Free Exchange of Ideas is a Huntington Tradition

Huntington High School's 1931 debate club members near the front entrance to the building.

January 4, 2018

Encouraging the free exchange of ideas and thoroughly debating and discussing positions on every side of any issue has always been one of the hallmarks of the well-rounded education provided to youth studying in the Huntington School District.

Huntington students have never shirked from expressing their personal or collective beliefs. A glance through yearbooks and other assorted student generated periodicals dating back to the early 20th Century clearly shows that the community’s young people have joined the public at-large in staking out positions on school matters as well as the political, social and even religious issues of the day.

The give and take of a good debate and spirited discussion has always interested Huntington students. The first formal debate club, Alpha Nu was formed in March 1930. The club has disappeared and reappeared time after time over the past 88 years, often taking on a new form of identity along with a new name.

Huntington High School's first debate club
Huntington High School's first debate club outside the building in 1930.

Alpha Nu was a “constitution and debating club” that was “hastily formed for the purpose of entering contestants in the New York Times oratorical contest,” according to the 1930 edition of The Huntingtonian, Huntington High School’s yearbook. “Following the actual competition, the club was reorganized, the result being the present Alpha Nu. The new fraternity is formed for the purpose of initiating an ever broadening acquaintance with and support of the United States Constitution, as well as promoting an interest in debating.” Membership consisted of 20 years.

Alpha Nu held semi-monthly meetings in 1930 during programs were arranged that would be of “interest to all the members,” according to the yearbook. “The feature of each meeting is a regular debate, under the open forum plan, in which everyone takes a part.”

The club’s first elected president was senior Florence Hoag with sophomore Herman Feinstein serving as vice president. Teacher Helen Lancaster, a Syracuse University graduate was the faculty advisor.

By 1931, the club’s membership had increased by 50 percent to 30. The club’s mission continued to be to “promote interest in debating, in public speaking and in the Constitution of the United States,” according to the 1931 yearbook. “Its members have written essays for the [New York] Times oratorical contest both this year and last year and several entered the speaking contest. About six debates has been held since last September in which all of the members have participated and on March 2nd an interschool debate was held with Northport.” The club’s picnic was held at Sunken Meadow Beach on June 12, 1931.

By 1934, there was no mention of the club in the yearbook. Was it due to budget cuts necessitated by the Great Depression? It isn’t clear. But, the club would return in future years, disappear and then return again periodically.

Today, Alpha Nu’s legacy can be traced to Huntington High School’s Social Studies Honor Society, which presents periodic “deliberative forums” on pressing national issues. Students formulate arguments supporting their positions, articulate them during presentations and then probe each other’s stances as the subject matter gets dissected and discussed. Teacher Kenneth Donovan is the organization’s faculty advisor.

A new high school club is also carrying on the high school’s debate traditions. The women’s empowerment club has already debated issues ranging from the school dress code to intersectional feminism. Teacher Nicole Cooper is the club’s faculty advisor

The current forums sponsored by the Social Studies Honor Society demonstrate the evolving nature of intellectual exchanges at Huntington High School. The debate club’s traditional format is out and discussion and deliberation are in.

“In these forums we move beyond debate, which has the purpose of ‘win-lose’ and toward ‘win-win’ dialogue that seeks common ground,” explained Joseph Leavy, district chairperson of humanities for grades 7-12. “This is the goal of deliberation and deliberative democracy. Alpha Nu had a focus on debate while our forums try to move beyond debate to a new kind of talk called deliberation. Deliberation as a core part of democracy that seeks common ground has been studied by the Kettering Foundation. Ken Donovan and I have travelled to Dayton, Ohio on several occasions to further our practical research on the teaching implications of this approach, and we have made this a central part of the forums hosted by the Social Studies Honor Society.”