Archive for Sunday, May 14, 2006

In debate, it’s good to have a lot to say

May 14, 2006


Recently, the Journal-World ran a story highlighting the successes of Kansas University Debate, which ended the year ranked No. 1. The successes of the team continue a long tradition of excellence, including four national championships and 13 trips to the final four of debate.

The story also featured the fact that debaters talk very fast, a point that was true even when I debated in the mid-1970s. While debaters talk fast in debates, they don't do so in other contexts where fast talking wouldn't work. Debaters talk rapidly and use specialized language for the same reason that doctors dealing with a medical crisis don't explain their orders in long paragraphs.

More fundamentally, debaters talk fast because they have a lot to say. To outargue Harvard and Dartmouth you have to present strong positions and lots of evidence. Having a lot to say isn't such a bad thing. I long for the day when I read in the newspaper that the president has invited to the White House all of the best experts on a problem, regardless of their party or ideology, in order to work out the best solution. That is exactly what a debater would do.

Debate is both a competitive and an academic activity. As a competitive activity, it teaches the same skills that are taught in sports: leadership, dealing with adversity, and so forth. But because debate is an academic activity, it also teaches skills related to research, policy analysis, refutation, and so forth. These skills have enormous payoffs in life.

The value of debate training is evident in the many successes of former KU debaters. Several debaters have gone on to distinguished careers in public service including at least one Kansas governor, Robert Bennett. Many debaters have gone into the law, serving as either attorneys or judges. Others have gone into academia.

At KU alone, Tom Beisecker and Bill Conboy in communication studies, Paul Johnson in political science, Diana Carlin, dean of the graduate school, Rick Levy, in the law school, Bill Arnold in sociology and Don Worster in history all are former KU debaters. KU debaters also have had great success in business. For example, Steve Mills recently was profiled in the Journal-World, for his successes in entertainment.

Debate made an enormous difference in my life and that of my debate colleague, Frank Cross. After KU, Frank went to Harvard Law and then became an enormously successful professor at the University of Texas. In my case, debate prepared me to study communication at two of the best schools in the nation (Northwestern and KU). I've relied on skills I first learned in debate in a career of almost 20 years at KU. KU debaters have won many tournaments over the years, but it is what they have done with their debate skills after graduation that truly shows the influence of the program.

- Robert C. Rowland is a professor and chairman in the department of communication studies. He and his debate colleague won the 1976 National Debate Tournament. They placed Third at the same tournament in 1977.


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