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Debating can save us from ‘short-termist democracy’

15 January 2017, The Sunday Times Education Blog

Debating should be an integral ingredient of every school’s commitment to learning beyond the curriculum and beyond the classroom; it is one of the most powerful antidotes a school can provide to lazy “marshmallow” thinking.

The cut and thrust of debate, along with its courtesies, has an impact on how young people engage in formal public speaking, in conversation and in their construction of logical arguments, both verbally and in writing. The preparation for and participation in debating provides a window into an understanding of world affairs and the big issues that face us nationally and globally. Alongside feelings of camaraderie with teammates and the thrill of the competition, critical thinking skills are developed and confidence and emotional maturity nurtured as young people hone their listening abilities and recognise how others think.

There is a correlation between those who participate in debating and academic success. Reading comprehension, in addition to oral and written communication, is greatly improved, and, perhaps even more importantly in an environment of curriculum specification, debaters become independent learners with the advanced research skills valued by universities and employers alike. It goes without saying how impressive debaters usually are at interview.

Debating has been too long the preserve of people from the same sorts of backgrounds

For students at schools where debating is encouraged and supported, there are regional and national competitions to participate in. Every year at Dulwich College, some 50 boys from years 7 to 13 participate enthusiastically at debates — one of their co-curricular activities. This encompasses them meeting once or twice a week for up to two hours of practice debates, leading to a commitment for a dozen of them in up to a dozen national competitions every year. There are also four to six elite debaters who are likely to be engaged in international competitions, either representing their school, or London or English schools.

Debating is not only enjoyable for the participants, it is a spectator sport too. One of the highlights of the year at Dulwich College is the House Debating finals, with the Great Hall packed to the rafters with 600 pupils.

However, let’s not be evangelically blind to the possible jeopardies of debating: namely that honed and toned debaters are at risk of becoming so facile, they can argue anything and believe nothing.

Dare I suggest that in 2016 we came to realise that one of the weaknesses of contemporary political discourse has been the domination of it by public school or Oxbridge educated men (yes, largely men), who have approached Westminster as if it was simply a grand debating competition? Their strength and weakness is that they could argue the case for any cause (and its opposite), and often did.

It is the duty of schools to make sure that not only can pupils argue any case, and know where to look for information to develop these cases, but also to encourage them to think about where they stand on any particular issue. We have ground to make up: one of the weaknesses of British politics since 1997 has been the pre-eminence of those who have experienced little of life or hard toil before entering Westminster, but who are brilliant in debate. I want the next generation to combine the facility of those who have recently left the political court with a belief in certain tenets they will not betray.

We have no idea what Brexit will mean and we do not know what a Trump presidency will bring, but the situation into which our generation — both parents and teachers — has been sleepwalking since the new millennium has made politics something of red-hot interest for most intelligent young people. It will be for them to make sure that they are never in a situation such as the one we woke up to the day after the referendum. It wasn’t a question of whether we had lost something we believed in; it was the fact that something had happened that nobody had predicted and for which no one was prepared — neither the winners nor the losers.

What was most interesting about the referendum was that everyone, winners and losers, had no idea what to do next. That a sophisticated democracy, with one of the ablest civil services in the world, can have given so little thought to the effects of a major national vote is disappointing. In part, the fault stems from Westminster-style political debating, whereby the art is to win the next debate rather than give serious attention to the long-term consequences of actions and decisions. Perhaps it has ever been thus, but we enter 2017 more alert to the dangers of our short-termist democracy than we have ever been.

Debating has been too long the preserve of people from the same sorts of backgrounds. If it is to remain relevant, we must engage all pupils — maintained school and independently educated, girls and boys — in the art. This will be about them learning customs and traditions — or changing them.

To be able to debate is to be able to argue one’s case, and that is as essential to a proper education today as it was in the time of Socrates or Cicero, or at the height of the promotion of “godliness and good learning” through education in the high Victorian era.

Debating will encourage young people to determine where they stand on the great questions of the age, and will protect a free and open society faced by challenges to security, both national and personal. In a sense, all debates in the 21st century are about the balance between liberty and security.

Dr Joe Spence

The Sunday Times Education Blog
Debating can save us from ‘short-termist democracy’

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