school—the absolute aim—isn't to enjoy it. It isn't to "do your best" or "find your identity." It isn't even to get your high school degree, though that comes as a necessary and convenient supplement. No, the goal of high school is to get you into a great college. Because, the better the college, the better the education, the better chance you will succeed in life.

That is what we know, and that is what we are taught from our first day in school.

And, there's nothing wrong with that. Again, it's all very logical. But, to claim that we do not understand the significance of currency and of money is an ignorant claim.

Just to further my point, tons of "college preparatory" high schools have sprouted around the nation within the last decade. And, they continue to populate themselves. Why? Because, they promise to (and often do) increase the chances of your child gaining acceptance to college.

So, in a way, I guess I can refute my own point from the beginning. I can even reverse it. Money, a logistic of college, compared to high school, is not all that different in terms of understanding, though a whole new entity in application, to be fair.

And, for the last time, unless I change my mind, these are my disorganized, rambled thoughts for the day.

P.S. I hope you find them useful! I kind of learned something myself in writing it. That goes to show my point of subconscious understanding and the surfacing thereof, huh?

And The Verdict Is In...

...By a vote of 2-1, the judges vote in favor of Stewart. Its not a great feeling to lose. Now that I know that my team lost the debate, its time to reflect and see what went wrong.

Looking back, I don't believe we lost because of lack of evidence, but because our delivery of the evidence was poor. I think my team had a strong start right out of the gate. Christina's opening statement was strong and set the foundation for our case. No problems there. When the defense followed with their opening statement, I also felt as if it was strong, and began to explain that the defendant, Lisa Stewart, was innocent because of the rights guaranteed by the first amendment. What made their opening statement unique from any of the other opening statements of the day was that they took the chance to try and discredit some of our claims, which they just heard. After the first round, I thought both teams were tied.

Next came the question and answer session where the objective is to reinforce one's argument and yet poke holes in the opponents reasoning. When Ethan and I stepped up to field the defense's questions, I admit I was nervous. Ethan and I had tried to predict some questions we might be asked and I thought we had it in the bag. However, the arguments from the defense was something we hadn't expected. We had assumed that the defense would argue that Stewart was protected by free speech, but instead the defense claimed that Stewart intended for no violence to happen based on the fact that she called for a "trial for crimes against humanity". When we were asked what the intent of the pamphlet was, I calmly stated that Stewart was calling for action as evidenced by "We need to starve Satan and stop abortion...Here is a directory of the baby butchers." When the defense tried to make a statement instead of asking a question, Ethan blew up and yelled, "Ask the question already!" which lead a tense moment. While Ethan and the defense could only communicate by yelling, I tried my best to keep calm and answer the questions. I believe that Ethan and I discredited most of their claim but what really made or break the debate was when my team got to ask the questions.

Irene Gonzalez, not to be confused with Irene Tait who is in the Columbia cohort, picked up right where Ethan left off and began screaming her questions. When the opposition attempted to answer before Irene finished her question, Irene raised her voice, which led the defense to raising theirs. This resulted in a Q&A session where no one knew what the questions or answers were because it became a contest to see who could drown the other side out. This really decreased our chances to win because we were relying on the questioning to make our case. Advantage defense.
Finally came the closing statements. Like the opening statements, I thought the closing statements for both sides were pretty equal. I don't think that either closing statement was particularly strong because Ethan started mentioning arguments that we never talked about in our trial, and the defense kept on trying to justify their argument that we discredited. Ethan's closing may have been just slightly better, but I knew it wasn't going to be enough to make our group victorious.

While I wanted to win, losing isn't so bad because I can take the mistakes from this trial and learn from them. This will only make me better for our debate next week on the last day of class.