What Are The Benefits of Debating?

In answering this question, I wish to draw attention to the fact that the value of pitting students against each in argumentative contests has been recognized for some 2500 years. The practice was well known to the Greeks, the Romans and debate and disputation were at the core of the curriculum provided by Medieval universities. Such a long tradition gives strong support to the idea that the advantages of the activity transcend variations in format. Whether done with three people (a practice that was employed early in the last century), two people , or one person, debate has proven valuable for those who took the time to engage in the activity.

While what we do is different than the usual two-person version of debate, what we do contains all of the constitutive features of the game of debate.  Insofar as debate is a formal contest between two schools conducted before a judge who decides winners and losers based on the quality of reasoning and the skillfulness of the persuasion, then we are still doing debate.

Whether students are debating propositions of policy, fact or value may not be all that important for the activity teaches much the same lessons whether students debate unilateral military intervention , the vagaries of the hearsay rule, or the ethical considerations associated with active euthanasia.  Debate, in all of its forms and each of its varieties, teaches students to speak well, to listen carefully, to think critically and to arrange their ideas in coherent and persuasive speech.

In 1908, Edwin Shurter proclaimed that “Perhaps no study equals debate in the acquirement of the power of logical thinking combined with clear expression.” What he said was true then and true now. When the former CEO of Chrysler, Lee Iacocca, provided an homage to his high school debate coach he was paying tribute to debate as it was 70 years ago and yet his commentary rings true today:

“…I joined the debating team, which was sponsored by Mr. Virgil Parks, our Latin teacher. That’s where I developed my speaking skills and learned to think on my feet. At first I was scared to death. I had butterflies in my stomach – and to this day I still get a little nervous before giving a speech. But the experience of being on the debating team was crucial. You can have brilliant ideas, but if you can’t get them across, your brains won’t get you anywhere”

Writing in the 1970s, Helen Wise, then president of the National Education Association, offered a glowing tribute to the virtues of debate. That the debate of that time is quite different from many forms of debate done today does not diminish the force of her endorsement:

“No college freshman can project 25 years to decide what he needs to learn – subject matter is easily forgotten and in today’s world, the knowledge explosion makes constant learning an inevitability. But all adults today need to be able to communicate with clarity, to articulate ideas, to reason, to separate key facts from the barrage of ideas we all are exposed to every day. No single activity can prepare one better than debating – the ability to think on one’s feet, to form conclusions rapidly, to answer questions logically and with clarity, to summarize ideas are all processes which forensics activity develop and develop”

As Austin Freely has observed in each edition of his text, Argumentation and Debate, “Debate is today, as it has been since classical times, one of the best methods of learning and applying the principles of critical thinking.”

Why Don’t You Do Individual Events?

By any measure one can imagine, individual events competition largely duplicates what is available in the other venues we offer. In mock trial, for example, one is provided with opportunities to master the very same skills that are allegedly taught by such events as extemp, oratory, and impromptu. The challenges posed by the two ethics competitions also provide ample opportunity to refine one’s skills at extemporaneous and impromptu speaking as well as providing considerable practice in the art of critical listening. Additionally, those who serve as a witness in mock trials must master many of the same skills that are taught by the interpretation events. Breathing life into a text, the master recipe for oral interpretation, is something that is common to both activities.

While mock trial and Ethics Bowl may not teach everything one can learn at an individual events tournament, I would venture to say that they come pretty close. My guess is that if some insane person were to list the 100 behavioral objectives taught by competing in IEs, mock trial would teach at least 98 of those sub-lessons. Even a larger gap in the overlap would be inconsequential as both mock trial and the ethics competitions teach the lessons in more rigorous academic environments.  Extemp speakers speak their piece and sit down. Nothing that the speaker says is likely to be challenged by a subsequent speaker nor is the so-called “extemp” speaker ever obligated to respond directly to a speech given just minutes before.

The presence of determined opposition makes portraying a witness considerably more difficult that simply reciting a monologue from a play. Cross-examination adds an element of improvisational theater to interp’s simple monologue. Creating a direct examination teaches a considerable amount about how to structure a dialogue for dramatic effect. Mock trial teaches that lesson and traditional individual events does not. In an era where funds are limited and travel prices always outpace inflation, it makes sense to focus on the more academically rigorous events.

Does Macalester Have Debate or Mock Trial Scholarships?

No, Macalester does not offer scholarships for debate or mock trial. Nor, for that matter, does it offer scholarships for soccer, basketball, or the bassoon. Macalester Forensics consists of people who compete because they enjoy their events and not because they are being paid to play. While Macalester does not offer scholarships for participating in debate or mock trial, it does offer scholarships to budding young scholars. In 2017-2018, 70% of the first year class received financial aid and the average need-based package was almost 48,000 dollars.  Over fifty percent of U.S. first-year students received merit-based scholarships from Macalester. Merit scholarship awards range from $8,000 to $80,000 over four years. Macalester remains committed to meeting the full demonstrated financial need of every student offered admission to the College.

How Much Does It Cost to Compete?

The College covers most of the costs associated with tournament travel. The program pays for tournament entry fees, air and ground transportation, lodging, a team meal at the tournament, and provides a small per diem to cover other meals.

Does Tournament Travel Drag Down The GPA?

No. If competing gets in the way of you performing in class, you won’t be allowed to travel. The team’s policy is much stricter than the College’s policy in this regard. A student who winds up on the Academic Warning list will not be permitted to travel to tournaments and it is unlikely that getting off that list will get you back on the team. While there are some programs where competitors take five or six years to complete their degree, Macalester is not one of those programs. Our team members have all graduated in four years or less and have gone on to the graduate or professional schools of their choice. Here is a list of the some of the places where members of Macalester Forensics have earned advanced degrees:

Harvard Law, Stanford, Columbia, Cornell, Yale Law, Virginia Law, NYU Law, Northwestern Law, Texas-Austin, Michigan Law, Stanford Law, University of Southern California, MIT, Northwestern, University of Chicago, Iowa Law, University of Illinois, Harvard Kennedy School of Government, UC-Berkeley, Michigan, Pittsburgh, NYU, University of Belfast, University of London, Catholic Law, Cardozo School of Law, Harvard Medical School, Vanderbilt Law, Georgetown Law, Tulane Law, Kansas, Arizona, Minnesota, UC-San Diego, UCLA, Claremont Graduate School, Harvard Divinity School, George Washington Law, Minnesota Law