The Decline of Debate in America
12. August 2007


Recently, brought on by discussions with utterly different online groups, I've been forced to acknowledge the declining ability of Americans to debate in real time. This is not to say that people today are stupid, or uninformed, or less thoughtful that their predecessors, but it seems to me that the average American (regardless of education level) is poorly equipped to debate anymore.

In decades gone by, the debate was a standard part of politics, and as such, higher education trained teens and young adults in its ways. Nowadays, though, political "debates" provide mere platforms from which politicians produce sound-bites. There is no true cross-examination, no potential for the clever wit or sharp, rational thinking of one candidate to shine through over another's. The questions are often known to the "debaters" beforehand, so there are not even any looks of surprise, potential fumbling, or potential insight to be had on their parts.

I see this as a great loss to society and a trouble for would-be-informed voters. For do we not wish our political leaders to be able to make decisions quickly and rationally, should an emergency arise? Where else in the campaign structure is there room to see which candidates "have it" and which don't, but during the debate?

With the decline of debate in politics, it's no wonder that the study of debate and debate-oriented thinking has also declined in high schools and colleges. Gone are the old-fashioned rhetoric and logic classes, replaced by standardized testing and SAT/GRE prep classes.

But what have we lost, with the demise of these "thinking" classes? To me, when we stopped teaching logic, debate, and (depending on how it's taught) philosophy, we also stopped teaching our students how to formulate their ideas in a coherent and – if need be – provocative verbal manner. Our politicians have encouraged them to repeat lofty ideals in terms of sound-bites – phrases common to one side of an issue or another – without forcing them to think through the ideas on their own. Certainly, as most students aren't stupid, some thought is put in on their own time, but with no one to encourage that thought and moderate it – gently pushing the students away from the engrained and unquestioned beliefs of childhood and into the mature and considered ones of adulthood – who can say how much remains in our students' minds untested and unquestioned?

The point of a debate is not necessarily to change your opponent's point of view. More often, debates are fought to a draw. But it is to provide a forum for the testing of ideas – to see how solid they really are, how much strain they can withstand before cracking, and how much patchwork must yet be done to make them whole and viable. In a debate, I consider it a success if I make my opponent think about even one new thing – not necessarily to agree with it, but merely to consider it. Perhaps some day, years after our debate, he'll recall that thought and see a way to meld it into his own ideas, making them more sure. Similarly, I have often had such an experience in reverse, where – though I would never have admitted it during the debate – an opponent's views have come back to haunt me days later and, after much contemplation, I have been forced to amend my own convictions.

To me, that is the true point of a debate: to learn. And just as a student always learns more by explaining a subject to a confused classmate than he would by merely solving his own homework set, so too can a debater learn more about his own ideas by whole-heartedly arguing the reverse. At the very least, he gains insight into his customary opponents' positions and arguments. At best, he is forced to recognize that some of his own thoughts have flaws or limitations to them, which he can then correct.

Emerson wrote once about having the moral courage to "speak what you think to-day in words as hard as cannon-balls and to-morrow speak what to-morrow thinks in hard words again, though it contradict every thing you said to-day." Changing your convictions based on a new understanding does not make you a fool, but rather a deep thinker. I challenge you now: strike up the debate! And when you do, don't be afraid to change your mind or to play the devil's advocate. You never know what you'll learn if you do so.