I’ve been coaching debate for five years now, and as I’ve taught students how to play the game, the benefits of debate become obvious. At the same time, a danger lurks. Could debate inherently be an activity devoted to sophistry?

Back from summer break, the varsity debate team gathers to determine an important part of their team identity before resolutions are released, tournaments are begun, or recruitment becomes a focus.

“Gather round, team. It’s an important day—we must choose our patron philosopher. Who will be our model, our guide, the one we uphold to the world as our exemplar? To whom should we appeal? And let’s be clear—our choice says something about what we do when we debate, why we debate, and how we debate. Do I hear any nominations?” Having opened the day’s deliberations, the coach took his seat.

Grayson steps forward, his snarky confidence already evident. “I propose Jean Paul Sartre, Coach. After all, his vision of existentialism and the human person as completely flexible fits our arguments. Don’t we twist arguments into any shape imaginable when we debate? Sartre seems to fit. Plus, in all the pictures he’s got a pipe. That’s just cool.” Mild applause greets Grayson’s proposal as Grace moves to the stand.

“We should not have Jean Paul Sartre as our patron saint of debate. Instead, Aquinas should be our model. His impeccable research, never-ending questions, and the clearest logic fusing together a love of God with philosophy show exactly what we as debaters are trying to do. Aquinas as our patron will show that we have found the truth, and that we can persuade others to find this truth as well. And we could have a Dumb Ox as the logo on our shirts!” More scattered applause, with two debate students rapping their knuckles on desks in support of the beatific doctor for patron philosopher of debate.

Ethan places his iPad on the podium, and mirrors an image of John Stuart Mill dropping an atomic bomb on a Pacific island onto the classroom TV. “Guys, I’ve got it. Utilitarianism is the most persuasive debate paradigm, because consequentialism is the ethical framework we can all agree on. ‘The most happiness for the greatest number of people.’ That’s what we advocate for in our speeches, and what we contend the opposition will prevent in our rebuttals. Does God exist? Hard to say. Aquinas is out—if our patron saint is a Catholic philosopher, we will pigeon-hole ourselves as a Catholic debate team. Sartre is also out—he thought it was fine to hurt people, use them, abandon them. Mill was all about happiness—after all, don’t we all debate because, at some level, we want to be happy? JSM for patron saint—it’s a clear choice.”

Thunderous applause breaks out, while the Catholic students on the debate team glare Thomistic daggers at Ethan for daring to question the universal appeal of the good doctor. Maggie rises to speak. “We need the clearest, most rational thinker as our representative to other debate teams. Therefore, I nominate Immanuel Kant for our patron philosopher. Kant’s thought depends on pure reason, and his logic is impeccable. Through superior logic, we will triumph at tournaments.” Three students cheer, while the rest remember the migraines experienced while reading Kant.

Sheel grips the podium, ready to demonstrate the strength of his conviction. “Kant is a frozen icicle of reason; what we need instead is the fire of Kierekegaard’s love. The passion, the humanity, the prophetic insight! Kierkegaard grounds our debate in the reality of human nature; his existentialism allows for change, ethical burdens, and growth in wisdom. Also—he wrote his best philosophy when his girl broke up with him. We’ve all been there, right? I mean, we made it to nationals last year because none of us could get dates to prom! Who’s with me? Kierkegaard for Patron Philosopher! Also—have you seen his face? Dude will make a sick t-shirt.” Sheel sits down, glad he has made his case.

Meigan slams the gavel on the desk to begin. “I proclaim the rise of das ubermensch! And his coming is foretold with the philosophy of the hammer! Nietzsche should be our patron—when we write cases, we look for impacts, disadvantages, problems with the world. We are always hunting for what is wrong with our opponents’ ideas, evidence, and arguments. That’s what Nietzsche did! He was the ultimate debater, smashing his opposition with the hammer of his will! Vote for Nietzsche, and vote for our team’s power to rise and crush any in our way!” The team looks back at Meigan, slightly afraid of who she might hit with the gavel; as she sits, Noah stands to add one final name to the ballot.

