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In my opinion

The limits of learning to debate

In teaching students debating skills, are we preparing them to build the world we want?


Across Canada and around the world, students are taught formal academic debate in classes and clubs. Debaters learn to consider the efficacy and validity of an idea, deconstruct logical fallacies and improve their understanding of the political forces and social phenomena shaping our world.

I was one of them. During a formative decade through school and university, debate was a major part of my extracurricular life. I made friends, traveled widely, collected trophies, and built the aforementioned skills. I benefited greatly from this experience and I continue to do so in my career as an international policy advisor.

Yet, as an adult, I wonder about the status quo that formal debate imitates and reinforces. I wonder about the alternatives that it ignores.

Formal debate is beneficial in part because our professional, social and political environments are premised on the assumption that a thoughtful and coherent argument should yield a successful outcome. When we make a case for a raise, when we tell our friends to get vaccinated, when our politicians present their platforms – these are all manifestations of this rationalist philosophy. Yet the lessons of behavioural psychology and the reality of lived experience instruct that there is more to decision making than reasoned argumentation and compelling rhetoric. An excellent presentation may matter less in a boss’s decision about that raise than what they ate for breakfast that morning (or, perhaps, how long remains until lunch). Facts and figures rarely dissuade conspiracy theorists. And voters consistently prefer taller (and whiter, and male) political candidates, regardless of their policies.

None of this means that rational argument is irrelevant, unnecessary, or undesirable. It does mean that there is more to making a productive and positive contribution than merely making a case.

This is all the more true when one’s position is determined by a coin flip. Success in school and university debate requires insistence upon the rightness of a stance that is often arbitrary. Arguments are selected to match the position – and once that side is taken, there is no option to change one’s views and no reward for seeking a middle ground. Formal debate thereby mirrors partisan politics, where candidates must comply with the dogma of official policy and the strictures of the party whip.

In teaching and encouraging students to imitate this facet of the world that is, are we preparing them to build the world we want? Adversarial debate stimulates competition, not consensus. The latter requires skills that debate ignores: the empathy to relate to your coworkers; the patience to listen calmly to those with whom you disagree; the ability to distinguish a winning argument from a unifying idea; and the capacity to proactively change your mind in the face of new evidence.

The challenges facing our societies, from climate change to economic inequality, should rightly be subjected to vigorous debate – about the solutions. Universities and other educational institutions have a key role in stimulating this discourse. This responsibility should be reflected through the assignments students are given as well as through the events, research and extracurricular activities that universities fund and support.

Students should be encouraged to think seriously and creatively about local and global issues. At their best, university papers and projects – and formal debates – can produce valuable and eloquent insights. Moreover, honing analytic and communications skills will prepare students for further contributions when they enter the workforce. Having spent the past decade in various policy roles in government and civil society, I am struck by the rarity of compelling messaging coupled with robust argumentation. The combination of both is a recipe for real-world impact.

Too often, however, in both classrooms and broader society, there is artificial and unnecessary argument over the very existence of the problems before us. The most useful assignments in the social sciences require students to explore, explain and struggle with ambiguity. Yet the structure of most standard essays – much like a formal debate – begins with picking a side as if it were a foregone conclusion. Alternative forms of written assignments could better honour the realistic and necessary role of uncertainty in analytical thought. Transforming formal debate in this way is harder, but not impossible: discussion-style debate, practiced mainly on the Prairies and now uncommon, includes a more conversational segment that facilitates freer exchange, albeit still couched in an adversarial and competitive context.

Regardless of format, the fundamental both-sidesism of formal debate suggests that there are valid pros and cons to every decision, even the meta-decision of accepting there is a choice to be made. This attitude is echoed in partisan politics, where the default response to a rival’s idea is to oppose it, often less on the proposal’s merits than as a way of seizing the spotlight of controversy. It is reinforced in the media, where the entertainment of confrontation is too often favoured over the public good that can come from showcasing consensus.

Formal debate helps students learn how to argue. It does not teach them how to agree. It is a self-fulfilling prophecy: by teaching it, we prolong a world in which it is required. In doing so, we forego an alternative reality in which students might actually achieve a resolution, rather than merely debate it.

Gavin Charles is a graduate of Dalhousie University and the London School of Economics and Political Science who has won provincial and national debate tournaments.

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