“I think debating in high school and college is most valuable training whether for politics, the law, business or for service on community committees… I wish we had a good deal more debating in our educational institutions than we do now.” — John F. Kennedy
A timely recently published book by Robert Litan, “Resolved: Debate Can Revolutionize Education and Help Save Our Democracy” argues for expanding competitive debating to building a culture of debating in schools.
Debate is much more than just learning how to speak, however. Debate requires both effective listening and the ability to present one’s views on virtually any topic, backed by evidence and logic, and then to defend those views orally when attacked, in real time, in a civil way. In structured debate, there is no name calling or shouting or interrupting, the mode of debate one sees all too often on cable television. Nor are there “flop accounts” on Instagram, which teens have used to debate serious issues but without rules; not surprisingly, those debates have since mirrored the incivility we see in real life and, unfortunately, far too often on the internet.
Perhaps the most important benefit of debate is that it requires learning how to argue to both, or potentially multiple, sides of almost any issue, a skill that fosters critical thinking, empathy, and understanding for other positions, and an understanding of complexity—that most issues and questions in life are not “black” or “white” (in the nonracial sense of these terms), but involve shades of gray. Understanding and appreciating this complexity is important to sharpening critical thinking while in school, but having this skill and experience is essential when students grow up to be voting and, ideally, thinking citizens, to be effective employees in all kinds of jobs, and even as entrepreneurs.
Schools would be a great starting point for building a debating culture. Habits developed early stay for a lifetime. Litan’s book provides very compelling ideas for making debate part of the core curriculum in schools and shifting to debate-centred instruction. Adds Litan:
Adam Grant of the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School summarized, perhaps unintentionally, what DCI (debate-centered instruction) is all about when he wrote: “Instead of trying to prevent arguments, we should be modeling courteous conflict and teaching kids how to have healthy disagreements.” He adds the following rules:
Frame [the question] as a debate, rather than a conflict.
Argue as if you’re right but listen as if you’re wrong.
Make the most respectful interpretation of the other person’s perspective.
Acknowledge where you agree with your critics and what you’ve learned from them
I also then started thinking about debating clubs and societies in India – combined with digital technology. How would London’s debating societies be if they could be re-invented for the modern mobile era? Imagine watching people going ‘mano a mano’ but with exquisitely crafted arguments designed to persuade and change minds. In today’s India, where most independent institutions have forsaken their role and bowed obsequiously to the political leadership, where Parliament has become a rubber stamp, where the Opposition has singularly failed in its responsibility to act as a watchdog, where the media thrives on the puerile, there is a need for alternative platforms of public discourse and engagement. Could grassroots digital debating clubs play that role?
Tomorrow: Part 11