City & Politics, Essay

Why debate and rhetoric should become part of the Manitoba curriculum

By: Fabian Suárez-Amaya

On Sunday, March 9th, I enjoyed an afternoon at Balmoral Hall, judging the Junior Provincial Debate Championships, hosted by the Manitoba Speech and Debate Association. I hadn’t been to a debate tournament in seven or eight years until this past fall. A friend who teaches at Balmoral Hall had been asked to volunteer at the annual tournament they host, and convinced me to help out. Since then, I’ve judged at four different tournaments. I had forgotten how fun debate is!

In a debate on media censorship, I watched two Grade 8 students hold forth on whether or not Miley Cyrus should have the right to talk about her drug use in songs that would be heard by many of their peers. In a debate on the utility of rehabilitation in the justice system, I was encouraged to hear a young man very ably explain the impact that counselling and addictions programs have in reducing criminal recidivism. Most recently, I was blown away by the confidence, articulateness and preparedness of two young women arguing for the abolition of the Canadian Senate. Coming into the debate, that was not a position I agreed with. But dang. Apparently I need to do some further research.

Watching ambitious and often precocious students debate a variety of topics, it’s clear that debate and rhetoric should become an established element of the Manitoba curriculum. This would involve developing a curricular outcomes document and regular professional support.

The strongest argument for debate is its sheer practicality. When students ask their teachers “Why do I need to know this?” teachers should have an answer. If they don’t, is it worth students’ time? Debate is grounded in the perfectly pragmatic skill of argumentation. Students know that they will want to win arguments in the future, with their teachers, their friends, their colleagues and their employers. There are aspects of esoteric decorum associated with “parliamentary style” debate, but the focus is centred on organization and clarity of argument.

Debating allows for an active and participatory classroom. Students are given a chance to speak their minds and express their opinions. It also provides opportunities for student-led curriculum. Why not debate about topics that students want to talk about? Topics should be arguable from both sides, provided the argument stays above personal opinion. As long as the course provides instruction in argumentation, the means to that end are quite open. Students will be exposed to a broader cross-section of ideas if both teachers and students contribute the topics. I enjoyed watching students debate the abolition of the Senate; but I’d be happy to watch a similarly enthusiastic and skillful debate on the respective merits of the ubiquitously popular One Direction and the talented Beyoncé.

Debate provides opportunities. It’s probably fair to say that our schools are often biased in favour of extroverts, and that teaching debate might further this. Still, as an optional course, debate and rhetoric might give some determined introverts a chance to practice public speaking, in an environment where everyone is expected to make mistakes.

Teaching debate and rhetoric also raises the level of civil discourse. It’s true, only the most competitive or politically-inclined students will want to enter tournaments where they must research technical topics like prison reform or the Senate. Yet students as young as 12 are learning that without evidence, anecdotes are merely stories. They are learning that arguments aren’t won by questioning an opponent’s character. Teaching these insights broadly at a young age will encourage more people to reject leaders who use such rudimentary tactics. Let’s be real – no modern teenager wants to be a “basic.”

In the past, debate has been dominated by the private schools. Schools like Saint John’s-Ravenscourt, Balmoral Hall, Saint Maurice Catholic School, and Saint Mary’s Academy all have well-established debate programs. Experienced educators teach classes for which students receive high-school credits. The success of these programs is reflected in the number of times that students from these schools finish at the top of the rankings and move on to higher competition.

This year, students from Acadia Junior High, Grant Park High School, Henry G Izatt Middle School and Gordon Bell High School all made appearances at different tournaments. A team from Acadia placed sixth overall at the recent Junior Provincial Championships, qualifying them for nationals. Grant Park has developed a co-curricular program, where credit is available if students undertake the coursework outside of school hours.  Despite these impressive steps forward, public schools continue to be a distinct minority of tournament participants, let alone winners.

How can public schools begin to even the playing field? Carla King, coach of the Acadia team, believes the first step is more access to professional development. “It’s hard to feel like you’re capable of putting together a debate program, until you just go and do it.”  For King, the support she received from other educators in the debate community was instrumental in getting started, and she is now well on her way to establishing a strong program. She believes that professional development would give new schools the confidence to put together a program, especially if they were connected to the other schools working on similar goals.

Professional development is a sensible start, but it should be joined by a formal curriculum document. An approved curriculum document would make debate a broadly accredited course across school divisions. Providing high-school credits would be a strong incentive for students who might be interested, but are otherwise too busy. The co-curricular approach is fine – perennial power Gray Academy uses it – but it forces debate to compete with a bounty of other worthwhile extracurricular activities: dance, sport, music, theatre, activism and more. It also requires a hefty commitment on the part of their teacher. Schools can individually accredit their courses, but again, this requires significant preparation and a particularly passionate teacher to take on the task.

Many people see debate as useful preparation only for students who want to pursue careers in politics or law. I staunchly disagree. Debate is useful for students who will one day undergo an interview for medical school. It is useful for future teachers who want to push their students to become better critical thinkers. It is useful for anyone who will ever participate in the workforce, and might one day want to convince their colleagues of an alternative idea.

Whether students use their skills to present ideas to a board of directors, argue for a more efficient approach at a job site, or to simply become more perceptive citizens, they would be well-served by time spent in a debate and rhetoric class.


Fabian Suárez-Amaya is studying Education at the University of Winnipeg, where he spends lots of time arguing with his classmates.