Sparks - and wit - fly as college debaters spar


It's Friday evening on campus. So, naturally Michael Shore and other championship college and university debaters are not at a movie or party - they're stepping up to a podium.

Twenty-two minutes earlier Mr. Shore,who is now studying law at the University of Toronto, was told he would argue the case against "commodification of the human body." With scrawled notes on a small pad of paper, he steps to the front for an eight-minute seat-of-the-pants statement to a tough crowd.

"The body is not a cash cow or a condo," he states loudly in the Mount Holyoke College lecture hall here in South Hadley, Mass. "We are more than the sum of our parts. We are not an ATM machine on legs, so that if you need cash you can just hack off an arm or a hand."

His logic, laced with black humor, wins laughter from an audience of more than 50 of North America's best college debaters - and maybe a point from the judge. But a "government" member pops up on the other side of the room.

Eric Albert, a freshly minted Harvard grad, stands for several seconds, one hand on top of his head, the other arm outstretched in front, palm upward. His lawn-ornament-like pose signals a "point of information" challenge. Mr. Shore decides to permit Mr. Albert to speak with a dismissive "yes" and a quick nod. "If as you say, a body is more than the sum of its parts, how can you still favor giving away body parts?" Albert asks. "Are you saying there is no such thing as altruism?"

That such rational discourse goes on in a debate format might come as a surprise to an American electorate, treated recently to debates that featured shouts of "tell the truth" followed by movie one-liners like "you can't handle the truth."

But the truth is that verbal argument, propelled by actual rational thought, is alive and growing at colleges worldwide.

"There's no doubt college debating is growing quite rapidly," says Robert Trapp, president of the National Parliamentary Debate Association and a professor at Willamette University in Salem, Ore.

Look who's signing up

In the United States, intercollegiate debate didn't really get going until the 1920s, Professor Trapp says, and was not widespread until after World War II. Last year, however, the NPDA held a national tournament attended by 206 teams from 120 schools - compared with 50 teams five years ago. Hundreds of schools belong to other national debating organizations.

International debating is peaking, too. More than 200 teams from 150 schools across five continents are expected to participate in the 1999 World Universities Debating Championships, which will be held in Manila from Dec. 27 to Jan. 4, 1999.

What's driving the growth in the US, he and others say, is expanding interest in "American parliamentary-style debate" - a relative newcomer. Its better known and more lawyerly cousin is the cross-examination, or forensic, style whose college roots go back to the 1800s.

In parliamentary style, what's key are rhetorical flourishes, wit, and the ability to craft a cogent argument on the fly (following the British model), all the while taking pot shots at the opponent's argument. In cross-examination style, intensive, detailed research - not rhetoric - is king. That style also allows for months of preparation time on a topic, compared with just 15 minutes for parliamentary style.

The verbal fencing at Mount Holyoke is part of the World Preparatory Debating Championships, a weekend-long tournament to tune up North American college teams for the world championships. Schools attending read like a who's-who list of the Eastern Seaboard: Carnegie-Mellon, Fordham, Smith, Dartmouth, Bates, Williams, Vassar, Amherst, Yale, Bradford, MIT, Hillsdale.

Naturally, debate topics are framed in stuffy-sounding parliamentary lingo, like: "This House believes that globalization spells the death of the nation-state" - or - "This House believes that the price of freedom is too high." Another hot topic: "This House believes that Western feminism is inappropriate for the developing world."

Such issues are music to the ears of Brent Patterson, a Canadian who got his undergraduate degree in engineering. Now a business student at the University of Western Ontario in London, his role this weekend is that of debate tutor. "I got into debating because I thought it might be fun - and a good way to learn to express my ideas clearly," he says.

He just can't stop

A grand finalist on the runner-up team at the 1998 world championships in Athens, Mr. Patterson confesses that debating has "assumed a life of its own," gobbling up weekends and several nights a week. He spent as much time debating as working on his engineering degree.

Among the tips he and eight others who have been to "the Worlds" offer:

* Throttle back. Speak clearly and slowly. Don't commit "spreading" - speaking at up to 200 words a minute. Some judges at the Worlds are not native English speakers and will be alienated.

* Don't follow the American tendency to make detailed, blow-by-blow factual and legalistic arguments. Try instead for a little wit and a smooth presentation.

* Don't be overtly American. Don't bring a yellow legal pad. Don't make your point by saying, "As Bill Clinton says..." Consider putting a Canadian flag on your backpack.

* Prepare by reading the annual roundup issue of "The Economist" magazine and as much overseas news as possible. It's a good idea to know, for instance, what Mercosur and ASEAN are. And along with dripping sarcasm - be witty, too.

"As in life, both humor and logic are needed," Patterson says. "Logic is going to carry the day. But if nobody listens - you're going to lose. It doesn't matter how great an idea you have if you can't sell it."

* Send e-mail comments to

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.