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Diversity Series: The practice of debate in pursuit of diversity

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As part of Dialogue's Diversity Series, Neil Bryant discusses the preconceived notions of teaching and learning debate in the classroom and its overall relevance and continued value in the curriculum today.


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The Teaching of Rhetoric: Past and Present 

Elements of rhetoric, the use of impressive, convincing language to persuade, has been at the heart of the education system from antiquity to modern times. According to Earle F. Zeigler, author of A History of Sport and Physical Education to 1900 (Selected Topics), Athenian education originally employed it in the use of philosophy through the dialogues of Plato and Artistotle. Romans such as Cicero used it for law-making and policy. In Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man, Marshall McLuhan emphasized how media such as television and video were leaving a rhetorical footprint in the classroom as well as in other environments. From those times to the late 19th century, western educational tradition included the teaching of rhetoric, in one form or another, as a key communication skill. Elements of rhetoric have been found in dramatic prose, essays, persuasive speaking, after-dinner speaking and other types of communication for more than 2000 years.

Unfortunately, rhetoric is no longer a dominant part of curriculum in most schools in Canada, although it persists in the teaching of debating as a subject in a relatively small number of schools across the country. While we have historical knowledge of such titan rhetors and orators as those mentioned, even the teaching of debate has been relegated to the shadows in favour of a more modern curriculum with a focus on the sciences. I used to think that what held back the progress of this excellent skill was the lack of willing and able coaches to sponsor it; in recent years, however, I would now believe that the problem may have a deeper philosophical root.

Getting to the Root of Debating in Education

In recent times, postmodern influence on educational curriculum has relegated debate to the practice of "gifted" students while most other students and faculty view it with suspicion or even disdain. I think this is because debate is perceived as fostering disunity that can lead to intolerance. We are content to watch politicians on television debate the issues rather like the wicked sisters in Cinderella bickering, but are uncomfortable with the assertion that one shoe fits. In other words, it seems that we live in a debate unfriendly culture of epistemological relativism, one in which most people are convinced that all truth claims or assertions of reality are rooted in the subjective convictions of the individuals holding them. Rather than testing convictions with rationally opposing views, and due to the lack of common external referents, some hold their convictions as valid regardless of any such tests and view debate as annoying, or even as unnecessary. 

The practice of debate itself may not be guilty for inciting disunity and intolerance. Rather, it might be the modern contemporary cultural context in which debate is practiced that makes it so unsavory for some. The value of unity, defined as the commitment to commonly shared convictions and values, has been subtly replaced by uniformity, or a desire to establish a lowest common denominator for social order. Similarly, tolerance, once defined as the commitment to allow people of opposing worldviews be allowed to live out their convictions freely, has been replaced by the view that tolerance demands affirmation of every person's set of convictions as being equally valid, thus being beyond the criticism of others. Not just debate, then but any form of disagreement with another person's assertions has come often to be viewed as bigoted and intolerant.

It is hard to know how the practice of debate could be placed back on the pedestal of education where it was in former days given what I see as the prevailing tide of opinion against it. After coaching it for these last many years, it seems to me that there is a transformative and timeless power in learning how to debate in the lives of students who practice it, so I think it is worth trying to offer some defense of debate here in this article, without using debate to defend it, of course.

The Value of Teaching Debate and Learning to Debate

Perhaps it would be best to start with a proper definition: debate is defined as a controlled, timed argument where two opposing points of view must be presented. The clash takes the form of logical pieces of evidence carefully worded, which are offered to counteract evidence of the opposing side. Differing viewpoints are criticized vehemently, even as the speakers stating them are still worthy of respect.

Less obviously, debate is also the process of trying to persuade the opposing side that their ideas have validity and value beyond just the speaker's convictions in the marketplace of ideas. In a sense, the ideal outcome of a debate is more than sharpening critical thinking skills, but to affect the other participant's will, as ideas are intended to be acted upon in one's life. A debate cannot achieve its goal unless the three elements of rhetoric: logos, pathos and ethos are applied actively in debate also. It is these components that link reciprocally between the speaker and the listener(s).