“There are so many choices, and there are so many parts of debate. All the choices ahead of me have merit. We don’t want a patron who is too partisan; I’m Jewish, and I respect Aquinas, but I don’t think he’s for me. We don’t want a patron who ignores half of debate: Nietzsche destroys, but he fails to rebuild. Mill’s utilitarianism applies sometimes, but not always. Does anyone really love Kant? I doubt it. I think we need to go back earlier, way earlier. To the first debater in Western philosophy: Socrates. Socrates sought truth. No one knows for sure if he found it, but he was dedicated to seeking it. And then he offered the strongest proof of his conviction: he died to support his burden of argumentation. Can we ask for any stronger example? After all, our team motto is ‘Truth in Communication,’ and our coach refuses to tell us what things are true. What we’ve got is a demand on each of us to present arguments we think are true with evidence we’ve gotten through ethical means. Socrates was a philosophical debater with integrity, and I think he should be our patron saint. He destroyed the weak arguments of the Sophists, and rebuilt contentions of his own. He’s our guy.” Silence filled the room, then the slow rapping of knuckles on desks built to a crescendo as Noah took his seat.

The coach smiled: “Alright, team. That was a spirited discussion—here are your ballots. Vote wisely. And remember—when we make it to the big tournament at the end of the year, you have to wear a shirt with the results of the vote on the front. So choose well!”

Moral of the Fable

I’ve been coaching debate for five years now; we’ve moved from being a middle school club meeting twice a week to a team with a travel budget looking to compete at national and international levels. As I’ve taught students how to play this game, the benefits of debate become obvious. Students become skilled in rhetoric and oratory, they develop research skills on par with university researchers; their application of theory is astounding. At the same time, a danger lurks. Is debate inherently an activity devoted to sophistry? Would Plato write debate coaches into the role of Glaucon? “Just argue that justice is the pursuit of power for the individual benefit; that will give you access to…” and so on. I think the answer must be “no.” Debate would not merit spending 15-30 weekends a year away from home and hearth for hundreds of coaches and thousands of students if it were merely training in sophistry. Instead, I think the merit of debate lies in the practice of dialectic.

For Socrates, dialectic functioned as the process of finding truth. The Republic shows Socrates going back and forth with his interlocutors seeking truth where he can find it. At the end of book one, Thrasymachus has given up, and Glaucon tells Socrates he will make the strongest defense possible for “Justice is the interest of the stronger” to provoke Socrates to make a better response. This moment reveals the heart of debate. In order to have the moment of realization, one must be confronted by a worthy opponent. And this is what debate does as an exercise. Done right, debate is a game played by worthy opponents who are seeking truth through mutual competitive dialogue.

In the contemporary setting, students are often distracted from this vision of debate. Some students see debate as an opportunity to urge social change; others embrace the sophistry, and decide to win the game no matter the harm done to truth or integrity. Still others become enamored with bad philosophy (critical theory accepted without nuance or critique). The fable above seeks to illustrate these realities, and it fittingly concludes with students selecting Socrates as their “patron philosopher.” Socrates seems a fitting symbol of the universal value of argument, refutation, cross-examination, deliberation, and dialectic.

I coach 30-40 students in a growing debate program, and this year I have found great joy in seeing the variety of students who have opted to participate. Competitive debate has a long history of positively changing students’ lives. Some changes are predictable: as they learn the game of debate, students learn vital skills like research, affirmative and negative case writing, argumentation, refutation, flowing, and rhetoric. Beyond these skills lies another set of benefits: through year-long competitive dialogue, students have the opportunity to develop a love of truth that will last them a lifetime. Some students will look more like Nietzsche, using debate as a destructive (or one might say deconstructive) tool; a precious few will begin looking more like Socrates and spend their lives seeking truth where it might be found.

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The featured image is “A Greek Philosopher and His Disciples” (1767) by Antonio Zucchi (1726-1796), and is in the Public Domain.

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