As a recent graduate, when I reflect on the time I spent at university, it is striking how the pieces of knowledge and experiences that I consider the most impactful are rarely those that occurred in the classroom. Certainly, I did gain several technical skills and background understandings that should, one hopes, serve me well in a future career. At the same time, I can count on one hand the number of times my preconceived notions were truly changed by something a professor said or through an assigned classroom reading. This is not to say that I did not, at least from my own perspective, try to engage with the material present in class in a real way. Perhaps it is down to something about the format of university lectures, or the pressure to craft work to attain high marks rather than for its own sake that leads to this situation. The situation so often depicted in fictionalized portrayals of university life of “cramming” for an important test only to forget all the material after it is over is an exaggerated one, but only slightly. If I were to be presented with a set of questions on the historical facts I learned in any number of my classes, at this point, I’m fairly certain I would be unable to answer many of them.
It would be an enlightening exercise to ask people a decade after leaving a post-secondary environment how much they truly remember from their classes. I would venture to guess that, like myself, they would remember that which is relevant to their current work, and perhaps a few particularly personally impactful moments, but not much else specific. Given that universities are, in their Platonic ideal, supposed to serve as incubators of independent thought and a well-rounded, mature worldview, does this mean our educational institutions have failed us?
Not necessarily. As mentioned, though my classroom learning will likely have more enduring in terms of what it imparted to me about techniques (of writing, of data analysis, etc.), a university is not simply the classes that one attends, the tests one takes or the papers that one writes. A university is, for both better and worse, a community that exists both in and apart from the wider world, with its own customs, norms, habits and subcultures. During my time there, I was fortunate enough to be involved in a few clubs and activities (ranging from chess to the campus branch of a political party) which in many ways made my experience, both intellectual and otherwise, as fruitful as it was. There was no other extracurricular group that I was involved with that had as much of an impact on me, however, as my four-year stint as a British Parliamentary debater.
In my university’s debating society, I made some of the most lasting friendships I would have during my time at college and have continued them beyond. Perhaps because all of us who got seriously involved with debating were cut from a similar intellectual cloth (being primarily defined by inquisitiveness with an argumentative tinge), we were particularly interested in examining arguments on their own terms. What were the underlying beliefs in morality, in the good society or the good life that undergirded a belief that, for instance, the government should not fund religious schools? What differentiated a good presentation of this, or any other, argument from a bad presentation of it? Was it merely a matter of having more data points available on each side of a topic, like soldiers in a firing line? Could a bad argument be transmuted, spun like straw into gold, into a good one merely by having perfect command of the English language and knowing what references will please the judges? These are the meta-questions we were, in a sense, always really debating, regardless of what the explicit topic given was.
Part of what formal debate forces upon a person partaking in it to do is understand the construction of an argument in abstract terms, rather than the specifics of any particular position. This is so because the perspective that you will be arguing from is not known until about fifteen minutes before you will have to present the strongest version of it. This exercise can, in theory, be a reflective tool to challenge one’s own assumptions and at least be able to understand the principles which may inform a perspective you disagree with. More often than not, however, it becomes merely a lens through which to see positions merely as pieces of intellectual clockwork, with all the pieces fitting together just so, rather than being informed by social context, individual experience and a host of other factors. One had to be what could be described as “well-read” to be a good debater, possessing at least some fluency in modern world events, but this wide knowledge was too often harnessed for narrow uses.
Debaters and Citizens
The debate society ideal that I learned to cherish from my time at university seems to me to be an increasingly poor analogue to problems of the real world. The combative dedication to tearing down and exposing as wrong the arguments of one’s opponents that debate prizes is more present than ever in the ambient social discourse. However, unlike in debating, there is no panel that one is performing for who is expected to evaluate arguments on their merits and render judgement accordingly. In the real world, such as it is, these debates seem to increasingly focus not on convincing the other side that it could be wrong or misguided (as such an approach would have to imply that there could exist flaws in your own perspective), but on indulging the already existing prejudices of those that agree with you. Go on Youtube and other social networks, and one of the more popular genres of viral video featuring various popular “intellectual” figures is of them “destroying” or “owning” an opponent (who is usually inarticulate in presenting their own case). What such speakers seek to do is not challenge, or even meaningfully engage with, the underlying premises being presented by the other side, but rather to rile up emotions and further entrench the beliefs of those that already agree with them. That they do so by using a set of tricks in rhetoric and basic logical reasoning that are familiar to me from a debate context is a bit depressing, but not exactly surprising. The act of listening within politics and society is increasingly tending towards listening like a debater, rather than as a citizen who must share a polity in common when all is done and dusted.
When listening like a debater, you are always looking for the weak points of argument, the chinks in the rhetorical armour, an overly simplistic explanation of a complex point, and so on. Critically, though, you are looking for these things not to get the person on the other side to truly rethink or modify their position. They are looked for to provide a stinging rebuke, that “owning” mentioned above, either to preen for a sympathetic audience or simply to make one’s self feel more secure in their pre-existing belief. These points are also highlighted to the exclusion of any aspects of the argument that we find genuinely intriguing and might trouble our beliefs.
I learned a great many things in my time as a debater, made what I hope will be lifelong friendships and had experiences I would not ever wish to give up. I do think, in a sense, it made me a more well-rounded person, or at least someone more confident about speaking my opinions in public. I have seen debate give self-confidence and presence to intelligent individuals who otherwise might have been afraid to speak up for what they believe in. At the same time, those of us in debate tended to think of ourselves as having the highest level of intellectual locution, which I can only read as arrogant and myopic in retrospect. We excelled at a particular, sometimes valuable, form of engagement with the world, whilst
allowing the other forms to wither from lack of use. The problem was that there was little in the way of countervailing forces in the university experience, at least in my experience, which developed more conciliatory, collaborative sorts of skills within the context of beliefs and ideas. Engagement with the idea of diversity, on a variety of axes, is too often done in a shallow, tokenistic way despite ostensible institutional commitments.
This fact is all the more distressing because, in this time and place we must share together, it may be precisely those skills, not those of the debater, that we will need to develop in order to create a better future.