By Lambert Strether of Corrente.
Here’s a little something to go with your morning coffee:
Here’s the transcript. This passage — this incredibly radical proposal — caught my eye, because it’s one of the most hopeful signs I’ve seen in years:
I heard you respond to someone who asked you at a public session the other evening–”What would you do about what you’ve just described?” And your first response was start debating societies in high schools all across the country.
That’s right. One of the things that I learned quickly as a result of the internet is I started getting a ton of letters from students who basically were involved in these debate societies. And they’re saying like things, “We use your work. We love this work.”
And I actually got involved with one that was working with– out of Brown University’s working with a high school in the inner cities right, and I got involved with some of the students. But then I began to learn as a result of that involvement that these were the most radical kids in the country.
I mean, these were kids who embodied what a critical public sphere meant. They were going all over the country, different high schools, working class kids no less, debating major issues and getting so excited about in many ways winning these debates but doing it on the side of– something they could believe in.
And I thought to myself, “Wow, here’s a space.” Here’s a space where you’re going to have a whole generation of kids who could be actually engaging in debate and dialogue. Every working class urban school in this country should put its resources as much as possible into a debate team.
This is amazing to me. Yves was a debater; I was a debater in high school and college; that’s where my focus on rhetoric came from.* (Of course, I was a policy debater, back in the day, which is a lot like smash-mouth football, except with words. We were the ones who would lug around legal briefcases full of evidence on index cards — no laptops then! — and blast through arguments at blazing speed. Policy debate was a real sport. Nowadays, the high school forensics associations have changed the rules to make debate more like touch football; debate has devolved. But I have done some judging, and it’s still recognizable as debate.)
Debate taught me:
1) How to win**. (Not just tactically, but the pleasure of winning, of avoiding defeating one’s self, of training hard, and seeking to excel.)
2) How to research. (Debate demands not only that you back up your reasoning with evidence, but that you be able to assess sources critically, and be able to assess whether evidence really supports the claims made for it.***)
3) How to argue. (Not just to reason, but to communicate reasoning; how to make and win a point.)
4) That it was OK to argue. (I’ve noticed, sitting in on some college classes, that there’s a real reluctance to critique; it’s somehow seen as impolite. YMMV — and I’d be really happy to be wrong on this.)
5) How to think on my feet. (Nothing more exciting than having a new proposal thrown at you, for which you have no evidence and of which you have no knowledge, and figuring out how to defeat it. Winning with no resources except reasoning and guile is much more exciting than winning with brute force.)
6) How to speak in public. (Apparently, many people are scared to speak in public. So was I, but debate cured me of it. And the more you win, the larger groups you get to speak in front of, because the initial rounds will be in classrooms, but the finals — in which you will, naturally, participate — will be in auditoriums, sometimes quite large ones.)
7) How to move an audience. (Not the same as overcoming the “fear of public speaking”; rather some mastery of logos and pathos.)
8) How to be part of a team. (Since I’m an INTJ, joining a team is never the first thing on my mind. However, in debate, you not only have a partner that you work and train with, but all the debaters on the team share evidence and practice against each other.)
Debate was one of the best things that has ever happened to me. If you have children or grandchildren, I seriously recommend you consider it; I can’t say enough good things about the experience. Debate has a strong “critical thinking skills” component, to be sure, but it also teaches that the best ideas in the world mean nothing unless you can communicate them to others, and that is a very different, and larger, set of skills.
So, imagine if every working class high school in the country were training young women and men in how to win, how to research, how to argue, that it’s OK to argue, how to think on their feet, how to speak in public, how to move an audience, and how to be part of a team! As Giroux suggests, the discourse would be greatly improved and with that, our ability to form new solutions in political economy (which today’s political class is so clearly unable to do, were they even willing).
And I bet there would be a lot less bullshit!
NOTE ** Readers, I don’t know if you’ve noticed this about me, but I still like to win. Over the years, however, especially since I started blogging, I’ve become (incredible though this may seem) much more mellow. In particular, although debate also taught me how to fight dirty, I try not to do that any more. It’s bad for me, and more importantly, bad for the threads.
NOTE *** Much less than it did. Big devolution here.