The Value of Debate at a Liberal Arts University

During my freshman year at Drury, my communications professor convinced me to join the Debate Union. I was hesitant at first, considering I had zero experience in debate and no desire to participate. Debating had never seemed appealing to me, so I wondered what role I could play in this organization. My fears were assuaged, however, once I began working on filming the debaters, judging rounds at tournaments, and assisting the Director in running the Union. As I got to know the debaters and became familiar with debate, I grew to recognize the value of debate in a liberal arts university.

One must have a wide breadth of knowledge as a debater. The range of topics they must take a position on is wide, spanning from foreign politics to sports to pop culture. Debaters must have a basic knowledge of any subject, and they are given only thirty minutes of prep time to become an expert on the facts of the case. This kind of learning is also encouraged by a liberal arts program, which usually requires students to take a variety of classes outside of their majors. Students develop a well-rounded knowledge base that becomes a useful tool in future work, research and in debate.

Debating vastly improves argumentation and communication skills. A debater must be able to look at a complicated issue and boil it down to its most essential parts in order to form a case. They analyze the facts of the case to determine which arguments would be the strongest; when doing so they slog through pages of competing evidence to pull out the most compelling support. After they logically organize their case, they must present it to a judge. Yet as any of the members of Drury’s debate team will tell you, the most well-researched, well-developed case will fall flat if you don’t impress the judge with your speaking style. The ability to speak persuasively, concisely, and professionally is a key component to a debate.

These two skill sets are developed in a liberal arts university as well. Liberal arts programs place great emphasis on critical thinking, and on encouraging students to form judgments by objectively evaluating a subject. And from its conception, the liberal arts have encouraged effective communication among students. In ancient Greece, the liberal arts provided essential education for free citizens, instructing them on how to debate publicly and fulfill civic duties. During the Greco-Roman period, the trivium was taught, which covered grammar, rhetoric, and logic. Later, Medieval scholars included four more subjects, called the quadrivium, in order to produce an ethical, knowledgeable, and articulate individual. Debate and the liberal arts have always been inextricably linked.

Debate and the liberal arts develop similar skills in their participants. Liberal arts universities should continue encouraging debate programs. Debaters acquire a wide knowledge base, critical thinking skills, and persuasive communication strategies, indicating that debate is the most liberal arts-centered activity a school could offer. And in today’s world, where truth is being devalued, factual arguments are sometimes ignored, and political debates, at their worst, are a laughingstock, skilled debaters are desperately needed.