I occasionally found myself missing debate last year, after graduating high school. Though I enjoyed my time as a college freshman, I toyed with the idea of starting a collegiate debate club with a fellow Stoa alumna to continue my previous competition experience. But while I stoked my nostalgia and daydreamed, I stumbled across a fourteenth-century letter that made me rethink my attitude towards debate.
Petrarch, a scholar and poet from Italy, wrote “against old dialectic cavilers”—somebody who “cavils” argues pettily, sometimes just for the sake of arguing. In his letter, Petrarch argued that, despite debate’s merits, we should not make debate the goal. He perceived debate’s potential not as an end but as a tool which “sharpens the intellect, marks off the path toward truth, and teaches how to avoid fallacies.” Most Stoa alumni could name similar advantages they gained from debate. I certainly benefited academically from my forensics experience. When I write an essay for a college class, I use the argumentation skills I developed through debate and frequently rely on the research abilities I honed from brief-building.
Petrarch goes on to qualify his praise of debate. He says that “there is nothing so ugly as an old man who is a dialectic debater.” That is, despite the usefulness of debate as an educational tool, it belongs properly to a certain age, a certain stage of life. Particularly, debate best belongs to adolescence—when we most actively prepare for adulthood.
Yes, debate promotes skills essential to modern Christians: we have a calling to defend Jesus, Truth Incarnate, which makes the ability to argue well of the highest importance. Competitive debate is artificial though. Topics are pre-determined, judges often share your worldview already, and arguments frequently stray into the abstract and theoretical. Artificiality can aid training but, at a certain point, we are called to use the skills we have developed—rather than just develop them unendingly. We need not cavil.
To quote Petrarch again: “where we pass with honor, we do not stay with praise.” As alumni of Stoa, we should view competitive debate as a stepping stone that lies behind us. We need to use the persuasive and rhetorical abilities that we developed through debate practically—in real-life situations. For instance, I recently canvassed for a pro-life organization, the Susan B. Anthony List, and asked undecided voters questions that I could not have phrased correctly without my cross-examination experience. Looking back, I have no doubt this opportunity was far better for me than returning to debate would have been.
Though a person might have good reason to extend their time in debate (perhaps to become a trial lawyer), I think we should leave competitive debate to high school-aged students. Even lawyers don’t debate for debate’s own sake but practice a profession. For this reason, I urge my fellow alumni, when returning to a tournament or coaching young debaters, to do so for their benefit and training—not to simply re-live the “gotcha” moments of your glory days. As Christian adults, we ought to give up “childish ways,” as St. Paul said in 1 Corinthians 13:11. Our training was a blessing but, in response to that gift, we now have an adult responsibility. We ought to grow up and move out of that which we find comfortable. We must not remain hidden away in competition rooms; we must take hold of our calling to speak boldly in real life.
The Renaissance Philosophy of Man. Edited by Ernst Cassirer, Paul Oskar Kristeller, and John Herman Randall, Jr. The University of Chicago Press. 1984. “A Disapproval of an Unreasonable Use of the Discipline of Dialectic.” Francesco Petrarca.
Though thoroughly acclimated to the warm weather of her home state of Texas, Theresa Ramsay is currently facing much different temperatures at Wyoming Catholic College. At her school, she is a sophomore, president of the politics club, and the prose editor for a student-run literary journal (the Pigeonhole). She competed in speech and debate for a total of six years and, in Stoa, her favorite events were Apologetics, Team Policy, and Parliamentary Debate. She has had previous work published in the Pigeonhole and by the Foundation for Economic Education.