Sparks - and Wit - Fly as College Debaters Spar LEAVE THE LEGAL PAD AT HOME

Article excerpt

It's Friday evening on campus. So, naturally Michael Shore and other championship college and university debaters are not at a movie or party - they're stepping up to a podium.

Twenty-two minutes earlier Mr. Shore,who is now studying law at the University of Toronto, was told he would argue the case against "commodification of the human body." With scrawled notes on a small pad of paper, he steps to the front for an eight-minute seat-of-the- pants statement to a tough crowd.

"The body is not a cash cow or a condo," he states loudly in the Mount Holyoke College lecture hall here in South Hadley, Mass. "We are more than the sum of our parts. We are not an ATM machine on legs, so that if you need cash you can just hack off an arm or a hand." His logic, laced with black humor, wins laughter from an audience of more than 50 of North America's best college debaters - and maybe a point from the judge. But a "government" member pops up on the other side of the room. Eric Albert, a freshly minted Harvard grad, stands for several seconds, one hand on top of his head, the other arm outstretched in front, palm upward. His lawn-ornament-like pose signals a "point of information" challenge. Mr. Shore decides to permit Mr. Albert to speak with a dismissive "yes" and a quick nod. "If as you say, a body is more than the sum of its parts, how can you still favor giving away body parts?" Albert asks. "Are you saying there is no such thing as altruism?" That such rational discourse goes on in a debate format might come as a surprise to an American electorate, treated recently to debates that featured shouts of "tell the truth" followed by movie one- liners like "you can't handle the truth." But the truth is that verbal argument, propelled by actual rational thought, is alive and growing at colleges worldwide. "There's no doubt college debating is growing quite rapidly," says Robert Trapp, president of the National Parliamentary Debate Association and a professor at Willamette University in Salem, Ore. Look who's signing up In the United States, intercollegiate debate didn't really get going until the 1920s, Professor Trapp says, and was not widespread until after World War II. Last year, however, the NPDA held a national tournament attended by 206 teams from 120 schools - compared with 50 teams five years ago. Hundreds of schools belong to other national debating organizations. International debating is peaking, too. More than 200 teams from 150 schools across five continents are expected to participate in the 1999 World Universities Debating Championships, which will be held in Manila from Dec. 27 to Jan. 4, 1999. What's driving the growth in the US, he and others say, is expanding interest in "American parliamentary-style debate" - a relative newcomer. Its better known and more lawyerly cousin is the cross-examination, or forensic, style whose college roots go back to the 1800s. …