Rob Ruiz, Director of Forensics at the University of LaVerne sent me an interesting story that it has taken me a couple of days to get my head around. The story goes like this:
At the recent Policy Debate competition at Kentucky University (one of the largest Policy debate competitions in the US) the Loyola Marymount team of James Mollison and Jack Ewing went undefeated in every round and picked up all the ballots. They ended up breaking and made it through the knock out rounds to the Final, collecting all the ballots except "one," which didn't matter since they beat the 3rd through 8th best team in the competition and ended up in the Final against the number 2 school, Georgetown.
Upon finding out that the two finalists from Georgetown were African American and then finding out that the final was to be held at Campbell Hall, a "former" slave house, the Loyola Marymount team (two Caucasian students) immediately found this Georgetown team to have a discussion. The Loyola team offered to give Georgetown the ballots as well as the WIN in finals if they choose NOT to have a Final debate and instead, spend the time allotted to have a discussion on racial problems considering this tournament final was in a former slave house named Campbell Hall and one of the finalist's last names was actually Campbell. They tell them that a racial forum involving everyone is far more important to them and the Georgetown team decides to accept. For the next couple of hours, the entire tournament becomes a forum for discussion about the racial issues facing society today.
Now this story is certainly an interesting one. As a person focused on competitive debating my initial reaction was why the hell did they agree to concede the final and instead hold an open discussion about racial issues. Surely there are more than enough discussions about the problems of society in the media. Would the audience, organizers and sponsors not be disappointed not to get a debate on some prepared topic.
However on reflection this shows a willingness to forgo the glory of competition to instead debate more fundamental problems in wider society. Remember that initially debating societies were set up not to compete among each other but to give students a chance to hone their rhetorical skills by discussing the important issues of the day. Once the great chambers of university debating were some of the few places where people could go and watch the major topics discussed. Perhaps we may think that the media has replaced this with a near constant stream of discussion panels on radio and TV. However that assumes that there is a free media in the country and that a “free” media does not have an editorial agenda dictated from on high.
I’m sure there were people who were disappointed that they did not get to watch a formal debate that night. However I would use this story as an opportunity to remind people that the weekly meetings in your debating society need not be, and in fact should not be, about preparing for Worlds, Regionals or Nationals. You can easily hold competitive debates in smaller training sessions. Instead debating societies should use at least some of their main weekly public meetings to hold large, open, balanced debates on issues of public interest. It may be an issue related to your local college or it may be a discussion on a global crisis. Whatever the topic debating societies are uniquely positioned to give students a chance to listen to and take part in discussions about issues that impact on them (even if they don’t realize it). Debating societies can invite guest speakers to address the student body that no other society would attract.
Now it may be that you think your society does not have the resources to do this. Well in my experience most colleges like large public debates because they attract media attention and it takes very little spin to conjur up images of Oxford, Cambridge, Harvard etc in the minds of university officials. If you are willing to hold large debates on issues of public interest you will find that the resources to do so tend to be easier to come by than you may suspect. You may be in a coach led club rather than a student led society and believe you as a mere student have no control over what debates happen. Well in my experience most good coaches are happy to have their students take the lead on organizing events within the debate club. Ask and see what happens.
So as I said on first reaction I thought the decision of Loyola and Georgetown was a strange one. But on reflection I believe it may show that in the drive towards a global competitive circuit we have lost focus on some of the core benefits debating societies should bring to their local student body. If you are in a debating society that has never organized a public debate why not add it to your to do list for this academic year.