Debate team lets students hone thinking skills

Jennifer Schneider

University students who like to debate, discuss and dispute now have one less thing to argue about. For the first time in 25 years, the University has a debate team.
Founded last September by junior David Simon, the University Parliamentary Debate Society allows students to hone their critical thinking skills in a relaxed yet competitive environment.
Modeled after the British House of Parliament, debates pit a fictitious prime minister and a member of this government against two members of the opposing side. The government side is given a quotation or song lyric and 15 minutes to prepare an argument on a topic of its choice.
Using the quote as a segue, the government introduces its argument to the unsuspecting opposing team, whose members must argue against the idea in extemporaneous fashion.
Topics range from serious issues such as globalization and the national missile crisis to lighthearted subjects like whether the Brady Bunch was really a family, or if the presidential debate process should be replaced with a game of Jeopardy for the candidates.
“You can make it sound goofy,” Simon said. “Sarcasm and condescension are approvable. But the goal is to be (serious).”
As a member of the American Parliamentary Debate Association, an association of student-run debate teams across the United States, the University team is one of only a handful of teams that receive training from a coach, who is paid directly from the team’s funds.
Team coach Eric Fuchs earned his master’s degree from the University of Maine and is now is a doctoral candidate at the University.
Simon, a global studies, political science and Russian junior, began lobbying for the debate team last September while attending a freshman seminar led by University President Mark Yudof.
“One of the roles of a student entering a university is to find opportunities to expand their minds,” Simon said. “If there happens to be a shortage of those opportunities, then you make them yourself.”
Yudof said he chose to support a student debate team because it presents positive opportunities for University students.
Yudof allotted the team a year’s worth of funding from his office’s discretionary funds. Although the team must become self-supporting in time, Yudof said he wanted to help get it off the ground.
“Debate teams are a very healthy extracurricular activity,” Yudof said. “People get very fired up about it. There is a lot of intensity.”
While Yudof did not participate in debate in high school or college, he gained an interest in the activity because of his legal background. He said he regretted never getting involved in debate.
Simon said the team does not require students with previous debate experience. “Just people who like to argue and have an interesting point to make.”
He said students can prepare for debate by practicing critical thinking skills and spending time thinking about issues that are important to them.
The debate team competed at Harvard University this past weekend. Members hope to travel to Columbia University and Oxford.