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Hands-On-Deck Learning

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Students Match Wits at MHC's National Debate Tournament

Ten Things to Do When You're Not in Class


Mount Holyoke College News and Events College Street Journal Vista

Spring 2005 / Volume 10, Number 1

Students Match Wits at MHC's National Debate

DebateIf you were the
mayor of a city and you had to decide whether to hire and train either 50 new policemen or four Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, which would you choose?

If God were walking toward you on the street, and suddenly pulled out a knife and stabbed you, would it be morally
correct to stab God back?

More important, how quickly could you construct an argument for hiring the Turtles, or for stabbing God?

College debaters have had to do just that, although the questions usually concern weightier matters, such as whether the U.S. should withdraw from the UN, or whether violent overthrow of an objectionable government is better than incremental change from within a system.

Last month 28 Mount Holyoke College students took up both meaningful and lighter questions when the College’s debating society hosted its annual tournament. Mount Holyoke students did not compete because, as hosts, they were required to judge and were not allowed to judge their teammates under the rules of parliamentary debate.

DebateThe hybrid team of Ariana Kelly (above) of Harvard University and Alan Lawn of Amherst College won the competition.

The tournament’s theme of “Arabian Nights” was chosen to give the event what organizer Neha Shah ’07 called a multicultural, Mount Holyoke flavor. Debaters were treated to Arabic food and music, a cappella singers, and a belly dancer.

In all, 20 schools sent 54 two-person teams to the event, according to Shah, who said she was particularly proud of the high turnout because Stanford University, Temple University, and the London School of Economics all hosted tournaments the same weekend. One of the participants, Harvard University fourth-year student David Kimel, called this year’s Mount Holyoke tournament the best he’s ever attended. “They really went the extra mile to ensure that everyone had a wonderful time,” Kimel said.

DebateGood food and good parties can make a tournament stand out, but every tournament has at its core five rounds of parliamentary debate, in which two two-person teams argue an issue before a student judge. Though public speaking is just behind dying on most people’s list of things they’d rather not do, these students see debating tournaments as the chance to engage in a really good argument with someone who likes to argue just as much as they do.

In a way, it’s just the formalization of that time-honored college tradition, the late-night philosophical argument. But while the latter takes place in a dorm room, with anyone who happens to be around, debating tournaments give students the chance to travel to college campuses all over the country.

Mount Holyoke’s debating society was founded more than 100 years ago, and is the oldest collegiate team for women in the U.S. For new students, the beauty of parliamentary debate is that anyone can do it; no research or previous knowledge or experience is required. “We’re always open to having new people start,” said novice coordinator Sara Marquis ’07.

In each debate, one team, known as the government, chooses a question that must be within the scope of knowledge of a well-read college student. Teams are expected to prepare arguments on their chosen topics, or cases, in advance, but they aren’t allowed to research their cases because their arguments must be rooted not in evidence, but in logic.

Most cases involve serious issues, but some teams bring wackier questions, like the one about the Mutant Teenage Ninja Turtles. Sometimes teams come unprepared, and must think up a case on the spot. Stephanie Robinson ’08 said the best example she knows of this was the government team that argued their judge should go on a date with one of them.

Preparing a good case might be difficult, but arguing against a prepared case carries its own challenges. The opposition team must construct its argument while the government is presenting its case, which requires some pretty fast thinking. Here, knowledge is clearly power: if a debater must argue that the U.S. should withdraw from the UN, then a thorough knowledge of world politics is obviously helpful.

What happens when an opposition team is confronted with a subject about which its members know nothing?

Marquis said she ran into that problem at a Princeton University debate, when the team she faced proposed changes to the Kyoto Protocol.

“You wing it,” said Marquis.

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Copyright © 2005 Mount Holyoke College. This page created by Donna Cote and maintained by Office of Communications. Last modified on May 16, 2005.