Encouraging Debate

When I was a student going through my junior high school years (middle school) debating — both formal (individual and in teams) and impromptu — was a subject in the curriculum, and one that was mandatory.

It wasn’t marked on the typical A-B-C basis, but rather on a pass/fail approach, as there are no shortage of people who remain terrified at the thought of speaking in public.

The goal of the course was to do three things: (a) teach you to think on your feet, (b) teach you the art of rhetoric (or persuasion), and (c) teach you to know what you are learning well enough to put it to work.

It was a thrilling experience to learn how to structure an argument not for paper — where sentences such as this one can use subordinate clauses, inserted phrases and the like to make points — but for the ear, which needs a simpler structure.

To learn, as well, how to loop and tie up a point, recap the structure promised at the beginning, then move into the next point — and anyone who has suffered through presentations by people who think that PowerPoint or its kin will make them a speaker or presenter knows how essential the story framework, the dramatic moment, then the move into the next scene is in creating the experience that brings the listener along, is a skill that I have taken from my education and has put food on the family table now for more than two decades!

The challenge of rebuttal — especially with the sort of opponent who uses the tactics Robert A. Heinlein describes in his book Stranger in a Strange Land of quoting statistics from an official-sounding body (in the story, the “British Colonial Shipping Board”), that did not actually exist — and having to know your own material well enough to deal with the rebuttal even if, at the time, you are not aware of the con going on.

Most valuable of all was the impromptu speaking, especially when asked to stand and speak on a topic assigned right at that moment for not less than 60 seconds and not more than 90: this, more than anything else, has proven invaluable as a Board Director, a university professor, a research analyst and an executive advisor.

Today, unfortunately, there is some resistance to teaching these very practical skills.

Part of this is a querimoniphobia (fear of a difference of opinion).

Even in my philosophy class at a gifted children’s school in the 2005-06 academic year, the chill that descended when a child of an fundamentalist family crossed swords with the notion that (to take Laplace’s words to Napoleon) “there was no need for the hypothesis of a God” in debate froze all discussion.

While nothing came (to me) from that, it was a moment of understanding why debate is not longer on the agenda with 12 and 13 year olds as it was for me. There are just too many “taboo” topics these days.

“Don’t challenge global warming” – “Don’t challenge religion” – “Don’t bring up a political viewpoint” – “Don’t criticize the educational system”: the list of taboos these days is long and growing. As a Saskatchewan 15-year-old found in 2007, to even question the “zero tolerance” policy on drugs by doing research and structuring an argument based on that research that disagreed with conventional thinking on the subject, your school can be locked down, the police called, you be arrested, and charged with a drug violation, simply by bringing the subject up.

No wonder debating isn’t taught any more.

But it needs to be.

Schools need to start accepting the need in society to speak “unacceptable” thoughts.

If the mass of the class, for instance, thinks Green politics is the “only human choice”, there needs to be exposure to contrary positions. Not simply for “breadth”, or “all points of view”, but because the students, if they want to hold such views, should have to sharpen their arguments in favour of them.

So, too, with assumptions — for and against — religion, economic systems, you name it. The goal is to be balanced and teach students the virtue of having to explore positions you don’t agree with going in, to face having to hear positions you don’t personally like, to respect your opponents even when you abhor what they are arguing for.

The topics and positions are merely a tool that both opens a few minds, but teach the value of thinking, constructing arguments, weaving rhetoric to convince an audience, etc. — all good life skills.

Yes, parents will complain (when one of their pet positions is debated: “How dare you!” is likely to be one of the lighter entrées to the school teacher and administrator to discuss the so-called “immorality” of debating closed subjects at all).

Yes, there will be an uproar. A little uproar is a good thing: it teaches the lesson that these are survivable experiences.

Remember, the role of management is to delegate authority and stand behind the people who work for them when things go wrong: how many principals, superintendents, etc. act as the managers they in fact are when parents try to hang a teacher?

If teachers are in fear of these kinds of reactions — and I have met more than a few who are — I have found inevitably it is because their superiors were busy fashioning torches and helping to lead the charge to pillory them and run them out on a rail, rather than stand firm in the face of a little mob reaction.

One should, of course, not tempt fate. In an Islamic country, for instance, only a fool would set up a debate that forced Islamic tenets to face off against those of other religions (or secular humanism).

Beyond obvious limits like that — the potential for a death penalty or serious incarceration decision is a real limit — other topics should disrupt a few illusions without worry. Canadians, for instance, have their freedom of speech guaranteed by the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, and on that both students and teacher should stand, with that stand aided by the principal.

The road to the loss of initiative and freedoms begins when the ability to communicate is impaired.

As I said at the beginning, not everyone wants to appear in public: in fact, few do. But the ability to think and counter- argue in real time is a skill valued by business, by not for profits, in politics, when evangelizing at doorsteps and in many other settings.

We should not fear to teach the skill simply because we are afraid of a backlash over the topics which are used.

For, if we are that afraid, then we are prepared to sacrifice citizenship, too, and that was the reason universal public education became a public good.

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