Academic Debate

Students who participate in academic debate are learning to interact in a democratic society. Debate allows students to develop a tolerance of new or alternative ideas, to value competition and gain a broader knowledge of a topic. It may introduce the student to concepts previously unexplored, offering the opportunity to view the world from different perspectives and gaining an understanding of the notion of "agreeing to disagree." The flow of reasoned argument around the issues facing society allows academic debate to play a role in critical decision-making. When used to good effect, academic debate can empower individuals to help shape the world through language.

We need only reference the Tiananmen Square massacre in China in 1989 to understand how powerful academic debate is in threatening societies where freedom of speech is limited. However this is not confined to countries such as China, Japan and Korea; in the early 21st century, a high school in South Carolina courted publicity when it banned debate topics on gay marriage, stem cell research and abortion. In 2009 in the UK, an academic debate on multiculturalism was called off over fears the participation of a right-wing political group could incite violence. There have been concerns about the nature of academic debate and its power it has to influence the population at large. It is widely accepted that intellectuals who debate on topical issues can sway general societal trends. Some scholars have noted the potential of academic debate to be used to exert an insidious kind of "social control" and warn that the topic of debate may be open to manipulation. The danger, they say, is that discussion could be shut down and information campaigns by capitalist institutions could make strategic advances undermining the democratic decision-making process.

In the debating arena, students are able to express their opinions in a safe environment. This prepares them to participate in wider society and in the democratic process. It can also train them for future leadership roles. Academic debate develops a number of skills such as reasoning, articulation and critical thinking. It encourages broad social skills and augments personal development by increasing self-confidence. A study by the Open Society Institute in 1999 found that students in New York who actively participated in debate were more likely to speak out because they believed that they had something useful to say. Thus, they exhibited a greater contribution to society.

Students engaged in academic debate are generally found to have greater research and questioning skills over their peers. In the act of cross-examining the opposition, they learn to elicit important information and sharpen their ability to effectively analyze that information. By debating prominent social issues, students gain a more well-rounded education than those who do not participate. They are also thought to have greater ability to remain focused under pressure and work through challenging issues. The student who has learned the art of debate is better able to evaluate the information available around them in everyday life. Research shows that students who engage in academic debate experience professional success. For example, in one study, 15 percent of those who debated in college went on to become top-ranking executives. The skills required in the field of debate (such as the ability to engage in group discussion) were highly prized in businesses, especially in law.

A healthy debate culture allows students to gain communications skills when they major in subjects that do not require oral communication competency. Schools have tended to ignore the oral aspect of communication in favor of written skills; in doing so, students miss out on the skill of constructing meaning or producing meaning and knowledge through speech. Using oral language skills in education adds meaning to nascent thoughts or ideas. The best way for students to consolidate their thoughts is by employing words in serious dialogue with their peers and teachers. This should be developed in adolescence, when students' conversations can play a significant role in the learning process — for example research has found a correlation between good communications skills and critical thinking.

Selected full-text books and articles on this topic

Gifted Tongues: High School Debate and Adolescent Culture
Gary Alan Fine.
Princeton University Press, 2001
Pros and Cons: A Debater's Handbook
Trevor Sather.
Routledge, 1999 (18th edition)
Debate and Critical Analysis: The Harmony of Conflict
Robert James Branham.
Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 1991
A Research-Based Justification for Debate across the Curriculum
Bellon, Joe.
Argumentation and Advocacy, Vol. 36, No. 3, Winter 2000
PEER-REVIEWED PERIODICAL
Peer-reviewed publications on Questia are publications containing articles which were subject to evaluation for accuracy and substance by professional peers of the article's author(s).
High School Student Perceptions of the Efficacy of Debate Participation
Littlefield, Robert S.
Argumentation and Advocacy, Vol. 38, No. 2, Fall 2001
PEER-REVIEWED PERIODICAL
Peer-reviewed publications on Questia are publications containing articles which were subject to evaluation for accuracy and substance by professional peers of the article's author(s).
University Student Perceptions of the Efficacy of Debate Participation: An Empirical Investigation
Williams, David E.; McGee, Brian R.; Worth, David S.
Argumentation and Advocacy, Vol. 37, No. 4, Spring 2001
PEER-REVIEWED PERIODICAL
Peer-reviewed publications on Questia are publications containing articles which were subject to evaluation for accuracy and substance by professional peers of the article's author(s).
Beyond Tabula Rasa
Bunch, Aaron.
Argumentation and Advocacy, Vol. 30, No. 3, Winter 1994
PEER-REVIEWED PERIODICAL
Peer-reviewed publications on Questia are publications containing articles which were subject to evaluation for accuracy and substance by professional peers of the article's author(s).
Ten Years of Demographics: Who Debates in America
Stepp, Pamela L.; Gardner, Beth.
Argumentation and Advocacy, Vol. 38, No. 2, Fall 2001
PEER-REVIEWED PERIODICAL
Peer-reviewed publications on Questia are publications containing articles which were subject to evaluation for accuracy and substance by professional peers of the article's author(s).
Can We Make Intercollegiate Debate More Diverse?
Stepp, Pamela.
Argumentation and Advocacy, Vol. 33, No. 4, Spring 1997
PEER-REVIEWED PERIODICAL
Peer-reviewed publications on Questia are publications containing articles which were subject to evaluation for accuracy and substance by professional peers of the article's author(s).
Extending the Diversity Agenda in Forensics: Invisible Disabilities and Beyond
Shelton, Michael W.; Matthews, Cynthia K.
Argumentation and Advocacy, Vol. 38, No. 2, Fall 2001
PEER-REVIEWED PERIODICAL
Peer-reviewed publications on Questia are publications containing articles which were subject to evaluation for accuracy and substance by professional peers of the article's author(s).
An Analysis of Differences in Success Rates of Male and Female Debaters
Bruschke, Jon; Johnson, Ann.
Argumentation and Advocacy, Vol. 30, No. 3, Winter 1994
PEER-REVIEWED PERIODICAL
Peer-reviewed publications on Questia are publications containing articles which were subject to evaluation for accuracy and substance by professional peers of the article's author(s).
Argument, Ideology, and Databases: On the Corporatization of Academic Debate
Tucker, Robert E.
Argumentation and Advocacy, Vol. 32, No. 1, Summer 1995
PEER-REVIEWED PERIODICAL
Peer-reviewed publications on Questia are publications containing articles which were subject to evaluation for accuracy and substance by professional peers of the article's author(s).
Databases in the Marketplace of Academic Debate: A Response to Tucker
Harris, Scott.
Argumentation and Advocacy, Vol. 32, No. 1, Summer 1995
PEER-REVIEWED PERIODICAL
Peer-reviewed publications on Questia are publications containing articles which were subject to evaluation for accuracy and substance by professional peers of the article's author(s).
Teaching Communication: Theory, Research, and Methods
Anita L. Vangelisti; John A. Daly; Gustav W. Friedrich.
Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 1999 (2nd edition)
Librarian’s tip: Chap. 32 "Directing Debate and Forensics"
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