By Noah Bergam (V)
Lights. Silence. 390 seconds of glory.
Ever since I first watched in sixth grade, I knew I wanted to do LeBow.
From the win of Katie Coyne ‘16 to the two-year reign of Rachel Chen ‘18 to the triumph of Miro Bergam ‘19, I sat anxiously in the audience year after year. I was the nervous yet critical viewer, who, in his endless deification of the stage, kept imagining how he himself might fare or fail in front of 700 academics. Time flew like an arrow, from imagination to reality. In my sophomore year, I took the stage with a speech about memes. And I won.
The aftermath followed a rapid progression from satisfaction to excitement to terror. I achieved what I had dreamed of for years, and I could still look forward to another chance at the stage in 2020. But I also knew I could very easily fail that second chance and fall short of the high expectations.
In preparing for this year’s competition, I believed that the only way to successfully replay the game would be to break it. So I chose to call out the unsettling pattern of universal agreeability that LeBow speeches were developing, a problematic pattern I myself upheld the year before. In this sense the speech was a critical self-reflection––I chose to burn the magic that I had internalized and glorified over the years, and from those ashes construct an argument against the very anti-argument nature of Pingry culture I embraced.
Did I fail? Certainly in the sense of losing the title.
But in retrospect, I got what I asked for. I did not design my speech to maximize likability among a judging panel––I wrote it in order to spark critical thought and disagreement among the broader student community. And in that sense, I think it was a success.
I met two counterarguments that, in the spirit of debate, I want to address.
To reiterate, my thesis is as follows:
“In order to make sure students develop the key skills of political disagreement, we ought to bring timely, wholehearted, messy debates into the classroom––and then we students ought to embrace more of that argumentative style in our own independent endeavors [eg LeBow itself].”
1. My message is NOT that Pingry students lack the capability to have difficult discussions. I can’t speak for what goes on within specific environments like affinity groups. I simply question how far-reaching, especially between identity boundaries, these discussions are. Thus, I assert that the humanities classroom is the best place to make controversial discussions informed and ubiquitous. Otherwise, Pingry students, like most citizens, will naturally flock to echo chambers, and schoolwide communication, especially in assemblies, will continue to favor numbing agreeability and “political correctness.”
2. Yes, I do think teachers should give their personal opinions in class. Obviously, this comes with a two-pronged expectation of maturity. The student should be able to respect the teacher’s opinion without bowing down to it, and the teacher should be able to be subjective with the explicit intent to inform rather than directly convince.
As I defend this thesis, I don’t pretend my speech was perfect. I made plenty of miscalculations, the most obvious of which was the exclamation that “I’m the Big Fish in a Little Pingry Pond!” Yes, that sounds arrogant. I was trying to be ironic, I was trying to make it clear that the concept of a big fish here is a dangerous illusion that limits one’s ability to think outside the scope of this community’s limited discourse. But I suppose using such a phrase as the cornerstone of the speech might have given some pretty negative impressions. So it goes.
It’s over now. Now I will return to the audience for one last year to watch the brilliance of LeBow from a new lens. But I won’t forget the message I crafted. I’ll continue to defend it and live it out, especially in regards to this newspaper.
The theory of the Big Fish was refuted. But defeated? The point was made on stage and proven offstage. So I accept this loss wholeheartedly.