For hundreds of years, scholars have viewed formal debate as fundamental to participatory or representative government. Yet, observers of the last decade or so, would have a hard time recognizing virtue in what passes as debate in many government bodies. Things have become so polarized and divisive that finding synergy in viewing broader ideas seems to have passed forever.
Formal debate demands all points of view, perspectives, and positions on an issue be in-bounds. There is no censorship in debate. This is why democratic governments include debate as a fundamental mechanism of decision making/political action and autocratic governments do not. This breadth of point of view is required to support the blending of thought which leads to higher truth. I learned early on the proper approach and structure of debate would lead to helpful perspective and improved outcomes.
As discussed in my last post, my junior high school English teacher loved books, theater, and culture. For those who took part in his extracurricular Debate Club, it was clear that he also had real love for formal debate and higher truth. And the process it took to get there.
Mr. Lipman was the faculty leader of the Debate Club. This was an optional activity and all the participating students were interested in public speaking and debate. Having a Debate Club on the Junior High School level was unusual. Generally formal debate is introduced in High School. The group would be divided into two groups, one on each side of the current topic. We did not compete against other schools, just each other.
I remember one assignment being (in the standard format) – “Resolved: that the United Nations should be abolished.” We followed the structure of one team would speak in favor of the argument, and the other would speak against it. We usually had three speakers on each side, and each speaker was timed. The first two speakers would develop the argument, and the third speaker would rebut the opposition and provide recommendations for resolution.
Once the teams were assigned to a side, we had sufficient time to research the topic and develop our positions and arguments. This tied into the research emphasis that Mr. Lipman put on many of his assignments in his regular classes. Indeed, comprehensive research, library skills, and critical thinking are often seen as core to debate. Extensive research, on both sides of the argument, is required to develop one’s point-of-view on the issue. To be effective in the rebuttal role, it was unquestionably necessary to know all sides of the argument. Mr. Lipman referred to this as getting good understanding of the “body of knowledge” for the topic.
Regarding the style of the debate itself, Mr. Lipman stressed you were not to just “crush” the opponent. The objective of the exercise was to find a “higher truth in the middle” by developing synergistic ideas drawn from both sides.
This memory has led me to often comment I was doing more sophisticated debate in Junior High School than I see on many political levels today. While it should be implicit that governmental debate parallels this pursuit for “higher truth,” what we often see does not reflect seeking higher truth or even serving the constituents. Rather, we see a divide that is more important than the service. Debate today is like a junior high school dance, with the boys on one side of the gym and the girls on the other side. Not much going on in the middle!
There were many long term benefits to this early exposure to formal debate. Learned research skills and confidence in public speaking became foundations for my entire career. When I entered the work world, this background served me well in working on teams and within a department.
One of the C-level officers at a leading industry company I worked for used to say, “the thinking of many is better than the thinking of one.” Using a knowledge-based approach to the work, respecting all points of view and members of a team, led to more effective results and was seen as a leadership trait.
Whether it be effective organizational work, or representative/participatory government, access to and use of needed quality information is a given. In my next post, we will look at how preparing for debate and other junior high school assignments led to expanded use of library resources.