About Debating

(I am very grateful to those kind people who follow or at least read my blog. However, feel free to skip this one if you are not interested in schools debating i.e. if you have life of some sort…….)

It has been my pleasure to be involved with the World Schools Debating Championship (WSDC) since 1990. While I did not actually attend that year, three boys whom I coached at Daniel Stewart’s and Melville College went to Winnipeg as the Scottish team, and they won under the watchful and skilled eye of Brian Gorman. Brian, in his then role as Scottish Director of the English-Speaking Union, hosted the competition in Scotland in 1991, and asked me to coach the team, which I then did for seven years, taking me all over the world, starting in a freezing cold Edinburgh and ending in beautiful Bermuda. I then judged in 8 competitions over the next 14 years, having the privilege of chairing the final panel on three occasions, in Lima, Cardiff and Athens. For several years, my professional life rather interfered with my life as an international debating judge but, having retired at Christmas, I returned to judge at this year’s competition in Zagreb, Croatia,

Firstly, I want to thank this year’s organisers for the massive amount of work such an undertaking entails. I want to thank Team Scotland, its coach and the other Scottish judges for their camaraderie and good humour. We recommend a bar called Face to Face where a litre of quite good white wine is available for a tenner. I would also like to thank the 330 young people from all over the world – 65 nations were involved- for the privilege of watching them demonstrate all their skills and for their unfailing politeness whether they won or lost

That said, I was very conscious of being very, very old in the context of WSDC – there were in total about 650 people involved, and, at 61, I was the fourth oldest person there and the one who had been involved in the competition for the longest time. Now all my life I have promised myself that I would never start whining about ‘the good old days’, but, having had, I suspect, my last experience of a competition in which I have had a fairly significant role, I hope I can be forgiven for making a few observations.

I have some worries about the direction of travel of WSDC; my last contact was 2011 and in the past seven years the competition has continued to move in a particular direction and there are basically two, not unrelated, things that worry me.

The first is the increased professionalization of debating as an activity. I met a significant number of people in Zagreb who work as debating coaches; indeed, an entirely new industry seems to have sprung up in the past fifteen years or so. Previously, most people involved as a coach or judge came from a teaching background, where they had ‘taught’ debating as an extra-curricular activity. Some came from legal backgrounds and were involved in their national schools debating programmes as judges. Latterly, a number of very able young speakers graduated to becoming coaches, then judges. It may be that the huge expansion of the competition inevitably means that there will be an interest in paying people to teach debating. However, I think that one effect of this has been to create a new ‘science’ of debate, with its own lexicon, and to intellectualise the activity into a highly refined state. Inevitably this makes things yet more difficult for countries, particularly (but not exclusively) new nations, to achieve the standard necessary to do well, particularly when these professionals are also judging. Further, there is a real danger that in prepped debates, much of the preparatory work may be done by adults, which rather takes away the point of this educational activity. Indeed, the rumour mill in Zagreb suggested that a few teams had cases prepared for them by experts in the area under discussion. I really hope that isn’t so.

My second problem is that the competition has moved too sharply away from celebrating style. Despite the Chief Adjudication Panel’s reminder to judges in their briefing that ‘of course, style can win debates’ very few chair judges made anything other than passing reference to it in what were often quite lengthy explanations for results. We do have to remember that debating is a verbal art, which concerns itself with persuading an audience that a certain view or other is right. My experience in this year’s competition was to see a most impressive array of the world’s cleverest teenagers talking (to be honest, very often shouting) in a highly analytical way about various issues – broadly I thought the motions were very good. But in terms of debating as a rhetorical art – in the way, say, that politicians debate – the standard was low. The reception at the final for the third speaker from India, whose speech was an exercise in good style, demonstrated that even this highly specialised audience knew what it liked. Several of my fellow judges commented on how much they had enjoyed the rhetorical style of teams from Africa with one saying to Team Rwanda ‘please don’t ever change’ but I fear they’ll have to change if they are ever going to win WSDC.

Anyway, just an old man’s carping, but an old man whose schools have provided eight world champion speakers. I do hope that my comments are seen in the constructive light intended and I hope they may occasion at least a bit of chat about what it is that we teach debating forand what it is, precisely, that we want our debaters to be able to do.

Let me close by wishing everyone involved in international schools debating happiness and success in the future.


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