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Great Debaters

Posted by: Diane Brady on January 10, 2008

There is only one reference to me (as far as I know) in Wikipedia — the day I stood up in a floral Laura Ashley dress before a room full of rowdy college students and argued about Canadian football. Although (or, perhaps, because) it was a subject about which I—and my figure skating fan of a partner—knew almost nothing, we won the debate and ended up winning the national championships that year. I thought of that moment recently when I heard about Denzel Washington’s new movie, The Great Debaters, and read a piece by New York Times writer Lisa Belkin today on her own experiences in debating.

I joined the debating union at my university because public speaking was something that frankly scared me. I was a quiet kid in high school, the one who pulled out a hair net to work in a hospital kitchen after class and had worked to ditch both a lisp and a Scottish accent as a child. In my first try at debating in college, I stammered out a defense of Queen Elizabeth II (what’s not to love?)—and lost. Another time, I was so taken with the wit and logic of an Irish opponent that I essentially agreed with him and sat down.

But over the years, I have come to appreciate all that debating gave me. The most important, I think, was an ability to stand up and let myself be heard, regardless of the criticism I might face. Even in the face of bold stupidity, few of my colleagues were likely to match the withering imitation of me that a speaker did one year before a large crowd at Fordham University. Debating also made me realize that facts have little weight when not presented in a persuasive package.

I often wonder if my kids will find joy in debating, as I did. I hope so. It was the most valuable skill I carried away from college.

Reader Comments

Shirley Brady

January 10, 2008 4:32 PM

As Diane's sister and occasional (though nowhere near as talented) debating partner, I can attest that she was (and still is) a wonderfully witty Great Debater in her own right ... and since then, in her own write!

Paul Paton

January 10, 2008 5:10 PM

There were two types of debaters in college -- those who took good argument seriously, and those who took themselves seriously. I was fortunate to encounter and become lifelong friends with the former group -- an accomplished collection of iconoclasts, journalists, lawyers, poets, professors and politicians, with a musician and banker or two thrown in for good measure. Debating was the great leveller -- what mattered was not where you came from or who your family was, but whether or not you had a good argument. It was ideas and the ability to articulate them that mattered.

Diane is quite right: I am a figure skating fan. Perhaps to her continuing surprise and everyone else's, I also know a lot about football. But in the national championships I knew enough to bury the expertise, not get lost in rattling off statistics, and let the concepts -- and Diane's power to entertain -- loose. We had fun, and winning national championships was proof that form AND substance mattered.

Debating also offered a far more serious set of opportunities. Debating permitted me to argue at Moscow State University in the final days of Communism that freedom of expression was a paramount human right, at a time when our university counterparts there did not themselves have the opportunity to do so without fear of retribution. It prepared me for life as a lawyer --now as a legal ethics and governance professor. Debating honed my appreciation of the power of argument, often with a great big dollop of hubris. It permitted me to find my voice when the world wouldn't necessarily permit me to do so.

The joy of debate certainly lay in the challenge of matching wits and tongues. It also lay in the chance to travel and encounter the world, to appreciate the concepts and people we encountered, and to prepare ourselves to defend that freedom of expression in whatever forum we found ourselves. It was a privilege that I'm glad the movie brings to a new generation -- and to more than a few old debating hacks (and good friends!).


January 11, 2008 12:09 AM

Sadly, I still don't know much about Canadian football. But I have learned to appreciate the Giants.

John Hovland

January 11, 2008 1:14 PM

For me, one of the great benefits of university debating was its encouragement of humility. Often, the brilliant argument I concocted didn't sound quite so convincing when I heard myself delivering it to a skeptical audience or, worse, when I listened to the other side's response. It taught me to examine my own views to see if they had any basis in fact or reason and that alone has been a tremendous gain.

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