Debating Both Aye and Nay

`Men are not hanged for stealing horses, but that horses may not be stolen.'

SOMETHING has happened to our old debating teams and they are not heard from. Every year our state goes nuts over the high school basketball championship, until things like the Kuwait disturbance are neglected by the press and all evidence of cultural effort fades from view. Time was, if anybody cares, that small paragraphs in the back pages of newspapers announced the results of interscholastic debates, arousing mild excitement in the masses but attesting that learning still had standing in the a cademic community. As a debater, I watched for those items. Debating was a curious kind of contest, because it didn't matter which side you were on.

The quotation commencing this treatise was always brought up by one side or the other when the proposition was ``Resolved: that capital punishment should be abolished.'' One side or the other, because debating teams never knew which side they would take. After we were on stage and introduced, the chairman of the meeting would open an envelope and we knew only then if we would be pro or con.

As renewed pleas to restore capital punishment are heard nowadays, a repetition, revival, maybe reinstatement, of the old high school debates might be helpful as the citizenry decides. We debaters certainly knew all the answers. Capital punishment was by far the favorite topic of my time, although we did get Free Trade now and then. A high school debating team consisted of three speakers and a sidekick - the sidekick was a brain who wasn't glib and had a pile of books so he could look up things as needed. We - my team - was fortunate to have a sidekick with an active imagination so he found many a fact that was relevant but untrue. On occasion he could pass up a blank sheet of paper from which the speaker could extemporize about the cell block situations at San Quentin and Sing Sing prisons.

We had leagues, and usually our school debated in the Bowdoin League. But one year we defected and joined the Bates College League, mostly because Bates College was so-so in football, and had developed a reputation for the forensic arts. That was a special year, because one of the varsity debaters at Bates was Erwin Dain Canham, who was to become the illustrious editor of this newspaper. Varsity debaters were used by their colleges to coach high school teams in their several leagues, and Erwin came to coach us.

Erwin would leave Lewiston by cross-country trolley car. The trip took an hour and a half and cost 90 cents each way. We would meet at our high school at seven o'clock and he would coach us on articulation, stage techniques, ``movements,'' and manner of presenting our arguments for an hour and a half. Then he would run for the trolley car and get back to Lewiston in time to study an hour or so before lights-out. For this, the college paid him the customary stipend of $5, but did not reimburse the carfar e. This was known as ``student aid.'' Children today don't appreciate the importance of a college education. Other years, when we enrolled in the Bowdoin Debating League, our student coach from Bowdoin got the same $5, but his distance was less and his carfare came to only 60 cents. But our Bowdoin coaches had not debated at Oxford University, as ``Spike'' Canham had done in the first International Intercollegiate Debate. I never heard if the proposition was capital punishment, but I wouldn't be surprised.

Even though we high school debaters knew everything there was to know both aye and nay about capital punishment, we were scholastically immune from personal opinion. Equanimity, unimpassioned neutrality, and strict mental discipline were requisites of the sport. One evening we would quote Thomas Mott Osborne all over the place, and the next time we'd demolish him. We knew all the ``quotes'' in the vein of that which introduces this authoritative paper, and we knew all the others that dispute them. This one is from George Savile, in his time a master of argument, a British political big-shot, and the Marquess of Halifax. When astutely applied, he would toss Thomas Mott Osborne for a loop. But when our worthy opponents trotted him out, we had somebody even better. As I recall, we won the Bates title that year, so it was excellent experience for us. And I'm sure it was the same for our coach.

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