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  • Laurie Dawson

From Virus to Virtue (Why debate & what we glean from COVID) by: Laurie Dawson

A couple months ago, while planning an online debate camp, a friend jested, “COVID presents the opportunity to get what you really should from debate.”

We laughed. He was right!

That malevolent SUPERBUG that shuts down cities but can’t stop riots, opened a Pandora's box that I believe could change the face of academic speech and debate. How, you ask? Let me tell you. When people are limited in where they can go and what they can do, they are suddenly ready to try things they refuse to do under ordinary circumstances. And 2020 has been anything but ordinary.

I don’t know if debate has always been the way it is today, because I was never an academic debater, but let me tell you what I believe debate is not - or should not be. Academic debate is not about writing an unbeatable case or communicating in a cerebral sounding language with heady terminology. It is not about impressing judges, or confounding opponents. And it is not about regurgitating a narrow corridor of ideas, philosophies, and processes in order to experience early success. Yet, all of this is what is often taught.

Academic debate is the beginning of a lifelong journey.

It is a process, and perhaps one of the best, for developing skills that students will use and continue to cultivate for the rest of their lives.

Four years ago, I was asked to coach a small group of novice debate students. I knew virtually nothing about formal debate. But I knew people. I knew how to communicate, how to listen to the streams that flow beneath people’s words, and how to resonate in people’s brains. I knew the importance of broad-based research, ethical determination, and passionate appeals. I knew how to choose my battles, when to negotiate, how to win, and how to teach other people to do the same.

My first students had no idea what they were in for, and neither did I. We journeyed together. I studied formal debate and lasered in on a couple of coaches who were applying real world disciplines to this academic exercise. While I learned formal debate, I coached what I knew – the importance of research, how to organize and evaluate information and ideas; how to weigh other people’s goals, objective, and philosophies against one’s own moral compass; and how to argue persuasively rather than manipulatively. Those first students followed my instruction almost blindly. They debated only two rounds before their first real tournament. No one was more surprised than I was when my little group of eight won more rounds than they lost. Three or four of our little novice team went on to qualify for nationals. More importantly, everyone mastered real world skills that they continue to build upon and will benefit from long after their formal education is complete.

But back to COVID. Social restrictions provide time for students to spend doing things they might not otherwise do – like developing real life disciplines that just happen to apply to speech and debate.

Debate is where students learn to open lines of communication with the most unlikely people in the most uncomfortable of circumstances.

But this is for another article. Stay tuned…


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