Aristotle's rhetoric argued for a tripartite composition of every persuasive message: logos, pathos and ethos. Logos referred to the verbal content of the message. Pathos made up the emotive features of the message, including the passion, fervor, and feeling that the speaker arouses. Ethos related to the perceived character of the speaker determined by the concern expressed for the listener's welfare.

The logos (logic) within a debate makes an appeal to the rationality of the opposing team through a cogent presentation of an argument from the presenter's intellect. Simultaneously, the debater has a forum for expressing their conviction through their feelings while hoping to engage the emotions (pathos) of the opposing debater. Aristotelian pathos also moves the ideas of the intellect through the heart to the hands and feet of the participants (ethos) without being detrimental to the process of persuasion. The use of emotions is neatly bracketed by the intellectual engagement necessary in a debate. The path towards changing the will, or ethos is through the logos of the mind. If a viewpoint is well presented, appreciated by the mind and found acceptable, the debater adopts a new conviction and is moved to act according to it. What is most exciting then is that all students of debate then can make changes in their lives based on the exchange of ideas that have rational foundations when they are linked to, but not overmastered by emotions.

Returning to the initial question then, in what sense does the practice of debate contribute to fostering unity in the midst of our present-day diversity?

Defining Diversity in Education 

In order to help answer this question, one can examine diversity in education in a number of ways. Today's educational context is defined by: ethnic, ideological and learning diversity.

What is unique and important about debate in schools is that the practice of it allows for disagreement in the context of ethnic diversity. In the article Quebec workplaces are the least diverse in Canada by Marian Scott, the executive director of the Association for Canadian Studies, Jack Jedwab, states, "nearly three quarters of Canadians work or study in multicultural environments." Multi-national classes of students comes with a large set of values. Tremendous diversity of ethnic-moral-religious-philosophical perspectives exist because each culture considers different things worthwhile. Common ground exists, but there are also profound differences in what cultures consider valuable. The teaching of debate skills provides a forum for the expression of differing ideas that is bound by intellectual integrity, emotional balance and mutual respect.

Because values in their most basic sense involve how we feel about things, the pathos, or emotions will be heavily engaged. The learning of debate guides students to subsume but not repress their emotions about a subject beneath their intellect. The rules of debate specifically preclude purely emotive arguments that are illogical, and yet allow passion to infuse their manner and style of speaking. The will of the debater is fostered in wanting to win a contest, but again the rules of debate prevent the argument from being won by merely being loud, interruptive, physical or anything other than logical and evidential.

As an integral component of Brentwood's university prep curriculum, all Grade 9 students are required to take Debate in their Foundation year. By June, it is enormously satisfying to know that every member of the class is equipped with the rules of the two main competitive genres of debate: cross examination and CNDF. Much takes place, however, before the glow of self-congratulation settles upon the visage of the coach. My initial group this year offered an unusually lively mix of carbohydrate fueled enthusiasm after lunch, and one, Kevin –big, boisterous, bold–informed me unequivocally upon his late arrival on the first day that this was not the course for him. Structure and discipline, however, are, paradoxically, the great liberators and Kevin flourished under their stern tutelage, encouraged by the growing respect of his peers. By the end of term, he had become my most frequent volunteer. He acquired and obeyed the rules of formal debate; his cross-examination skills emerged as the best in the class, and most importantly, he is learning how to govern his impulsiveness. Not yet a diamond, Kevin is evolving; his story offers another trenchant example of debate's transformative magic. —Mrs. Rebecca Day-Reynolds, my fellow debate coach at Brentwood College School, BC

Ideological diversity comes from people with competing epistemological grids and conflicting claims about what is true. To win a debate however, each team must have not only a firm grasp of their own ideology, but just as firm an understanding of the other team's. It is only then that a cogent presentation of each perspective can be made and a meaningful analysis of the key differences in each can be crafted. Ideas are what we think about, "the stuff of the mind", so they will relate most to logos or the intellect as both teams seek clarity on distinctions as well as shared understanding.

While students need to advocate for one side in a round of debate, most Saturday tournaments force teams to switch to the other side against a different team right afterwards, which creates a balanced view of the resolution by the end of the day. This creates an informed, unified population of learners that have exhaustively researched differing views of weighty topic...with little aid from their coaches.

