Volume 76 | Issue 6
November 2008

The affirmative case on debate

Marsha Herman-Betzen

Throughout my career, my affinity for debate—a core tradition of the college union—has been apparent. marsha112008 

After college, I began teaching speech communication and coaching the high school Speech and Debate Team. Many weekday nights were spent instructing 20 teenagers in the fine art of competitive forensics. Many weekends were spent traveling with these same young people to local, regional, and state tournaments. The Speech Meet consisted of students battling each other in original oratory, extemporaneous and impromptu speaking, and oral interpretation of prose and poetry. The elite speech team members had trophy cabinets in their bedrooms that rivaled the school’s top athletes; yet the ultimate prize was a chance to compete at “Nationals” where the prestige was considerable and the trophies humongous.

Back then, if you were perceived to be a geeky egghead, wore glasses, had a pocket protector, and carried a briefcase to and from class, you were destined to become a debater. Debaters were known to be exceptional students while also a bit idiosyncratic. What most of those young people did not realize at the time was that they were acquiring invaluable skills with profound transferability to life.

Debating helps you become a better thinker and a more effective speaker. Who among us would not want to become more proficient in being able to collect and organize ideas, evaluate evidence, see logical connections, think and speak convincingly in outline terms, and be able to adapt to new information quickly? Moreover, debating competing points of view—whether it occurs in government, the courtroom, the classroom, or in the political campaign arenaÑis perhaps the basic instrument by which we arrive at public choices and decisions in a democratic society.

How curious that my affection for debate ultimately led me to the college union whose very foundation and guiding principles comes from the debating societies of Oxford and Cambridge. According to “The College Union Idea,” by Porter Butts, the importance of free and open discussion is the first goal of a union; “The contest of mind against mind is the greatest benefit which a university can confer … Behind formal systems, above teachers or examiners, the interplay of fresh discussion hold an important place in every country: but of a value more highly esteemed amongst ourselves than elsewhere … Thus, to focus these interest of free discussion—to give them name, local habitation, permanency—became the object of several enterprising spirits who succeeded in founding a debating society for the whole of the University of Oxford, in the spring of the year 1823.”

In fact, debate was the foremost priority of the college union, long before we came to think of the college union in terms of a building housing the amenities we see today—really, even before the amenities college unions offered in the 1940s. Also cited in “The College Union Idea” is a quote from a 1946 National Geographic article: “The university ideal is to promote the art of living, the amenities of civilized society as well as knowledge. É In the clubroom after dinner, wine, coffee, and the pipe came in the order named. É Young men sharpen each other’s wits, have their best instincts developed by association. É Cambridge still thinks that education which leads to the art of living is as practical as a course in salesmanship.” Debate was central to student learning; yes, students must eat, but they also must learn how to respectfully disagree in a mature, civilized manner.

Despite the reaction-inciting remarks tossed about on television and the red-blue divide that has consumed U.S. politics, dialogue that brings together diverse opinions is as important as ever. ACUI members have continued to affirm the college union’s role in maintaining an environment that emphasizes dialogue and diversity of opinions. “The Role of the College Union” reminds us that: “The union is a student-centered organization that values participatory decision-making. Through volunteerism, its boards, committees, and student employment, the union offers first-hand experience in citizenship and educates students in leadership, social responsibility, and values.”

Discussion and debate are not ends in themselves. What they do offer is training for life situations of cooperative deliberation. The opportunity to hear divergent perspectives and the freedom to discuss opposing points of view in a safe place is a priceless asset worth fighting for in a democratic society. Every situation in which we find ourselves—and there are many—demands that we compare alternatives and forces us to weigh the merits of choices. It is for this reason that we must recall the very core of the college union ideal for all who will follow us.

And for those who shy away from discourse, discussion, and disagreements, consider what writer and community organizer Saul Alinksy said about the value of debate, “A free and open society is an ongoing conflict, interrupted periodically by compromises.”