Saturday, December 5, 2009

The debate on debate

I recently had an opportunity to chair a school debate competition organized by the British Council in Mumbai. The topic for the debate was 'Freedom of Expression in Art'. The debaters were quite young and mostly between the age group of 14 and 17 years and did a decent job in putting their points across though with some scope for improvement.

A thought that came to my mind when I had a discussion with one of the very interesting audience of the debate. He mentioned about how after the debate got over, on an offline note, one of the participants who spoke against the motion of debate stated that she was actually not so much against the motion.

The immediate thought that follows is, what is the purpose of this competition? I understand that the purpose of debate is to progress towards clarity after considering diverse view points. While what the judges are expected to judge is how well is the person able to defend his/her stand. In many issues it is likely that the person may agree to some points in favour and some points against the motion then does that mean that the debater is expected to maintain a stand with stubbornness just so that he/she appears well guarded in his/her defence.

Does that mean that the debate is not actually based on the principles of debating but simply the principle of not budging from one's point, no matter what. Or for that matter for those who adulate competition in all spheres of life, the spirit of competition is the key and debate is another arena just like say a sport.

If we look at the alternate view point, should there be points provided to the participant for revisiting one's thoughts in an objective light and again come back with a more balanced perspective. Will the debater in that case be 'judged' weak or will that be the true victory of debating as a means of clarity and maturity of thinking. What should be the parameters of judging in that case?

Isn't it funny that at times as we try to recognize someone's competence in one realm, do we give an altogether wrong message on the same subject but at a different end.

Probably the 14 year old might go back home thinking that he did a fine job in sticking to his point while actually he might have missed out on the core of what a sound discussion is all about.

But surely, he is not to be blamed. He becomes a victim of another system of evaluation


Payal said...

As an educator, I have found debates as a tool of expression and assessment only when the participants are very, very clear about the choices and standi. Even then, I prefer that those who feel strongly in favour should be able to articulate some ideas against the topic. After all, all debatable topics are grey areas (that is why the need to debate).
What can be used as a pre or post activity to a debate is a teaching strategy called Block Or Tackle...very popular with kids of most ages and engaging for participants as well as the audience!

Payal Mahajan

Ujjwal said...

Surely agree. This sounds interesting and would like to understand more about these methods that you mentioned.

The risk with debates is that somewhere the person's self identity or the ego takes the place of reason and then the entire effort goes into defending that. How to give precedence to the subject beyond any personal opinion about oneself or the person on the opposite side can also lead to great lessons of life to emerge.