MANCHESTER — Respectful and intelligent discourse.
While such a thing seems to be lacking too often in adults in this day and age, the Burr and Burton debate team was masterful in its display of well-mannered rhetorical skill at the Manchester Community Library on Thursday evening.
Most high school debate tournaments are held on Saturdays and without an audience. Pete Nicholson, coach of the BBA debate team, decided to hold an event that was open to the public on a weekday, so families could see their kids in action.
“In debate competitions, the debaters are in front of one judge in one classroom,” Nicholson said. “So it’s not something parents ever get to see, which is why we wanted to do something.”
Nicholson said he wasn’t aiming to “pack the house” by advertising the debate, but the two dozen or so in attendance were certainly more than the debaters are accustomed to. That being said, if there were nerves from having more eyes on them, the debaters showed no sign of it.
While debate is certainly about being charismatic and persuasive, it also helps people find nuanced and gray areas in their arguments, rather than extreme polarization, and forces students to consider all points of view and weigh evidence of both sides.
“You might do pro, and you might do con. You don’t know. You prepare both,” Nicholson said, explaining the debate format. “You flip a coin at the beginning for who is pro or con and who goes first, so you don’t come in with an opinion or a point of view. … You can do both, and you’re ready to win with both.”
Nicholson had the team in two separate debates with a slightly modified format from what is usually used at tournaments, in the interest of time. Most debates are in a two-versus-two format, but the first was a one-on-one debate on a very relevant and timely geopolitical topic: “Should the U.S. continue to engage in the global great power competition?”
12th grader Charles Egbert represented the “con” side, and Nicholson’s son, Joe, a 10th grader, argued the “pro” side, America’s continued involvement in global rivalry with Russia and China.
The topic wasn’t what made the debate so notable, but rather, the way the debaters conducted themselves. They were composed, their thinking organized and speech clear. The amount of preparation each put into their debate was evident with not only well-reasoned arguments, but with a lack of filler or stalling. It was a session packed with researched statements from which attendees of any age could learn.
“I don’t think there’s a better extracurricular to put on your transcript,” said Nicholson, the 20-year veteran English and public speaking teacher. “Research synthesis, critical thinking, public speaking … you’ve got to have it.”
Egbert and the younger Nicholson definitely showed it all. During each participants’ opening statements, their opponents could be seen feverishly multitasking, listening to their counterpart’s assertions while quickly researching them on tablets to formulate the second session of the debate, the rebuttals. The pair then took part in a five-minute “crossfire” section that was arguably the most demonstrative of their skills: The two weren’t able to rehearse for a series of rapid questions and counterpoints, but were clearly both game to continue engaging passionately and politely in the unmoderated session.
The debaters then had to summarize their entire position in a one-minute closing statement. Egbert used a particularly strong metaphor to neatly tie up his critique of U.S. foreign policy.
“Seventeen times, we beat the odds by avoiding extinction,” he said, referencing all of the Cold War “close calls” that nearly led to global destruction from nuclear weapons. “Now, we are looking to play a second game.”
After Egbert and Nicholson, the debaters dove into a much more abstract philosophical topic: “Does good and evil exist?”
This debate, which followed a similar format, required a truncated statement from each debater, as it was a three-versus-two debate, with one side claiming that “good and evil” were man-made creations of higher-order thinking, while the other held the position that they were definable concepts that most reasonable beings could agree on.
As was the case with the first debate, no winner was declared, but the second round of debating was just as strong an exhibition of the debate competency of everyone involved, on what is arguably an even harder subject to wrap one’s head around.
The topic even prompted extended discussion from those in attendance, as Nicholson opened the floor to public debate. Everyone in the room followed the debate team’s lead and continued to volley points and counterpoints in a civilized manner. And that’s the idea, said Nicholson.
Nicholson is aware that to some, this sounds like just teaching kids to argue like politicians and not for what they believe in.
“You debate and play the game. And when it’s done, you’ve stood in both positions and can actually be informed.”