Debating As An Academic Tool

A fondly remembered part of many students’ lives is the time they spent debating. Arguing vociferously for one side, picking out logical loopholes and eventually, convincing the other side of the universality and fundamentality of the principle that one side defended. It has always been an unstructured, extra-curricular activity which ‘develops your all-round personality.’ However, it does more. As a debater, I have seen how debating is a crucial tool to any academic learning. Structured training in the art of debating is essential for academic development. Debating shapes a debater’s thought-flow, making it sharper, more analytical and more efficient.

Debating has been wrongly perceived as quotations, facts, statistics and verbose language and grandiose gesticulations which are expected to, somehow, make an argument for itself. That is ‘elocution’. Facts and statistics are just facts and statistics. They strengthen arguments; they do not become the argument. The statistic says so-and-so, hence it proves this. That is the content of a debate. Academically, it teaches you to use different references and examples and make connections. It teaches you to connect abstract philosophy to reality and use historical precedence to strengthen an argument. Debating teaches you to use different strands of information and weave them together to create the bigger picture; thus teaching students to view an issue from different subject angles.

Analysis of a stated assumption is crucial to good debating. It is impossible to win a debate unless one gives an analysis of their argument and explains it in detail. Given that each speaker has a limited time to speak, prioritization of arguments and a clear analysis in a short but good explanation is essential.

Debating, by its very nature, lays great stress on structured arguments and logical flow. It requires constant engagement and referral to the opposition’s argument in a sequenced manner. While preparing before speaking, a debater automatically jots down arguments in a structured manner, clubbing examples and presenting them one after the other, each argument picking up from the last and connecting to the original burden of proof. A good debate speech can be succinctly represented by a flow-chart on paper. All connections made, the bigger picture is never too difficult to see.

Many dismiss debating as a superficial activity where one isn’t really passionate about his side, since one has to debate whatever side one is asked to. Yes, a hijab wearing debater will defend the ban on the headscarf in France. Being forced to take the other side of an issue they feel strongly about and being forced to counter-argue your own reasons for believing in something is the best learning a school or college student can receive. Through debating, they learn to question and challenge their own beliefs. Surprise at their own passionate opposition to their previously-held belief makes every debater question themselves and analyze the flaws in what they believed. Such critical questioning serves a person and consequently, an organization or a nation well. This exercise also makes a person see both sides of an argument, allowing for holistic thinking and the knowledge of the bigger picture.

To able to recognize a weak argument and counter it, it is essential to be able to cut through the rhetoric surrounding it and get to the crux of what is being said. A seasoned debater is never carried away by his emotion, yet knows how to make highly rhetorical speeches to confuse the opposition. He can spot that weak link in the flow of arguments. Such skill comes with training and can be learnt over time. It refines judgment and the ability to sift through rhetoric and get to the point. It only improves quality of written work, research papers and flow of class discussions.

Philosophical debates, scientific debates and other generalized use of the term shows how intrinsic debate is to academia and learning and all-round development of a personality. Great academics, parliamentarians and rulers have debating in common. It is unfortunate that the importance of debating as an academic tool is not recognized. It is a serious pedagogical tool as well as it makes students use facts to make arguments, not just learn them by rote. It constantly tests their awareness and attention in class. The categorization of debating as an extra-curricular activity precludes it from becoming an essential skill that must be acquired by all students.

What is required is a rigorous training in debating from school level, where students are not taught to declaim in a grandiose style but focus on how they arrive at the content they are presenting. The demands of debating must be kept in mind by the teachers while training. Colleges do train students in this manner by teaching them the Parliamentary Style of Debating but there is scope for a lot more.

Continuous debating, training and feedback make all the above stated qualities automatic and natural in a person. The demands made by debating on the thought-flow of a debater become the way a debater’s mind functions effortlessly, all the time. Such a thought-flow ensures that students can make proper use of the knowledge that they possess. In today’s age of rote-learning for exams and unemployable graduates, debaters are a breath of fresh air. They possess the necessary communication skills, are confident and can speak in a clean, crisp manner. Many may argue that introverts or shy people may not take to it well. Debating, like every other subject or activity, comes naturally to some and not to others. However, it can be learnt. Thinking like a debater is important. The public speaking bit will help confidence and personality but the crux is shaping the thought flow. That needs to be taught in schools and colleges as a serious academic skill. It not only helps students academically but also makes them sharper, more aware and generally knowledgeable. Who would say that the world doesn’t need many more such people?


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