By Greg Tiller
With Washington as contentious as ever and candidates gearing up for primary season, there is no shortage of controversial topics to lead into heated discussions. But a long-standing Jenks High School tradition hopes to help ease the tensions. The Great Debate was held once again, with four teachers representing very different ideologies debating the hot button issues, but making sure to put friendship and civility above any divisive cheap shots.
For over fifteen years Mr. Sloan has represented the conservative viewpoint and Mr. Horn has represented the centrist viewpoint. They were formerly joined by the late Mr. Hartney who represented the liberal perspective. After Mr. Hartney left Jenks in 2015, Mr. Connelly took over as the progressive on stage. But this year also brought Mrs. Reilly, representing a center-right viewpoint. Her addition makes Great Debate history as the first woman to participate on stage.
The debate kicked off by discussing local issues such as Oklahoma’s new permitless carry law and criminal justice reform. The debate then shifted gears into more heated territory by discussing climate change, the United States’ relationship with Russia, Trump’s proposed border wall, and the removal of U.S. troops in Turkey. The debate finished by covering impeachment and looking ahead to the 2020 election.
Representing the progressive viewpoint, Mr. Connelly gave his perspective on the variety of opinions represented on stage.
“I think we represented quite a spectrum,” said Connelly. “From Mr. Sloan on the conservative [side], to Mrs. Reilly who’s more center-right, Mr. Horn who’s center-left, and then my more progressive position.”
Mr. Sloan, who teaches law and economics classes, returned to the far-right side of the stage ready as ever to represent the conservative viewpoint in his trademark sarcastic fashion.
“I think it requires a certain discipline of the facts,” said Mr. Sloan. “I think it also requires a perspective that you are familiar and loyal to the issues of the constitution. You also need to understand modern media and know that when they have a perspective or an agenda that they’re supporting it may not be supported by the facts. So it takes a bit more preparation.”
Since the beginning, Mr. Horn has represented the centrist/moderate view. However, with the addition of Mrs. Reilly, there are now two voices speaking from the center with Mr. Horn taking center-left and Mrs. Reilly at center-right.
“The addition of Mrs. Reilly in the center allows for the realization that there are nuances even in the moderate position,” says Mr. Horn. “That moderate position is more fluid. You don’t really see students gravitate towards that position. However, I think if they did some reflection and start to identify where they fall on issues, I bet you they’ll fall more to the center than to the extremes.”
Mrs. Reilly also sees the importance of modeling a centrist viewpoint for the students in the audience.
“I think that high school students, in particular, don’t necessarily look for a centrist view,” says Reilly. “This is the time in your life when you have the most passion and you’re discovering your own opinions for the first time. So I think it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense for a sixteen-year-old to be a centrist. I think that’s kind of my job as an adult, to encourage you to embrace your passions but always listen to the other side and to guide your opinions as you go.”
As the newcomer on the debate stage, all eyes were on Social Studies teacher Mrs. Reilly.
“I think most of the pressure is what I put on myself,” Mrs. Reilly reflected. “I didn’t feel a lot of pressure at all from any outside forces. Everyone was just really excited that I was there, which made me feel really welcome. I wanted just to be heard, to not say the wrong thing, and to not get my words mixed up and accidentally say something that I don’t mean.”
Turnout for the Great Debate this year was higher than anyone estimated. Despite this not being an election year, students filled the PAC and enthusiastically cheered on their favorite teachers.
“The turnout was exceptional,” said Mr. Sloan. “We estimated the turnout at 800 students. If you take the two turnstiles in the auditorium the total capacity is 900. And we were almost filled save for the gaps.”
As the country prepares for the upcoming Presidential primaries in the Spring, talks are being held to have another edition of the Great Debate in the Spring.
“We have talked about maybe doing another one in the spring in the midst of primary season,” says Connelly. “We’d focus that one more on the election. I think if we focus specifically on something, we could go deeper on questions with the same sort of time frame.”
Aside from representing their respective viewpoints for the audience, each of the debaters hopes to see the students become more involved in the political process.
“Get registered to vote,” says Mr. Horn. “I can’t stress that enough. I don’t care where you are on the political continuum. Register, vote, get involved. If you have a desire to be involved in politics, no matter where you lie politically, you can find campaigns to work for or you can find nonprofits to work for.”