Here is a story from It's Your Choice
The Unethical High School Debate
In 1965, I was a junior at John Glenn High School in a small village in Long Island, New York. My favorite class was honors American History, taught by Ely Kaplan, one of my early mentors. That year, the class focused on the Civil War, and I found the subject exciting. Because this was an honors-level class, we blew through the standard syllabus and then did a lot of self-directed study, some of which was no small feat, as when I had to distill Bruce Catton’s 437-page book This Hallowed Ground into a brief report.
The highlight of the class that year was the in-class debate over the South’s secession from the Union. My team of three drew the position that it was not justified for the South to secede. I considered my team to be the “B” players in the class: talented students but not at the very top. At least that was my impression. The other team had the “A” players, including the well-known Jack Johnston, who was by far the brightest person in the school. Beating this group would be tough, if not impossible. My team wanted a good grade, but given the competition, we were also worried about embarrassing ourselves, which we feared was a distinct possibility.
A week before the debate between classes, Jack was walking directly in front of me in a school hallway, when a paper slipped out of his bag as he headed into the crowded sea of teenagers. I picked up and glanced at it. It didn’t take long for me to realize that I was holding Jack’s debate notes! I folded the paper before reading it and shoved it in my bag until the team meeting later that day.
In the meeting, after explaining what had happened, I asked, “What do we do?” I didn’t want to cheat by reading Jack’s notes, but I was curious about what my teammates had to say. One team member, Ed, jumped right in and said, “This could give us the advantage we need to smoke them!” The two girls on the team, who were the straightest arrows in the class, bristled. I could see they weren’t signing up for this approach. There was silence and I could feel the tension. One of the girls finally broke the silence and suggested, “I think we should drop this whole thing in Mr. Kaplan’s lap and let him decide what to do about it.” Everyone, including Ed, was relieved.
When we met with Mr. Kaplan, I explained what happened making clear that we had not read the notes. Mr. Kaplan was silent and looked at me and then at the rest of the team with steely eyes. We didn’t flinch because we were powered by the truth. We turned the notes over to him, and the uncomfortable meeting was over.
We had our debate, and to my pleasant surprise, our team of “B” players did more than hold our own. We had a very strong opening statement and when it came to the rebuttal, we were able to fend off questions from the other side. After the debate was over, we felt that we had the upper hand, and we were pleased with our accomplishment. Our grade was “A” while our opponents received an “A-” which we gladly interpreted to be a win for us.
When we met with Mr. Kaplan for feedback, he smiled and said, “The notes Jack dropped on the floor were fake. They were full of bogus points whose sole purpose was to knock you off track.”
Go figure. Not only was Jack the smartest guy in the school, he was also one of the sneakiest. If we had incorporated Jack’s setup ideas into our presentation, we would have looked silly, and we would have been doomed. So our sense of ethics carried the day, and I felt an extra bit of satisfaction picturing what kind of trouble Jack had gotten himself into with Mr. Kaplan.
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