Great debaters come from somewhere. Why not your school?

Being able to argue your own opinion – and then respect the views of others is a skillset we desperately need, argues NHEHS Headmaster, Matthew Shoults.

How do you get pupils and staff across the school enthusiastically involved in debating? You start with a debate question you know they’ll all be keen to argue against.

For the last two years, I’ve taught public speaking and debating to Year 7 girls. In my early foolishness, I left the topic of talks open to personal hobbies and sat through endless speeches about pet dogs from one class.

After the 20th speech I made a decision. I established the girls’ first practice debate over whether dogs were a menace to society.

There were initial howls of protest, yet a week later both sides represented their views to the hilt, and their peers listened, questioned and respected that the argument was not necessarily one-sided.

This then promoted the launch of a series which saw teachers debate alongside their pupils. We’ve covered the merits of JK Rowling’s creation – with several die-hard Potterheads on both the panel and in the audience – the perils of automated vehicles, the commercialisation of Christmas and many, many more.

It’s been incredible to see the 11-year-old students absorb conflicting arguments at a time when in public debate, and on campuses, there seems to be more of a tendency to stick our fingers in our ears. The rise of identity politics, and the habit social media has of creating echo chambers, are both well reported tendencies. The latter in particular insulates us from hearing, or wanting to hear, the other side of the argument.

Perhaps even more worrying is that in universities, which should be bastions of free speech, there are so many cases reported of an unwillingness to host speakers, or to accept the research of individuals, who challenge an apparently totemic belief. The ease with which offence is taken seems to have caused an increase in the range of speakers deemed unfit for student consumption.  

Yet if school students have the ability to hold up to the light unpopular ideas in a critical manner, undergraduates should also be able to do so. As one undergraduate put it when interviewed on the question: “By restricting the speech that students can hear at university via no platforming, we are being restricted from developing our moral and debating muscles that we need to argue against and defeat racist, sexist, and discriminatory views.”

We have been here before. In the The History Man, published in 1975, Malcolm Bradbury brilliantly satirised campus hypocrisy through the figure of Howard Kirk, an academic who exercised complete intolerance towards students with non-marxist views, including getting one expelled from the university. The call for open discussion, and the need to hear opposing views, has not gone away. It is perhaps more pressing when it is easier to become encased in one set of opinions as social media keeps us in a bubble we find comfortable.

It is therefore all the more heartening to hear my students willing not only to hear, but to represent, views they strongly oppose.

Debating has a particular power: it is a kind of safe space for free speech. Its structure allows and also compels those taking part to inhabit uncomfortable views.

As we prepare young people for a world where an emphasis on social, non-mechanisable skills, will be even more important in a more global existence, debating is one of the best ways to prepare them to take on challenging ideas, to understand cultural differences and to be able to thoughtfully consider rather than hide away from alien values.

This article appeared in The Times Educational Supplement on 28th March 2019.

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