One year at Shawnigan Lake School, a student came in his grade 11 year from Edmonton. A muscular young man who was well over six feet tall came into our class with bowed shoulders and eyes fixed on the floor. True to his initial presentation, it turned out he had had anxiety about saying much at all around his peers and while gifted verbally in all his classes, he clearly felt out of place and far from home. In debate, he showed particular talent in arguing the most knotty and difficult perspectives, representing a way of thinking about the world that few of his peers had ever even considered. Quickly shedding his cowed aspect, he started regularly exhibiting a clearly articulated argument in a profoundly more confident tone than I had thought possible just days earlier. At Christmas time that year, during the Winter concert, several debate students, including him, put several teachers "on trial" on stage for vandalizing another teacher's bicycle ; this was a hilarious parody of trial law that had hundreds of students guffawing by the end of it. Partly, I think because of the respect he earned among his peers, Josh graduated successfully having made a number of strong friendships from debate club and is now a competent young lawyer back in his hometown. —Mr. Neil Bryant (when I was coaching years ago at Shawnigan Lake School, BC)

Finally, educational diversity arises from modern understanding of the brain and how various teaching-learning styles exist extrapolated from the diversity of personalities and intelligences in the human population. One such diverse list is found in Howard Gardiner's multiple intelligences, featured in Frames of Mind – The Theory of Multiple Intelligences.

Misconceptions About Which Intelligences Benefit From Debate

There is a common misconception that debate is only for "high-level" students. Arguably, debate is the only activity in school in which all the seven intelligences outlined by Gardiner are fully addressed. This is because debate not only allows each student an opportunity to express their views in a safe, multi-faceted environment, but actually requires a volitional response from the opposing debater. Non-response is not allowed, so the student is obliged to assemble some sort of reasoned rebuttal or opposing point, using whatever style(s) of learning might be accessible to them. Educational diversity relates to the will or ethos of debate, as it relates to willingness to engage in the teaching-learning process with others of different learning styles.

To specifically outline how a few types of intelligences are serviced in debate: Logical-Mathematical people thrive in a context of order where extended reasoning and detailed analysis are pursued. Interpersonal people love the chance to influence the opinions of judges and negotiate with their debate partners. Musical-rhythmic people are able to work with the pace, volume control, pitch control and metre of their speeches, crafting a heightened pathos of sadness when the words are spoken softly, excitement when words are spoken quickly and loudly. Finally, Intrapersonal debaters love tackling the big metaphysical resolutions that are found in philosophy, religion, political ethics and they are able to spend some isolated time reflecting on the topic and the research for it, as well as explain in debate how they arrived as their conclusions for their side.

At our school, debate is offered as an elective class which students can take from grade eight right through to their senior year. Outside competition in tournaments is a required component of the course as it is the most effective way to give students the necessary experience to learn some of the key rudiments of formal argumentation. Student's winning tournaments, however, is not the goal of the course, but rather the ongoing development of the critical thinking skills so valuable to learning more generally. In my more than decade long career teaching and coaching debate, I found the greatest evidence of success for my debaters in hearing the conversations of my colleagues around the staff room table. Regularly will other teachers comment on my debate students' ability to comprehend challenging and sometimes abstract concepts. Or, that they can always tell debate students by the kind of questions they ask in class; that debate students consistently seek clarification of terms - "Sir, how are you defining freedom in this context?" - or that they can break down the components of an argument, or a task of literary analysis, or the key elements of a scientific theory. It is perhaps these more intrinsic side benefits that provide a gratifying sense of achievement for students who learn to debate. —Mrs. Ruth McGee, debate coach of Pacific Christian School, BC

In conclusion, debate as the art and craft of preparation, presentation and persuasion of ideas is the best forum for students of every culture, conviction and learning style to present and explore the value of their convictions. The environment debate creates for this is totally safe and controlled by a unified format of presentation but still demands the engagement of the faculties of the intellect, emotions and will even while fostering diversity of culture, ideology and education. In spite of the perceived dangers of debate as an activity that divides, debate may be the one universal forum for the pursuit of unity in the midst of diversity without a recourse to violence.  

Dialogue diversity series

—Neil Bryant
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