I was in the audience of my school debate last week. A two hour experience that made me ponder on the extent to which school debates are meaningless. I suggest a better and complete alternative to debates in this post. But first, let me state my observations during my time listening to the debate held at my school. And then the mistakes I think the system embodies.
When someone rebutted a statement made in a participants’ proposition speech, that participant had a breakdown (or “choked” as they say,) under the apparent pressure. The rebuttal proved that the participant had made a point completely contradictory to her stance in her speech. And because the participant then realized thus, she faced a breakdown. To be fair, there were easily more than 500 people seated in the hall listening to the debate take place. But still it made me wonder why this happened in the first place. What are debates for? Why are they important? In the broad scheme of things: does truth matter or does justifying your “stance” for or against a particular thing? Why is a person feeling so much stress if the supposedly main idea is to seek the truth? Why is truth-seeking a “competition” instead of a collaboration here? What’s going on? (I want to leave!)
I noticed there being a sense of arrogance in the tone of some speakers’ voice when giving their main speech and especially while answering other people’s questions/rebuttals. It seems teenagers find this sort of arrogance in the form of drama as great entertainment so there definitely was hooting and cheering which encouraged more of this behavior from the participants. But it was completely unnecessary. And sounded foolish too, at times. People would speak in a mocking way and make comments on how anyone could be against (or for) the given subject provided the “evidence” (which was a couple or so—at times parochial—”examples”). But why? Is there really a need to be arrogant in the search for truth? Or has this debate bubble mistaken that competition and not critical collaboration is what it takes to come to a rational conclusion?
Simply justifying the arbitrary perspective matters:
Participants in the debate are given “marks” (yes, this system is everywhere) and a good weightage is imposed on justifying or proving the perspective (for/against) with arguments for the same. Apart from falling into a few common logical fallacies, it all just neatly needs to fit to prove the stance. But being a truth seeker is way more important than being a persuader for the long-term progress and well-being for society. A persuader can’t hide the truth for long. Weightage (if there even should be a system as such for finding out the truth—hint: there shouldn’t) should be stressed on how well a participant reasons to find out what actually is the case instead of on the participants’ capacity of using arguments to please their arbitrary perspective. Truth is not a for/against discussion.
Speaking well matters more than the truth:
Speaking of the criteria of marks given, a huge chunk is reserved for how well a participant speaks out there in front of their “respected opponents” and the crowd sitting in the audience. Sure, public speaking is important. But some aren’t so good at it. So the “competition” is already reserved for people who are confident speakers. But confident speakers can be faulty reasoners. And even though explicating knowledge is important, some can be better at doing so in other forms. Like through written (or typed out-) words or other art forms, rather than plain-old speaking. Apart from this, speaking confidently while all other things being seemingly more or less coherent is “all they look for”. Maybe it’s that wannabe confident speaker feeling that makes the person become a little arrogant—though that’s just my guess. Speaking is not that important as school debates make them to be relative to the truth.
Focus on truth:
The debate framework is rigged and it misrepresents what’s actually important—reality that is and not your point of view. To fix something is to change it (at least to change it from its broken nature). So I’ll suggest an alternative to school debates (that is very far off from what a debate is) but it emphasizes on the important. So here’s a suggestion… do a collaborative project where a relatively complicated topic of interest—perhaps a meaningfully important one to human society (which almost necessarily should be of interest to the ones doing the project—this is key) is selected. The team gets to decide a specific time period (preferably anywhere between a week and 4 weeks) where they’d go through information about the topic through books, research papers, experiments, etc., conjecture new ideas, perform an experiment(s) on their own if they like, rationally observe phenomena regarding the topic at hand if possible, or conjecturing theories on others’ observations. Then, when perhaps all is done they come to a conclusion by the end of the time frame. We can create multiple teams if there’s multiple people. After the time ends, perhaps they converge on the truth. If they don’t, contradicting theories from different teams can criticize one another’s theories. Not argue and do rebuttals and all that in the debate sense (please that is hard to bear for me). But criticize maturely.
Less meaningless arguments, more cooperation and converging upon truth:
If, after that whole process, two (or more) theories contradict by different teams doing their individual work, we don’t need to let the two teams keep arguing and pointing out their theory as the valid one. We don’t even need to make a compromise to seemingly end the conflict. Those two teams can still conjecture new theories, perhaps different from the individual two they came up with on account of new evidence or criticisms. But they shall come to something that really satisfies everyone (i.e. definitely isn’t a compromise), and of course aligns with reality. Again, truth seeking is not a competition so this shouldn’t be treated as one. Getting it right with your team shouldn’t matter. Getting it right as a whole should. Figuring out stuff is a reward in itself. And this is the reason why I stressed above that choosing a topic that interests everyone is important.
School debates don’t, in practice, allow for the all so important critical and creative thinking aspects of the mind to be utilized in search for truth. Because their primary focus isn’t the truth! It’s justifying an opinion (for/against) on a subject matter that has been imposed onto the participant. Speaking coherently and confidently is what’s rewarded. It’s sort of meaningless really. Competition is prevalent instead of collaboration. As a complete alternative to debates I suggest search for truth via a collaborative, creative and critical explanation seeking way to come to a conclusion regarding a subject/problem of interest.